Will three times be the charm for the state’s latest attempt to create a three-foot passing law?

Maybe the third time is the charm.

Or it could be three strikes and you’re out.

Only the veto pen on Governor Brown’s desk knows which way he’s leaning. And like the Corgi at his feet — and the governor himself — it isn’t talking.

Yesterday, the state Senate approved AB 1371, the Three Feet for Safety Act. This is the latest attempt at creating a minimum three-foot distance to pass a cyclist on California streets, after Brown vetoed two previous attempts in the last two years — joining Texas governor Rick Perry as the nation’s only state leaders to veto three-foot bike safety legislation.

Or rather, surpassing Perry, who only wielded his veto pen once in opposition to safe cycling legislation.

Twenty-one other governors have already signed similar legislation; Pennsylvania mandates a minimum of four feet.

The bill, sponsored by Assembly Member Steven Bradford of Gardena, would replace the current requirement that drivers pass bicyclists at a safe distance without specifying what that distance is. Instead, it would require a minimum three-foot cushion between any part of the vehicle and the bike or its rider.

The act passed the Senate yesterday by a vote of 31-7. It will now go back to the Assembly for a vote to concur with the amendments made following its approval by that chamber earlier this year.

And then it’s back to the governor’s desk, where he’ll have 12 days to sign it.

Or not.

There should be no reason for him to say no this time, however. The bill addresses his expressed, if questionable, reasons for vetoing the previous bills.

This time around, there is no provision requiring drivers to slow down to 15 mph to pass a bike rider if they are unable to give a three foot passing distance as mandated in the 2011 version, or to slow down to 15 mph more than the speed of the rider, as contained in the 2012 version.

And unlike the 2012 version, it does not give drivers permission to briefly cross the center line  in order to pass riders safely, even though that is exactly what many drivers already do, legally or not.

In fact, that’s one of the problems with the current bill.

The primary reason Brown gave for vetoing last year’s bill was a fear of lawsuits stemming from drivers unsafely crossing the center line, even though the state is already largely exempt from such suits, and the bill required drivers to do so only when safe.

The current bill, which was very smartly written by Bradford’s staff in a attempt to address the governor’s concerns, originally included language that would specifically exempt the state from being sued if someone was injured by driver who ignored the provision to cross the line safely.

Unfortunately, that language was removed from the bill, along with the section permitting drivers to cross the line. So many motorists will continue to attempt to unsafely squeeze past riders in the same lane, or follow angrily behind until they have a chance to pass.

Or they’ll just do what many already do, and break the law by going onto the other side of the roadway to pass at a safe distance.

The other problem with the bill is that it contains a provision that takes much of the teeth out of it, allowing drivers to pass at less than three feet if they decide, for whatever reason, that the three-foot margin isn’t safe or practical. Even though nothing says they have to pass in the first place.

(d) If the driver of a motor vehicle is unable to comply with subdivision (c), due to traffic or roadway conditions, the driver shall slow to a speed that is reasonable and prudent, and may pass only when doing so would not endanger the safety of the operator of the bicycle, taking into account the size and speed of the motor vehicle and bicycle, traffic conditions, weather, visibility, and surface and width of the highway.

The requirement to take into account the size and speed of the motor vehicle could help prevent the too frequent buzzing of bicyclists by trucks and city buses, though.

However, this bill is a big improvement over last year’s, which would have applied only to vehicles traveling in the same lane. Which means that if you were riding in a bike lane, the vehicle next to you could legally pass at significantly less than three feet — something that happens with far too much frequency already.

Instead, AB 1371 simply mandates a three-foot passing distance for any motor vehicle traveling in the same direction as the bike it’s passing. So the law applies whether you’re in a through lane, bike lane or turn lane, or any other situation when you’re headed the same way.

Of course, not everyone is in favor of the bill.

The San Jose Mercury News quotes Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, presumably one of the seven who voted against it.

“It’s just impossible to gauge what three feet is and so I don’t think it really accomplishes what you want,” Huff said. He said the state should instead focus on educating people about sharing the road with non-motorized vehicles when they renew their driver’s licenses.

“To create outlaws of everybody because you can’t judge the distance is nuts,” he said.

Then again, anyone who ever played football knows exactly how far a distance three feet — aka one yard — is.

And to argue that no one can judge that distance is absurd.

No one is going to pull out a tape measure to determine if a driver passes a vehicle at 34.5 or 37 inches. But anyone without serious depth perception issues can tell if they’re significantly less than three feet away from a rider.

Also, that three foot margin is a minimum passing distance, not a maximum target drivers are expected to adhere to. There is no reason why a motorist can’t pass with a four or five foot margin when it’s safe to do so, as many drivers already do.

“I have been riding for 25 years, and I have seen my share of run-ins and close calls,” Bradford said. “Too many people just don’t realize that cyclists are legally allowed in the street. This bill gives everyone clarity as to what is safe behavior.”

The bill should have no problem passing the Assembly once again, especially in the watered-down version passed by the Senate.

What happens once it reaches Governor Brown’s desk is anyone’s guess.

  • Anonymous

    Strange that anyone would cite safety concerns, because engineers decide where to put solid lines versus broken lines based on the time for cars needed to pass each other. Crossing a solid line to pass another car is unsafe because you can’t see far enough. But you don’t need to see nearly as far to pass a bike. If you give the bike 20′ in front, 20′ in back, plus the 5′ length of the bike, at a 15mph speed differential it will take a driver all of 2 seconds to pass a bike. If you’re driving 30 mph, that’s 90 feet.

    In other words, if a bike is going 15 mph and you’re going 30 mph, you need to see all of 90 feet to be able to pass safely by crossing the center line. If you can’t see 90 feet in front of you, you shouldn’t be going 30 mph anyway.

  • Rick Bernardi

    Jerry Brown’s words assure us that he is a bicycle-friendly Governor.

    His actions, however, tell us that he’s just another driver afflicted
    with an overinflated sense of entitlement and a myopic windshield
    perspective who thinks cyclists should just “get out of my way.”

    http://www.bicyclelaw.com/blog/index.cfm/2012/11/2/Jerry-Brown-20-Bicycle-Crank

  • John Montgomery

    I think the lack of inclusion citing the ability to cross a solid center line *safely* to make the pass is a huge problem with the bill. Colorado’s law has this and it makes total sense. As you accurately point out, it’s not a problem to pass a cyclist safely in a majority of situations.

    I actually think he should veto the law…the law *must* have this imho to make it viable

  • PRE

    Don’t flame me but I honestly don’t see how this would work unless the driver can cross the line to pass a bike. As a pedestrian, cyclist and driver this makes no sense to me. I haven’t seen a bike lane that gives three feet clearance for a driver to pass and on a two lane road, if you can’t cross the line to pass in both situations the driver is forced to drive behind the rider. That sounds like a recipe for disaster. What am I missing?

  • Niall Huffman

    “if you can’t cross the line to pass in both situations the driver is forced to drive behind the rider”

    What’s wrong with this? There are many situations where it’s necessary to follow behind a slower-moving vehicle until it becomes safe to overtake. Not just bikes, but buses, garbage trucks, loaded tractor-trailers, etc. If the road or traffic conditions make it unsafe to pass for an extended stretch of roadway, we have CVC 21656, which requires slower-moving vehicles use the next safe turnout if five or more vehicles are following behind, to ensure that faster traffic isn’t impeded. It’s not asking a whole lot for drivers to wait a few seconds to pass safely — they’re already required to do this; the new law merely brings some clarity to the question of what constitutes a ‘safe distance’.

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