Give Me Three Rides to the Assembly Floor. Republican Opposition Expected.

This Friday, S.B. 910, the Three Feet Passing Law authored by Senator Alan Lowenthal (D-LB) heads to the Assembly Floor.  S.B. 910 has been passing committees and the full Assembly by mostly party-line votes, but that doesn’t mean that passage is assured in two days.  The California Bicycle Coalition has a sample letter to email Assembly Members in advance of Friday’s hearing.

The remaining opposition to the legislation comes from California’s two AAA Chapters, AAA Northern California and the Southern California Automobile Club.  The California Association of Bicycle Organizations had opposed the legislation, but changes made in the Assembly Transportation Committee ameliorated their concerns leaving just the AAA’s in opposition.  However, because the Assembly will be voting on a different piece of legislation than the one already passed by the Assembly, a re-vote will be required by the Senate before the legislation can move to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk.  Once there, Brown will have until October 9th to sign the legislation into law.

If signed into law, S.B. 910 will require drivers to give cyclists a three-foot cushion when passing at speeds greater than 15 miles per hour and bans passing cyclists on the right completely unless the cyclist is making a left-hand turn or the driver and not the cyclist is in a right-hand turning lane.  Drivers will be permitted to cross solid lines when there is no other vehicle traffic to pass a cyclist. Cycling groups, traffic safety experts and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have made S.B. 910 a top legislative priority this session.

Arguments against S.B. 910 can mostly be broken down into two arguments.  AAA claims that the law will be confusing to drivers and should be optional.  Many Republicans in the Senate and Assembly have claimed that S.B. 910 introduces “subjectivity into the law.”

AAA’s position that the law should be optional is basically the Auto Club’s way of nullifying the legislation completely.  Obviously, it already is optional for car drivers to give cyclists a three foot passing cushion when passing.  When I’m in a car I do it every single time I pass a cyclist even though the law doesn’t require me to.  Because, legally speaking, it’s already optional for drivers to pass cyclists however they want as long as it is “safe.”

The Better World Club, a road user’s club for people who like the concept of AAA but not the politics, points out that the California Department of Motor Vehicles in the California Driver’s Handbook already recommends the three foot passing zone.  It’s important for legislators to recognize what AAA is trying to do, which is to basically throw out S.B. 910 in the name of “clarifying” it.

But that’s not even the strangest argument.  Republicans in the Assembly and Senate have decided that road user safety is a partisan issue and have lined up against S.B. 910 in a pretty uniform matter despite the evidence from other states that 3 Feet Passing laws reduce cyclist-driver crash rates.  Their central argument is that this law “introduces subjectivity into the law” because it will be hard for a driver or enforcement officer to know what is exactly three feet and what exactly is a passing speed greater than fifteen miles per hour.

Granted, it will be nigh impossible for an officer to know the exact speed of two moving objects at the same time, but a rational officer can provide good estimates by observing the travel of both vehicles.  It may be difficult to precisely peg whether or not a car is going fifteen miles faster when the car is going roughly twenty miles per hour and the bike roughly five miles per hour.  It’s much less difficult if the car is going thirty miles per hour.

But how a passing law with a defined safe passing distance and safe passing speed is more subjective than the existing law that requires a driver to “pass safely” is beyond me.  When a driver tapped my handle bars with his side mirror, he thought he passed me safely because I wasn’t actually knocked over.  If he had misjudged his distance by three more inches, I might not be typing this today.

In short, it appears that S.B. 910 will be passed by the Assembly on Friday and should sail through the Senate on a quick procedural vote shortly thereafter.  But there’s going to be a lot of education of drivers necesary for the law to work after that and not just become a symbol of the media inflated “bike v car” war.

And I don’t think we can count on AAA for any help.