Sunday, June 26, 2011

SB910 3-foot passing bill now fixed

SB910, the proposed 3-foot space requirement for motor vehicles passing cyclists, has now been amended. Now it's looking to me really good.

The earliest version of the bill was full of flaws, for example a requirement cars pass cyclists to he left (how does that work on Page in San Francisco, where the bike lane is on the left side of a one-way road?). Until the latest revision, there was an exemption allowed if the vehicle was no faster than 15 mph faster than the bike. The implication was speed differential matters. Speed is what matters, not differential.

A major problem with the speed differential is it would have taken the teeth from the bill. All you'd need to say to defend yourself against evidence you'd passed to closely to a cyclist whom you'd hit is that your speed was only 15 mph greater. It would have been very hard to prove this was not the case. Thus we'd be back to the status quo that it would need to be established the pass was unsafe. That's also difficult to prove because a driver can simply say the cyclist swerved. But with the 3-foot passing law, if you can establish the car trajectory failed to allow a 3-foot passing margin, the driver is de facto at fault whether the cyclist supposedly swerved or not. So getting rid of the 15 mph differential language was critical for this bill to be worth the bits it was stored in.

I was quote worried about this so wrote Dave Snyder of the California Bike Coalition to make sure it was going to be fixed. He assured me it was going to be, and his words proved true.

Even CABO is now on board. They were taking a hard line against SB910, refusing to buy the argument that the details were less important than the intent. And I'm glad they did.

There are two critical provisions to the bill. One is the 3-foot passing zone, the other an allowance for cars to cross the double yellow when passing cyclists. This latter part, receiving less attention, is arguably more important. It's also something close to my heart, since I'd proposed it to Joe Simitian as part of his "there outta be a law" contest several years ago. I ended up losing to a requirement headlights be on whenever windshield wipers are running. Sigh.

But here's that part:
(e) 21460. (e) (1) The driver of a motor vehicle in a substandard width lane on a two-lane highway may drive to the left of either of the markings specified in subdivision (a) or (b) to pass a person operating a bicycle proceeding in the same direction, if in compliance with Section 21751.
(2) For purposes of this subdivision, a "substandard width lane" means a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.

The reference to Section 21751 is key: that says it is only legal to cross a centerline to pass when there is adequate visibility to do so safely without impeding oncoming traffic. So what SB910 does is acknowledge there are situations where fully crossing a double yellow to pass a fast-moving motor vehicle would be unsafe (which is why the line is double yellow) but it would be safe to partially cross the double yellow to pass a slower-moving cyclist, and that driver judgement is suited to determining when these situations are. And we already rely on driver judgement in passing in the case of dashed yellows. Obviously the presence of a dashed line is not sufficient reason to claim it is safe to pass.

Next is the 3-foot requirement itself:
21750.1. (a) The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking and passing a bicycle that is proceeding in the same direction on a highway shall pass in compliance with the provisions of this article applicable to overtaking and passing a vehicle, and shall do so at a safe distance that does not interfere with the safe operation of the overtaken bicycle, having due regard for the size and speed of the motor vehicle and the bicycle, traffic conditions, weather, and the surface and width of the highway. (b) A driver of a motor vehicle shall not overtake or pass a bicycle proceeding in the same direction on a highway at a distance of less than three feet between any part of the motor vehicle and any part of the bicycle or its operator, except that the driver may pass the overtaken bicycle with due care at a distance of less than three feet at a speed not greater than 15 miles per hour, if in compliance with subdivision (a).

There's three key aspects to this. First, it is absolutely explicit that the 3-foot requirement does not imply three feet is always sufficient: the bill even enumerates which factors can contribute to a greater margin being needed. Obviously if it's pouring rain and the road is covered with gravel and the passing vehicle is relatively large the passing margin will need to be larger than the three-foot minimum.

Second, it defines what is meant by a 3-foot margin. It's any part of the vehicle and any part of the bike or its rider. That means, for example, the tip of a passenger-side rear-view mirror to the rider's shoulder blade, not simply the edge of the car's fender to the frame of the bicycle.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the 15 mph speed differential has become a 15 mph absolute speed. Cars pass me within 3 feet all the time... at traffic lights. They're stopped at the light, I pull up next to them, the light changes to green, and they pull away, repassing me. This situation shouldn't be illegal and isn't unsafe (unless the vehicle turns, of course). Yet 15 mph is slow enough that it's relatively implausible on the open road a driver will be able to claim he or she was driving slower than this, so it doesn't dilute enforceability much.

Okay -- here's what I really don't like about the bill:
(c) (1) A violation of subdivision (a) is an infraction punishable by a fine of thirty five thirty-five dollars ($35). (2) If a collision occurs between a motor vehicle and a bicycle causing bodily injury to the bicyclist, and the driver of the motor vehicle is found to be in violation of subdivision (a), a two hundred twenty dollar ($220) fine shall be imposed on that driver.

To quote a friend of mine: "somehow i would feel better if running me over would automatically mean your fine was more than throwing out a snicker wrapper,"... the fine for littering is "not less than
two hundred fifty dollars ($250)"
. Hopefully the fear of being exposed to damages, since violation of the law is an important factor in determining fault, will provide the deterrence.

So while I'd like the fine to be less insulting, I'm really pleased with the rest of the bill, and I hope it passes. I sent my state senator, Mark Leno, a note encouraging his support and I got an email back summarizing the previous version of the bill. I hope he comes up to speed soon and helps see this thing finally get passed.

No comments: