Lowenthal Introduces Senate Bill That Could Become Three Foot Passing Law

New legislation by Alan Lowenthal aims to give cyclists just that. Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/waltarrrrr/5039796985/##Waltaar/Flickr##

Last week, Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) introduced S.B. 910, which seeks to define what a “safe distance” is for a motorist to pass a cyclist.   While the language of the bill may seem innocuous at first read, Lowenthal’s staff says the current draft of the bill is a placeholder for what will most likely become a “3-Feet Passing Law.”

Given the trouble some “safe streets” legislation has faced in Sacramento, the passage of a 3 Feet Passing Law might seem a difficult task. In 2006, a similar law died in committee after an intense lobbying efforts by the California Highway Patrol and the trucking industry.  The CHP’s opposition came in the form of “expert testimony” as it did when they all-but-killed legislation in 2009 that would have helped reduce speed limits on local streets.

But S.B. 910 should have some powerful local backers.  “Give Me 3” posters still adorn bus stops around Los Angeles, part of the public service poster contest hosted last year by the LAPD, Mayor’s Office, LACBC and Midnight Ridazz.  At the press conference announcing the poster design, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said of a 3-Feet Passing Law, “We’ll keep at it until it becomes part of the California Vehicle Code.”

Despite some high profile support, S.B. 910 isn’t quite ready to go through the hearing process.  A close reading of the current draft of the legislation will show that the words “3 feet” don’t appear anywhere in the text.  John Casey, the Chief of Staff for Senator Lowenthal and a bike commuter himself, explains that the Senator’s intent is to work with bicycle advocacy groups and law enforcement to make sure that the final draft is a bill that will work for cyclists, and motorists throughout California.  Sixteen other states have laws that require motorists to give a three foot berth when passing a cyclist.

“We want to start looking at those states and see what works and what doesn’t so we can craft the tightest law we can for California,” explains Casey.

The introduction of this legislation is seen as a key moment by some in the bicycle community.  “Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) is pleased that Senator Lowenthal is sponsoring this bill.” explains Alexis Lantz, LACBC’s policy director, “He’s the ideal person to carry this bill forward, especially since he represents Long Beach, which we all know is trying to become the most bicycle friendly city in America. LACBC has been working with the California Bicycle Coalition (CBC) and the Mayor’s office on seeing this bill move forward.”

Senator Alan Lowenthal. Image via the Senator's Official Website.

One of the complaints about a three-feet passing law is that it creates a standard that is difficult for the police to enforce.  For example, one never hears of police setting up a “passing law sting” as they do speed traps or crosswalk stings.  However, the law does give police, and prosecutors, a specific charge when vehicles clip cyclists or force them off the road while passing.  Even if the police aren’t measuring the passing distance between cars and bikes when no collision occurs, the law could give cyclists a new legal leg to stand on when forced off their bikes by passing cars even when there’s no actual collision.

Mihai Peteu, a Board Member for Bikeside and Santa Monica Spokes, sees the benefit of the law as both an enforcement issue and a statement about the importance of bicycling safety.  “Right now the current mindset in Southern California dehumanizes cyclists and places almost no accountability on motorists that injure, maim, and kill.  A three-feet passing law would be a small but symbolic step in the correct direction.”

The website 3 Feet Please has been monitoring the national movement to bring this law to every state. It helpfully provides a policy paper from the Bicycle Alliance of Washington (the state), which covers the local issues and provides guidance for activists with similar goals in other states. For example, they show that a 3 Feet Passing Law is effective as an educational tool.

We have spoken to state patrol officials in several of the 11 states that have passed the three-feet law. Those officials emphasize that the law is used more as an education tool to provide safe practices than as an enforcement tool to punish law breakers. It gives officers, government officials, and civic groups the opportunity to inform drivers what a safe minimum distance is by use of a common measure (3 feet or one yard) that can be easily remembered.

