3 feet and 15mph law coming to California

Law defines safe passing of bicycles by motor vehicles

Every road cyclist knows the feeling — the rush of air, the feeling of heat rising, and a car suddenly passing dangerously close. It’s problem on rural roads and urban streets, and when the motorist makes contact the cyclist loses every time. In the US, California is close to passing a law that offers, at least some, protection.

The relevant law was introduced as provision SB910, which adds to section 21750.1 of the California Vehicle Code, and will otherwise known as the 3 feet and 15mph law. The provision requires automobiles to leave 3ft when passing bikes, and pass at a speed limited to 15mph faster than the cyclist’s speed.

“While bicycling in Solano County California in the 1980's, teenagers in a pickup truck deliberately passed me with inches to spare,” says John Whitehead, public relations director of the Davis Bike Club. “I got the license plate number and happened to see a police car shortly thereafter.  The officer brushed me off, saying that the passing distance must have been safe if they didn't hit me.”

If passed, the new law will give riders legal ground to stand on in similar situations. In fact, Whitehead says it is something he has long hoped to see. “In 1988, I wrote to my state Senator (John Garamendi) and my Assembly member (Tom Hanigan), requesting that safe passing be defined as one foot for each 10 miles per hour of vehicle speed,” said Whitehead. “I still have the discouraging letters they sent in reply. In 1990, I tried again by suggesting a 3-foot minimum to the League of American Bicyclists. The Executive Director's reply letter, still in my files, said that my suggestion was appreciated and shared with others.”

Now more than 20 years later, the law similar to Whitehead’s suggestion is close to passing.

California State Senator Alan Lowenthal introduced SB 910 earlier this year with support from the City of Los Angeles and the California Bicycle Coalition. As amended on 25 March, SB 910 adds a new section 21750.1 to the California Vehicle Code, which will read in part:

The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance, at a minimum clearance of three feet, at a speed not exceeding 15 miles per hour faster than the speed of the bicycle, without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken bicycle.

As written, the “motor vehicle” language specifically exempts cyclists from the three foot and 15mph requirement when passing other road users.

“Improving the ‘safe passing’ section in the California Vehicle Code, specifically for motor vehicles passing bicycles, is long overdue,” added Whitehead. “I think this law will be a benefit for California cyclists.”

The issue for Whitehead remains that the law is vague with regards to certain scenarios, but he sees it as serious progress. “Having read a draft of SB 910, I did not see a mention of lane changes in connection with the maximum 15mph relative speed,” said Whitehead. “If a vehicle moves one whole lane to the left, into the passing lane, it may not be necessary to slow down below the speed limit.”

While Whitehead doesn’t know his efforts 23 years ago directly impacted the introduction of the law, he’s happy that the roads are looking a little safer for cyclists in California. “Whether resulting from my hopes or someone else… it is great to see this might finally happen in California.”

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