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Cyclists ride their bikes on the busy border between Oakland and Berkeley. Photo by Nigel Manuel.

New law requires drivers to leave three feet when passing cyclists

on September 19, 2014

California’s new bike safety law will lead to safer roads or road rage, depending on whom you ask.

As of this week, drivers in California may legally pass a cyclist only if there is at least three feet of space between them. The fine for breaking the law, known as “Three Feet for Safety,” is $35. However, the fine increases to $220 if a driver’s violation of the law injures a cyclist.

In the East Bay, many well-traveled roads go past freeways, neighborhoods and downtowns, from one city to the next. Take College Avenue, for instance—the tree-lined street that passes by two schools, two downtown areas, and State Route 24 as it stretches from the California College of the Arts to the University of California at Berkeley. College Avenue is four lanes wide. And two are just for parking. On such bike-and-car-crowded streets, “Three Feet for Safety” drew mixed responses this week from cyclists, drivers and pedestrians, most of whom were unaware of the new rule until being asked about it.

“Three feet is pretty solid,” said Simone Papp, a recent graduate of California College of the Arts. Papp, who was walking around her old neighborhood—Rockridge—early Monday evening, said she liked the new law because many of her friends have been hit while biking on College. But Papp also supports herself as a driver for the phone-app service Lyft, and she will keep having to ask herself, she said, “Am I three feet?”

Ultimately, the law will be good for drivers like that, Papp said, pointing at a Ford 4×4 moving within breathing distance of cars parked along the street.

Both bikers and drivers said they wondered how the obligatory distance would be measured by police.

“It is the job of the officer to observe the totality of the issue,” California Highway Patrol Officer Mike Harris said in a phone interview. Harris also said there would be a learning curve as to where and when the CHP needs to monitor bike-car interaction. It’ll also take some time for officers to work the law into their beats, he said.

Three Feet for Safety does allow for exceptions. If road conditions do not allow for a three-foot buffer, the law states that drivers may legally pass cyclists if they slow their cars to a speed that is “reasonable and prudent.”

The phrasing of this exception is purposely subjective, said Robert Prinz, education director of Bike East Bay, a local community organization for cyclists. It lets the law be applied to rural areas where roads are wide, Prinz said, as well as dense urban areas where vehicles do not have much space to pass.

Though drivers were already expected to pass cyclists at reasonable speeds, Prinz said, the new law is valuable after an incident. Previously, it was hard for police to cite drivers for hitting cyclists even if the cyclist was badly hurt, he said.

“Three Feet gives something that’s very clear,” Prinz said.

In the popular and congested Temescal, pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists said that they were concerned with the impact the law will have on traffic.

“People who bike are most of the time slow,” said Monica Del, who was watching over a little one in Frog Park, located below the elevated Route 24. Del said that she lives nearby, and conditions for bikers are not good—narrow roads, lined with parked cars, and without bike lanes. She doesn’t mind giving more space to bikers, though with the new law “it’ll take longer to get where we want to get,” Del said.

“It makes me nervous,” said Ayesha Biggs, who moments earlier was victoriously holding her new driver’s license over her head in the parking lot of the DMV. Ayesha Biggs, who looked to be in her mid-thirties, said she agreed with her partner, Jason Biggs, that the new law will make roads a bit safer. Road conditions don’t allow him to bike from his home in downtown Oakland to work five miles away in Alameda, he said. But he said that he participates in 30- and 65-mile charity rides.

“There need to be more bike-friendly rides in the bay,” he said.

As for the real impact the law will have on traffic, Harris said the CHP will not know for a while, since the agency needs time to collect data.

“Our goal is to save lives, and this is a valuable resource for the bicycle community,” Harris said.

As for insurance, bicyclists are considered pedestrians, said Rebekah Felipe, a customer service representative at American International Group, an insurance and financial services organization with an office in Temescal. Felipe also said that the law was good for drivers because it forces them to drive more safely around cyclists, which she said will lead to fewer accidents.

“Unless the bicyclist ran a red light or if there’s enough witnesses,” she said, “the law is usually on the bicyclist’s side.”

For bikers, Felipe said, any collision with a car is likely to mean costly damage to the biker and the bike—not to mention the obvious trauma. So cyclists should also do everything they can to avoid accidents, she said. “You should act like a car,” Felipe said. “It’s for everyone’s safety.”