Meanwhile, the LACBC and CBC are looking for more comprehensive reforms than just a passing law.  “We feel the 3′ Passing Law will be a good step forward at the state level to help prevent collisions, provide a driver education tool and help facilitate better enforcement in regards to sharing the roads. Some of the draft language that the CBC has been working on includes language to possibly further clarify CVC 21202 – we hope some of that language will remain in addition to addressing safe passing distance,” explains Lantz. “We will continue working with the CBC, Senator Lowenthal and the Mayor’s office to build support in Los Angeles County and around the state for the passing of this bill.”

  • Bravo California. I commend Senator Alan Lowenthal for introducing S.B. 910, which is focused on securing at least 3 feet of protected space for bicyclists when being overtaken by motorists. Sixteen states and a growing number of cities have seen the wisdom and value of having such a law on the books. The value of this law isn’t found in giving motorists tickets, but rather, using the law as a tool to help educate motorists on what is considered a minimum safe passing distance—at least 3 feet please.

    There will be naysayers will say the law is only a “feel good” law and unenforceable. I say hogwash. Energetic law enforcement agencies who understand their mission to protect and serve the members of their communities waste no time in rolling up their sleeves and finding ways to do their job. And some of the best do it without issuing one single ticket—pure education. So, I repeat…it’s not about enforcement, but rather, educating motorists on how to safely negotiate around a cyclist from behind. And the key thing for a motorist to remember is this: if you don’t believe you can pass a cyclist with at least a yard-stick worth of clearance, then wait until you can.

    So much of the noise surrounding cycling safety issues are focused on the actions of the few motorists and cyclists who just don’t get it. Most motorists and cyclists, thank God, are very respectful and responsible. But there are those few who don’t care about their own safety let alone others’ safety. We argue endlessly about the actions of these few scofflaws on both sides. And while we argue people are getting hurt and killed. Moms and dads and brothers and sisters and just good people are losing their lives because we cannot get it right. We cannot focus our attention on taking reasonable steps to provide “clear standards (like a 3 foot law) for behavior and ultimately safer roads for drivers, runners, cyclists, pedestrians and all others.” We have to push aside all the meaningless noise, roll up our sleeves and do whatever we can to give vulnerable road users greater protection in our car centric society. And at the same time we need to let vulnerable road users know that they have rules to follow as well…and they too will be held accountable. Authorities must address the violation of the laws by all road users.

    Indeed, changing motorist behavior will save lives, but it is also important to understand that changing cyclist behavior is where we can make the greatest impact on cyclist safety because cyclists, not motorists have a very strong personal interest in modifying their behavior to be visible and predicable…the keys to safe cycling. Bottom line, cyclists can solve a majority of their own problems by riding visibly and predictably.

    It is critical for all California cyclists to get on the same page and help your legislative leadership understand what you expect them to do to help make your roads safer. I assure you, if we can get motorists to give cyclists at least 3 feet clearance when passing and do this by using the law as an educational tool, that will be something we can all feel good about.

    The question is really very simple: will a 3 foot law save California cyclists’ lives? The answer is, YES. So, you know what to do California…make it happen, please. Lives are at stake.

    I will do whatever I can to help. Good luck.

    Joe Mizereck
    Founder, The “3 Feet Please” Campaign
    joe@3feetplease.com

  • roadblock

    Congratulations to the “unholy alliance” of the LACBC, the Mayor’s office, Midnight Ridazz, the LADOT and the LAPD for getting the party started in LA. Obviously there is a LOT of work to do, and this is only one part of a larger battle for safe streets. But the seed has been sewn.

    Thanks Joe Mizereck for founding the 3 feet to pass campaign that inspired it all and a big big thanks to Lowenthal for having the guts to take this up on a state level.

  • David Murphy

    This is important legislation. Biking in LA is extremely unsafe, in my opinion, and we need to do this — and much more, too. I commend all those involved.

  • Will Campbell

    Man if that gets enacted, maybe next up is California’s version of the Idaho stop law? I can dream, can’t I?

