Why California Bicyclists Should Oppose the Proposed 3 Foot Passing Law

(6/27 update – Bill wording has changed, which eliminates my major objection, see update at the bottom of this post.)

Back in August 2010, I wrote about why laws requiring motorists to pass cyclists with 3 feet of clearance are bad for bicyclists. To sum up: there’s nothing wrong with the existing laws which state that passing must be done at a “safe distance” without specifying a number, it’s the education and enforcement of these laws that is the core problem. Adding a new bicycle-specific law is simply a “feel good” measure that doesn’t address these core issues, just look at the enforcement track record in other states with 3-foot laws. Furthermore, emphasizing three feet as the passing distance may encourage some drivers to pass too closely when greater clearance is needed.

But there are additional provisions in SB910 which will make things even worse for cyclists.

The existing safe passing law in California is as follows:

21750.  The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle or a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle or bicycle, subject to the limitations and exceptions hereinafter stated.

SB 910 as amended on 3/25 removed the “or a bicycle” from 21750 and adds:

21750.1. (a) (1) The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance, at a minimum clearance of three feet, at a speed not exceeding 15 miles per hour faster than the speed of the bicycle, without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken bicycle.

Clearly much thought didn’t go the application of this wording outside of urban areas. A motorist driving 50 mph on a suburban or rural road passing a cyclist riding on a wide shoulder or bike lane would have to unnecessarily slow down quite considerably. On multi lane roads, drivers in other lanes would arguably also have to slow down to the 15 mph differential.

Apparently the flaws with that wording were noticed, so SB 910 was amended on 4/26, and the proposed wording now reads as follows:

21750.1. (a) (1) The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance, at a minimum clearance of three feet or at a speed not exceeding 15 miles per hour faster than the speed of the bicycle, without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken bicycle.

Now the inclusion of “or” in the wording opens the door to LESS than 3 feet of passing clearance if the motorist slows down to less than a 15 mph differential! (Or if a cyclist is traveling 40 mph on a downhill, a motorist traveling 55 mph could arguably legally pass him within inches.) The two state Auto Clubs (!) pointed out the problem with that in their letter of opposition, as quoted in the Senate Committee analysis:

It requires the driver to estimate the speed of the bicycle and then calculate the difference between the speed it is traveling and the speed the bicycle is traveling, and then adjust the speed at which his/her vehicle should be traveling to assure it is not going 15 mph faster than the bicycle. Drivers currently are not required to estimate the speed of other moving objects around them, and to precisely calculate their speed in relation to that moving object. To do so devotes a lot of thought and attention to accomplishing the calculations and less attention and time to observing driving conditions and reacting to sudden changes.

At first I thought the provision for the closer passing distance due to the “or” clause was an unintended consequence of fixing the 3/25 wording, but apparently it was intentional! This is from the email that the California Bicycle Coalition sent today:

The Senate committee and the bill’s author see the problems with the provision that gives motorists the option to pass closer than 3 feet so long as they’re traveling no more than 15 MPH faster than the bicyclist. We promised to work with the author to improve the language to better meet the goal of letting motorists pass more closely at very low speeds in tight urban settings.

So 3 feet isn’t close enough, bicyclists want legislation which encourages motorists pass even more closely? No thanks.

In summary, this is flawed legislation that will make things worse for bicyclists if it passes. Despite the potential for backlash from the bicycling community, I’m glad to see that the California Association of Bicycling Organizations has decided to oppose the bill in its current form, and I plan to write to my state senator in opposition. Let’s instead focus our efforts on education and enforcement of the existing safe passing law!

(6/27 update – The bill has been amended to remove the 3 foot exception for the 15 mph differential. The major part of my objection above is no longer applicable. The amended SB910 will be heard in the Assembly today.)