“I can’t stand bicyclists, to be honest,” said Taylor Reese, another customer service representative at AIG. Reese said that she supported the new law and sympathized with cyclists, but that driving with them is nerve-racking.

“What if a bicyclist was in that lane, right there?” Reese asked, pointing at a bus slugging past the entrance to a busy shopping center. Reese shivered.

Nohemi Bena, who works a pop-up flower shop at the MacArthur Bart Station, called the road conditions for cyclists “scary.” The station itself is equipped with bike racks and storage. Nearby streets have bike lanes. Still, Bena said, she won’t ride a bike. She hears about cyclists getting into accidents all the time, she said.

On the other hand, Liz Gamboa, who commutes in a helmet and business suit from Oakland to the Financial District, said that she feels safe as long as she uses bike lanes and not-so-busy roads. “It’s really fast,” Gamboa said over the swirl of commuters, busses and the freeway at rush hour.

Both Reese and Del said they were uncertain how Three Feet for Safety will affect road conditions since both observed drivers and bikers breaking the law. Reese said she has seen some people driving erratically. Del said some people biking do not take even basic precautions, like riding with bright clothes and lights.

A bus rider named Doug, who declined to give his last name, said the new law will lead to “road rage” in Rockridge since bicyclists act so “f***ing entitled,” as he put it, and as though they don’t have to follow the law.

Bikers who hold up traffic by riding slowly in the middle of the lane frustrate him, Doug said. “There need to be physical barriers,” such as those he’s seen in Sweden, Italy and Spain.

The CHP’s Harris said cyclists need to remember that the law requires them to move as far to the right as possible, if they are going below the speed limit, to let cars pass. “There is a law in place about impeding,” Harris said.

“A lot of cars don’t see [cyclists] because of their blind spots,” said Lillian Wong as she snacked in the parking lot of Koreana Plaza. Wong, a student at Berkeley City College, said she uses her car to go everywhere. Like most people interviewed, Wong said she believes the new law will lead to fewer accidents and safer streets.

Cameron L., who declined to give her last name, said that when she slows her own car for a biker, the drivers behind her usually get angry. “There needs to be more education,” she said.

“Education” is precisely the outcome that advocacy groups, like Bike East Bay and the California Bicycle Coalition, say “Three Feet for Safety” will have.

A $35 fine isn’t much, Prinz said. But if a driver hits a cyclist while violating the law, he said, the driver can pay over $1000 in fines and court fees.

“It’ll get people to think critically about what sharing the road means,” Prinz said.


  1. Warren Zevon on September 19, 2014 at 3:12 pm

    An important element of the law is absent from this article. Under the new law, a vehicle MAY NOT pass a cyclist if in doing so, it would have to cross the yellow line in the center of the road. It’s a shame the author of the article missed this, as it was given coverage in the SF Chronicle earlier this week. I think drivers’ reactions to the new law might be different, if they knew about this element. Too bad the author left it out.

    • JulesK on September 21, 2014 at 9:46 pm

      Hear hear, and you’d be insane to do so, even though most drivers are doing it. Even if you don’t get ticketed, if there’s ever an accident, you’ll be automatically at fault. Would have been even worse if the provision allowing us drivers to break double yellow had passed though. We’d still be automatically at fault in all accidents, and if we didn’t pass the cyclist, *we’d* be the one “impeding traffic”. CALTRANS needs to designate “bike passing zones” for this to work.

      • roymeo on September 22, 2014 at 1:38 pm

        No, Cyclists would still be the one impeding traffic, even with a double yellow allowance added to the bill, the driver would still only get to cross when they judged it safe.

        In today’s reality (rather than speculating about bills that didn’t get passed) a cyclist is still required when it is a slow moving vehicle to pull over somewhere safe and allow vehicles to pass if 5 or more are behind it. CVC 21656 still applies.

        (Though I wonder if you have to do that when you’re driving the speed limit and they’re not…)

    • roymeo on September 22, 2014 at 1:32 pm

      The “you can’t cross the double yellow” has been talked up a bit, but guess what: that’s been true for years and years. That is NOT a new part of the Three Feet for Safety law.

      Most/all of the previous 6 versions of the 3FfS included an exception that would legalize crossing double yellow lines in order to pass a cyclist when safe, and that was one of the main provisions that kept getting the law held back or vetoed.

