Saturday, February 25, 2012

SB1464: revised 3-foot passing bill for California

Last year California's Governor Jerry Brown pocketed SB910, a bill which would have effectively banned drivers from passing cyclists with less than a 3-foot margin. Additionally it would have allowed drivers to cross the center-line when it was safe to do so in order to provide for that mandatory margin, which is a practice well over 99% of the drivers already exercise, anyway. His logic in pocketing the bill seemed inconsistent with the bill itself, as I described, bringing into question whether politics and influence was the actual motive.

So another year brings another legislative session, and the California Bike Coalition continues, to its substantial credit, to push the matter. The Give Me Three campaign is not dead, not at all. Instead, SB910 has been replaced with SB1464. This bill is a direct response to Brown's concern, in his own words:

On streets with a speed limit of 35 or 45 mph, slowing to 15 mph to pass a cyclist could cause rear-end collisions. On the other hand, a cyclist riding near 15 mph could cause a long line of vehicles behind the cyclist.
Brown was worried about the provision which allowed for a car to pass with less than 3 foot margin if it was going less than 15 mph.

I will resist the temptation to rant once again against the twisted, convoluted, inverted logic used here. But what is done is done, so CalBike said okay, if you don't like the 15 mph exemption, fine. It's gone. So now we have SB1464. Brown has left himself no opening to oppose it.

The problem is the 15 mph limit was there for a very good reason: so a cyclist couldn't block car traffic at intersections. Intersections tend to be fairly tight and crowded, and three foot margins are simply not available in many cases, especially when the cyclist pulls up next to a car whose driver has no option to move sideways:


With SB910, no problem: the drivers and cyclists could move ahead clear of the intersection and then, once they were up to speed, the 3-foot passing margin requirement would kick in. SB910 never said it was safe to pass with less than three feet at less than 15 mph, simply that it may be safe in a specific situation (slow traffic), and therefore such a pass was not going to be generally forbidden.

Well, with SB1464, there's no exception. At an intersection, drivers must wait for an opportunity to move left, period, no matter how slowly the rider accelerates. This would obviously create needless congestion.

The reality, however, is that when rules overstep reasonable bounds, they are applied with discretion. So very few tickets will be issued in these cases. It will become yet another example of a weakness in the law being left to officer discretion.

The problem is with regard to bike-car issues, officers have a terrible record of discretion. The police simply cannot be trusted, should not be trusted, to define the scope of the law. Sure, some discretion is always needed, but when possible the law should speak for itself. Otherwise we could vastly simplify the Code with a tidy "all drivers of motor vehicles shall behave in a safe, predictable, and courteous manner". This basically covers everything.

So once you open the obvious discretionary door for intersections, where else is discretion applied? That's the issue. You're tacitly approving of discretionary enforcement by requiring discretionary enforcement in an obvious, common situation where rigorous enforcement would be unpopular.

Still, this bill would be a huge improvement. If nothing else, it allows drivers to cross the center line when passing. Just this past Thursday I was on the Palo Alto Noon Ride on Arastradero Road (StreetView) when a driver came by the large pack of riders without touching the center line, forcing riders to squeeze to the right to avoid being hit. This was illegal on many levels, and on such a narrow road, it can be legitimately argued the driver should have waited to pass. But at least with the center line rule, the driver had absolutely zero justification in playing the "no choice but to stay in the lane" intimidation game, one I've seen more often played, ironically, by police: the same guys we're trusting with discretionary enforcement.

So everyone, please support SB1464, and if you haven't, fire a few bucks (they ask for three) to the "Give me Three" campaign to help CalBike fight the good fight. This is a fundamentally important matter for cyclists right to use the roads to which legally they have always had equal rights as drivers, since before there were even cars to drive.

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