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california legislation > SB 910

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SENATE TRANSPORTATION & HOUSING COMMITTEE BILL NO: sb 910
SENATOR MARK DESAULNIER, CHAIRMAN AUTHOR: lowenthal
VERSION: 4/26/11
Analysis by: Jennifer Gress FISCAL: yes
Hearing date: May 3, 2011



SUBJECT:

Vehicles: bicycles: passing distance

DESCRIPTION:

This bill requires the driver of a motor vehicle passing a
bicycle proceeding in the same direction to pass on the left and
provide a minimum clearance of three feet or drive at a speed
not exceeding 15 miles per hour (mph) faster than the speed of
the bicycle. It also establishes a fine of $220 for a violation
of this provision and allows a driver to drive on the left side
of double parallel solid lines if driving on a substandard width
lane and passing a person riding a bicycle or operating a
pedicab in the same direction.

ANALYSIS:

A person riding a bicycle or operating a pedicab has all of the
rights and is subject to all of the laws applicable to the
driver of a motor vehicle, except for those laws that by their
very nature can have no application.

A person riding a bicycle at a speed less than the normal speed
of traffic moving in the same direction shall ride "as close as
practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway"
except under certain circumstances, including when passing
another bicycle, when preparing to turn left at an intersection
or driveway, or when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions
that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or
edge.

When passing a bicycle proceeding in the same direction, the
driver of a vehicle shall pass to the left "at a safe distance
without interfering with the safe operation of the vehicle or
bicycle." On a two-lane highway, no vehicle shall be driven to
the left of the center of the roadway in passing another vehicle
proceeding in the same direction unless the left side is clearly




SB 910 (LOWENTHAL) Page 2




visible and free of oncoming traffic for a sufficient distance.
If double parallel solid lines are in place, a person driving a
vehicle shall not drive to the left of those lines unless the
driver is making a legal U-turn, turning left at an intersection
or into or out of a driveway, or if signs have otherwise been
erected to permit it.

This bill requires the driver of a motor vehicle passing a
bicycle proceeding in the same direction to pass on the left and
provide a minimum clearance of three feet or drive at a speed
not exceeding 15 miles per hour (mph) faster than the speed of
the bicycle.

This bill also establishes a fine of $220 for failure to provide
the minimum three-feet clearance or passing at a speed exceeding
15 mph faster than the speed of the bicycle.

This bill also allows the driver of a motor vehicle to drive on
the left side of double parallel solid lines if driving on a
substandard width lane and passing a person riding a bicycle or
operating a pedicab in the same direction.

COMMENTS:

1.Purpose . The author states that current law requiring a
motorist to "pass to the left at a safe distance" when passing
a cyclist is vague and that this bill addresses that
deficiency by defining safe distance as three feet. As a
co-sponsor of this measure, the Mayor of Los Angeles states
that the City of Los Angeles has recently adopted a new
citywide bicycle plan with the goals of increasing the number
and types of bicyclists in Los Angeles, making every street a
safe place to ride a bicycle, and making the City of Los
Angeles a bicycle-friendly community. For the plan to meet
these goals, it is important that bicyclists feel safe while
riding. The Mayor explains that "unfortunately, law-abiding
people riding bicycles are still subject to harassment by
aggressive drivers; this harassment includes driving too close
to and cutting in front of bicyclists." While the City of Los
Angeles has undertaken steps to address this situation,
statewide legislation is needed to provide a clear three-foot
buffer zone for cyclists.

The California Bicycle Coalition is co-sponsoring this measure
"to promote safety in cycling and to provide law enforcement
with the structure necessary to evaluate potential passing




SB 910 (LOWENTHAL) Page 3




violations." The sponsor further explains that a "specified
passing distance provides a more objective and easily
understood measure of what constitutes "safe" and gives law
enforcement and the courts a more objective basis for
enforcing California's safe passing requirement."

2.Enforceability . This bill requires both a driver and a law
enforcement officer to judge the distance between the
overtaking vehicle and a bicyclist as the driver of the
vehicle passes, yet there is no practical way to measure three
feet from afar when two objects are moving. How can either be
sure that the driver is not 3 feet, 3 inches away rather than
2 feet, 9 inches? What if a bicyclist inadvertently moves
slightly toward the vehicle by a few inches or intentionally
swerves toward it to avoid other hazards in the road, such as
debris or a car door opening? Enforcing the three-foot buffer
may prove challenging given the difficulties involved in
measuring three feet.

3.Is three feet always "safe ?" By defining safe distance as
three feet, this bill presupposes that three feet is always a
safe distance. There may be instances, however, when three
feet of clearance is inadequate and a driver should provide
greater clearance to ensure a safe distance when passing.
Examples include when a driver can see debris in the roadway
that could conceivably cause a cyclist to veer or when there
is a high turnover of vehicles parked along the side of the
road. Safe passing is not solely determined by those
conditions present at the moment a driver decides to pass, but
those the driver anticipates could occur when he or she is
actually passing.