      So nothing has changed regarding crossing the centerline here.

  2. Robert Prinz on September 20, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Thanks for helping to get the word out about this new law via this article. Anyone with questions about what the law does and does not do can go to for more details.

    I do have a couple corrections to make on a few parts of this article, however. I was quoted as stating “It lets the law be applied to rural areas where roads are wide, Prinz said, as well as dense urban areas where vehicles do not have much space to pass.”

    However, the point I actually made was that rural roads that bicyclists use are typically narrower, not wider, so in many cases a driver will either have to wait for a safe location to pass with 3+ feet, or slow to a safe speed to pass with less than 3 feet. Or, as most drivers already do despite not being technically legal, cross over a double yellow center line to pass, when there is a clear view of the road ahead and no oncoming traffic. Historically, police have not cracked down on drivers who cross double yellows to pass safely, and several officers have been quoted recently as stating that this allowance will not change under the new law.

    Urban streets see more traffic but are typically wider, not narrower as I was quoted saying. Therefore drivers can usually just change lanes to pass on multi-lane streets, if it is not possible to pass in the same lane with a 3+ foot buffer.

    You have also quoted CHP Officer Mike Harris as stating: cyclists need to remember that the law requires them to move as far to the right as possible, if they are going below the speed limit, to let cars pass. “There is a law in place about impeding”.

    This is incorrect, as bicyclists are not required to ride as far right as “possible”, only as far right as is safe for current conditions, which in some cases will mean not to the right at all. The vehicle code in California specifically allows bicyclists to leave the a bike lane or right side of the roadway when:
    -Preparing to make a left turn
    -At any location where right turns are allowed
    -To avoid any hazard or obstruction (gravel, glass, sewer grate, parked car “door zone”, pothole, etc)
    -To pass another road user
    -When traveling the speed of traffic
    -When on a one-way street, as riding to the left side is also allowed
    -On any substandard-width lane that can not accommodate both a bicycle and a car (defined in some places as less than 14 feet wide, and most lanes around Oakland are only between 10-12 feet)

    This means that in an urban setting there is almost always a justification for a person on a bike to ride away from the right side of the road if they feel the need to do so for their own safety.

    Regarding Officer Harris’ statement regarding impeding traffic, there is indeed a law in California which states that any slow moving vehicles (including bicycles) must pull over at the next safe location (not immediately) to let faster traffic get around them if there are 5 or more vehicles being held up behind with no opportunity to pass. This occasionally applies on busy, rural roads, but almost never in an urban setting where there are typically many opportunities to pass safely via another lane, or by crossing a center line when there is no oncoming traffic.

    There are a number of other generally objectionable statements in this article such as “the law is usually on the bicyclist’s side”, “I can’t stand bicyclists, to be honest”, and “bicyclists act so f***ing entitled” which I don’t have time to dig into. What I will ask everyone to remember, though, is that every person on a bike is an individual, with no more relation to or responsibility for the actions of other bicyclists than any driver has for every other driver on the road. As such, please treat and respect each person you interact with on the street as an individual, regardless of their mode of transport, and allow them the consideration and safety with which they are provided by law.

    In the end this new law only works as a bandaid for a roadway system that too often puts bicyclists and drivers in conflict with one another, competing for the same space. This is why Bike East Bay and other organizations are pushing for more dedicated space for bicycle infrastructure throughout North Oakland, as well as the rest of the city, county, and East Bay. To learn more about these efforts and how you can get involved please go to

    • bike rider on December 20, 2014 at 7:57 am

      Prinz: Ive been a biker rider for 30+ years. I allow traffic to pass me. I cant find any statute in the code that mentions a certain number of foot wide roadway that is safe to pass. Where are you getting 12 or 14 feet? Remember that drivers and riders cross city lines every hour and every day. Only a state wide law has relevance. This law sets up a physically impossible no win situation. On one lane roads there is no legal passing for miles. In all scenarios this creates more road rage and conflict and scofflaws. Its never legal to cross the centerline. What the driver considers slow and safe passing the rider won’t. No, most drivers won’t follow at bike at 10 MPH.

  3. Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog San Francisco on September 22, 2014 at 10:30 am

    […] Perspectives From Oakland and Berkeley on CA’s New Three-Foot Bike Passing Law (Oakland North) […]

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