  • An easy way to get an “Idaho stop” here would be to change 4-way stops to 4-way yield intersections–the structural uncertainty would get everyone to slow down on approach. The current situation lets scofflaw drivers (and cyclists) assume that cross traffic will stop–which of course it usually doesn’t. The 4-way yield would leave everyone just a bit unsure, and therefore cautious.

    Another advantage is that it doesn’t give motorists something to be jealous of WRT cyclists–it’s for everybody!

    And AFAIK it is permissible under the CVC.

  • Sara J. Ackdaw

    Yeah, nothing puts you in favor of a three-foot passing distance like a good elbow-breaking swipe from a taxi, eh?

  • @ Rick: “An easy way to get an “Idaho stop” here would be to change 4-way stops to 4-way yield intersection”

    This would work for cars and bicycles, but it would not FEEL safe for people riding bikes. And if the majority of people don’t feel safe, they are not going to ride on the streets. That’s why we have a 1% bike mode share.

    Also, pedestrians would be hurt by 4-way-yield signs. In theory pedestrians have the right away, but in practice you often need a stop time to get drivers to yield to pedestrians.

    Instead, cities need to prioritize certain side-streets for bikes (like the bike boulevards in Berkeley, or now in Long Beach), with 2-way stop signs and some roundabouts. This will make bike riders and pedestrians feel safer, as well as being safer.

  • effelarr

    I was hit from behind by a mirror last week when a driver passed too closely. I was only bruised from the fall and the driver stopped, in tears. But a 3-foot law keeps this (or much worse outcomes!) from being the way drivers learn. The “Give Me 3” posters were an attractive campaign, but unless this is spelled out in the motor vehicle code, most drivers won’t obey it, assuming they even hear about/see it.

    One caveat: the law should specify that motor vehicles must leave 3 feet when passing, but shouldn’t apply to bikes passing cars. Otherwise, no queue jumping in traffic jams.

  • 4 would be better, but I’ll gladly take 3. I don’t know if a law will work, but as Joe Mizereck says, it’s about education, and unfortunately the education won’t happen without a law.

    Otherwise, the whole culture so strongly pushes driving anyplace farther than half a block away, anything we can do to convince the fence-sitters to get on their bikes will help. Life would be so much better for everybody if we’d all just slow the eff down.

  • pelican

    If the california lawmakers wanted to have less cars on the road and more bicycles, they should:
    01. Make it illegal to pass cyclists and all slow moving road users in the same lane.
    02. Lower the speed limit in all residential neighborhoods and 2 lane roads to 10 mph.
    03. Make the majority of streets in residential neighborhoods one way only for vehicles
    04. Traffic calming everywhere.
    05. If a bike lane is present it should be as wide as a normal lane and at intersections where the bike lane often disappears passing should be illegal as it is a choke point.
    06. Significantly increase fines for speeding, running red lights and unsafe turns and lane changes.

  • I’m one of the naysayers from Tennessee. Our 3ft law was passed in 2007, and to this date I’m not sure one ticket has been written. There are a variety of reasons for this. Mostly, it takes someone getting hit to prove it was violated. Then, usually, the bicyclist is injured, and a $50 ticket is basically an insult to the victim.

    Your bill should include some “teeth” in case someone negligently swipes a bicyclist and a serious injury or death occurs. We’re working on changing this in our state with HB1007 – state legislation.

    It should also include shoulders, bike lanes and adjacent travel paths. In Tennessee, we had a bicyclist swiped while riding on a shoulder. The definition of “roadway” included the space between the white fog lines. We’re working on changing that.

    If your bill ends up in pedestrian code, your police officers may not get briefed on it. Make sure there’s a law enforcement training plan for both state and local police. We ran a grass roots poster and website campaign because there was no provision in the bill for this, and no voluntary interest by government agencies. tennessee3feet.org

    All that aside, keep going. Any bill to promote safety is a good one.

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