4.15 mph . Each roadway presents a unique set of characteristics
and conditions that affect safe passing and that may limit the
ability of a driver to provide three feet of clearance. This
bill acknowledges that by giving drivers the option not to
provide three feet of clearance and instead to slow down to
within 15 mph of the speed of the bicyclist. This provision
raises several questions and concerns.

First, it requires the driver to engage in mental acrobatics
trying to determine the distance between the vehicle and the
bicyclist and then, if three feet seems infeasible for
whatever reason, to calculate the speed of the bicyclist and
adjust his or her own speed accordingly. The auto clubs
describe this cognitive process and its potential dangers in




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their letter of opposition, which reads in part:

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.

Second, allowing drivers to pass within three feet of a
bicycle because they are driving within 15 mph of the speed of
a bicyclist provides an unclear standard for drivers. The
question this bill poses is, under what circumstances is it
safe to pass a bicyclist? Allowing passing within the buffer
this bill creates, but at a different speed, confuses this
standard.

Third, it is unclear whether passing when the driver is
traveling within 15 mph of the speed of the bicyclist enhances
the safety of bicyclists. Current law provides that one may
pass only when it is safe to do so. Therefore, in situations
where it is unsafe to provide three feet of clearance, the
safe alternative would be for the driver not to pass until he
or she can.

In short, 15 mph is a confusing standard that will be
difficult for drivers to calculate and that contradicts the
spirit of the bill to provide a safe buffer for bicyclists
being passed by motor vehicles. For this reason, the
committee may wish to consider an amendment to delete the 15
mph provision from the bill.

5.Crossing double solid lines . Double solid lines are put in
place when traffic engineers determine that characteristics of
the roadway make it unsafe to pass. Does allowing a vehicle
to cross these lines create an unsafe driving situation? The
author argues that a bicycle is moving much slower and
requires less clearance than another motor vehicle and thus
would not pose the same risk. Others argue that crossing
double solid lines when passing a bicyclist is already a




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matter of practice for some motorists.

6.Appropriate penalty ? This bill establishes a base fine of
$220 for a violation of its provisions. After assessments,
surcharges, and fees are added, the total bail for a violation
of the infraction this bill creates would total $959. The
author chose this penalty amount because it is believed to be
the same as for a vehicle failing to yield and causing bodily
injury. The subject of this bill is safe passing.
Establishing a penalty for unsafe passing, therefore, seems
more appropriate. The base fine for unsafe passing under
current law is $35, which, with assessments, surcharges, and
fees equals a total bail of $233. The committee may wish to
consider an amendment to change the penalty amount from $220
($959 total bail) to $35 ($233 total bail) in order to make
the penalty consistent with that for an unsafe passing
violation.

7.Defining "substandard width lane ." This bill allows a driver
to drive on the left of double parallel solid lines when the
driver is on a "substandard width lane," but does not define
what "substandard" is. A different code section excepting
bicycles from the requirement to ride as close as is
"practicable" to the curb or edge on the right side of the
roadway defines "substandard width lane" as "a lane that is
too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side
by side within the lane." For purposes of clarity, the author
or committee may wish to consider an amendment to define
"substandard width lane" using this same definition.

8.Passing on the left only ? This bill defines safe distance as
three feet only when a motor vehicle passes a bicyclist on the
left. There are instances, however, when a vehicle may
lawfully pass a bicyclist on the right, such as when a
bicyclist is turning left or when a bicyclist is riding in the
far left lane on a one-way street. It is unclear why the
three-foot buffer should not also apply when passing a
bicyclist on the right. If it is only safe to pass on the
left when providing clearance of three feet, it seems
reasonable to require the same clearance when passing on the
right. The committee may wish to consider an amendment to
also require that vehicles provide three feet of clearance
when passing a bicyclist on the right.

9.Other states . According to information provided by the
California Bicycle Coalition, approximately 13 states have




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enacted a three-foot passing law. The first was Wisconsin in
1974. The majority of the others passed their laws in the
last ten years.

10. Technical amendment . On page 3, line 4 of the bill,
"drive" should be replaced by "driver."

11. Recent legislation . There have been two other recent
attempts to establish a three-foot passing law: AB 60 (Nava)
in 2007 and AB 1941 (Nava) in 2006. Both measures died in the
Assembly Transportation Committee.

POSITIONS: (Communicated to the Committee before noon on
Wednesday,
April 27, 2011)

SUPPORT: Office of the Mayor, City of Los Angeles
(co-sponsor)
California Bicycle Coalition (co-sponsor)
Amgen Cycling Club
Channel Islands Bicycle Club
Humboldt Bay Bicycle Commuters Association
Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates
Santa Cruz County Cycling Club
Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition
47 individuals


OPPOSED: AAA Northern California
Automobile Club of Southern California