By Robert Greene, September 17, 2013
A byclist rides on the sidewalk despite the new commuter bike lane on 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles.
Will the fifth time be the charm for the three-foot rule?
Among the hundreds of bills on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk is AB 1371,
which would require a driver to keep at least three feet of space
between his or her car and a bicycle when passing. If the governor signs
it, the bill would affect all motor vehicles and bicycles sharing the
road in California, but it would have special significance for Los
This city -- long regarded as the nation’s most car-loving,
driver-centric, petroleum-fueled, bike-hating municipality -- is
sponsoring the bill. It’s part of L.A.’s long-simmering but suddenly
swooning romance with the bike, nurtured over the last decade by cycling
enthusiasts but perhaps brought into full bloom on July 17, 2010, when
then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa,
riding his mountain bike on Venice Boulevard, was cut off by a taxi
driver. He crashed, broke his elbow -- and became a champion of the
city’s burgeoning bike culture.
By then, two bills that would
have required motorists to leave at least three feet between their cars
and cyclists had already died in the Legislature. AB 1941 by Democrat
Pedro Nava of Santa Barbara failed to get out of the Assembly
Transportation Committee in 2006, and Nava’s AB 60 met the same fate in
After the mayoral crash, Democrat Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, a state senator who has since moved on to Congress, authored SB 910 in 2011 (see this bill comparison from the California Bicycle Coalition);
it would have required the three-foot distance where possible, and
otherwise would have required cars to slow to 15 miles per hour when
Lowenthal's bill got through the Legislature, but Brown vetoed it.
The governor noted that California already required a "safe and
reasonable" distance, but he had no problem with nailing down the
minimum to three feet. It was the reduced speed that troubled him. Or,
rather, that troubled the California Highway Patrol and Caltrans.
They told the governor that slowing for a bike could cause other cars
to rear-end the driver who was dutifully braking, or that one cyclist
could cause an entire line of cars to have to slow down. And in case you
were wondering, yes, Brown made it clear that such decelerating would
be bad thing.
Brown also vetoed last year’s SB 1464,
also by Lowenthal, even though the slowing provision was removed. In
his veto message, the governor again cited Caltrans, which this time
expressed concern that the bill allowed cars to move to the left -- over
the double-yellow line, if necessary -- to keep the three-foot minimum
distance from cyclists. Allowing cars to violate the sacrosanct divider
and, perhaps, stray into oncoming traffic could make the state liable in
case of a head-on collision, the governor wrote.
So here we are. Nava and Lowenthal and their four bills are gone, and now Assemblyman Steven Bradford
(D-Gardena) is carrying the latest version. The new Three Feet for
Safety Act requires drivers who can’t keep their distance to pass at a
"reasonable and prudent" speed, but the reference to 15 miles per hour
is gone; so is the part about the double-yellow line. The law would take
effect a year from Monday, to give everyone time to get used to the
idea. Violations could result in a $35 “base fine” -- that means before
various surcharges and fees are added. Actually hitting a cyclist and
causing bodily injury would result in a fine of $220.
Plus, those rooting for cyclists might add, one heck of a lawsuit.
Hundreds of cyclists are hit by cars annually in Los Angeles alone.
If you are, as they say, on the driver’s side in the ongoing
encounter, or debate -- or cold war -- between cars and bikes in this
motorist-oriented city, you may find yourself wondering whether such a
law is necessary. Or wonder what happens when it’s a cyclist who veers
too close, or who cuts off a car in traffic.
It’s worth noting, then, that one of the enthusiastic supporters of
this bill, along with the city and cycling advocates, is the Automobile
Club of Southern California.
We’ll know by Oct. 13, the deadline for signing bills, whether Brown is with them or against them.