Friday, September 27, 2013

California 3-foot passing law at last

Governor Brown, after vetoing two, finally signed a 3-foot passing law for the state of California: AB1371. Hats off Jim Brown and the California Bike Coalition for their dedication and persistance to this issue. It was very much on my mind this year as I experienced several close passes by heavy vehicles. With the status quo of "no blood, no foul", these passes were effectively legal, since what constitutes a "safe pass" is so vague.

Here's the text of the bill-now-law, which I'd like to review here. Note I'm an engineer, not a lawyer, so I'm just interpreting the language, without any insight into lawyer-specific knowledge:

SECTION 1. Section 21750 of the Vehicle Code is amended to read: 21750. (a) The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle or a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle or bicycle, subject to the limitations and exceptions set forth in this article. (b) This section shall become inoperative on September 16, 2014, and, as of January 1, 2015, is repealed, unless a later enacted statute, that becomes operative on or before January 1, 2015, deletes or extends the dates on which it becomes inoperative and is repealed.

This seemed an awful like the existing code, so I checked that:

21750. The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle or a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle or bicycle, subject to the limitations and exceptions hereinafter stated.

So it's exactly as it was before until September 16, 2014. So good luck everyone. I hope you survive the next year.

Then things change for the better.

First, 21750 is fixed so it refers only to vehicles: the word "bicycle" is removed (bicycles are not vehicles in California). This is clearly because the "safe distance" language is no longer sufficient for passing bicycles. "Safe" implies "no blood, no foul", which is realistically the present standard. Indeed, even a collision doesn't imply a pass wasn't "safe" under current enforcement.

SEC. 2. Section 21750 is added to the Vehicle Code, to read: 21750. (a) The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle, subject to the limitations and exceptions set forth in this article. (b) This section shall become operative on September 16, 2014.

In the present code, there's 9 sections which follow 21750, providing exceptions: 21751 through 21759. These remain as-is. 21760 is added, as follows:

SEC. 3. Section 21760 is added to the Vehicle Code, to read: 21760. (a) This section shall be known and may be cited as the Three Feet for Safety Act. (b) 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 requirements 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, visibility, and the surface and width of the highway.

So far it really doesn't change much. The "due regard" language should be obvious to anyone who's ridden a bike as an adult. Unfortunately too many police officers, traffic clerks, district attorneys, etc, seem to have no clue about cyclists rights to road, or the realities of riding a bike on the road. This language makes it explicit that the enumerated factors must be considered in establishing a safe passing distance, and therefore the driver can be found at fault for passing with what under ideal circumstances might have been a safe margin.

(c) 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.

This is good. Note the "3 foot margin" applies to any part of the cyclist or bike, not just the bike, not the center of mass of the rider or bike. So this is a good margin. There is the question of what would happen if a driver were passing a cyclist with a 3 foot gap, then the cyclist were to reach out with a hand and reduce the gap below the 3-foot limit. Would that result in the driver being in violation of the law? I think the answer is the driver should leave a buffer over 3 feet to prevent that from occurring.

In the bill from 2011, there was a provision which removed the 3-foot requirement when the car was below a certain speed limit. This was essentially necessary due to the situation near intersections, where typically cars and cyclists are in close proximity. Brown vetoed that version due to what was clear confusion over this quantitative speed threshold (arguing drivers would slam on their brakes and be rear-ended so they would be able to pass a cyclist with a less than 3-foot margin). So instead of a quantitative exemption, there's a fuzzy one:

(d) If the driver of a motor vehicle is unable to comply with subdivision (c), due to traffic or roadway conditions, the driver shall slow to a speed that is reasonable and prudent, and may pass only when doing so would not endanger the safety of the operator of the bicycle, taking into account the size and speed of the motor vehicle and bicycle, traffic conditions, weather, visibility, and surface and width of the highway.

I was initially opposed to fuzzy language, since it takes us back to the "no blood no foul" status quo. Any sub-3-foot pass could be justified on the basis that the "driver was unable to comply". But at least it doesn't provide a simple exemption: it further requires the driver "slow to a speed that is reasonable and prudent", which strongly suggests a typical high-speed buzz cut wouldn't pass muster. This is followed by some fairly strong language about not endangering the safety of the rider, taking into account the previous stuff, including the "width of the highway". So perhaps this language doesn't render the bill impotent, after all.

But a point of weakness of this law versus the previous bills is the removal of the provision formalizing what virtually every driver does when passing cyclists on a 2-lane road with a double yellow line: cross the line. It's obviously safe. Without removing this allowance, which is justified by the fact double yellows are put in place based on the much more dangerous and time-consuming maneuver of passing a full-size motor vehicle, a driver could still close-brush a rider, arguing that it would have been illegal to tough the double yellow even when there's clean line-of-sight ahead and no oncoming traffic. Fortunately drivers are sufficiently scofflaw that they typically ignore the inane double-yellow law, placing safety first.

Here's where it gets really tragic:

(e) (1) A violation of subdivision (b), (c), or (d) is an infraction punishable by a fine of thirty-five dollars ($35). (2) If a collision occurs between a motor vehicle and a bicycle causing bodily injury to the operator of the bicycle, and the driver of the motor vehicle is found to be in violation of subdivision (b), (c), or (d), a two-hundred-twenty-dollar ($220) fine shall be imposed on that driver.

$35 for endangering human life? That's beyond a joke. Even if the driver causes "bodily injury" the fine is only $220, which could be contrasted to the $1000 fine for littering. Stuff like this makes me wish California would split into two. I want nothing to do with the Southern California motorheads responsible for these low fines, a result of negotiations during the 2011 bill.

Then there's that date again: nothing for a year:

(f) This section shall become operative on September 16, 2014.

Then the money thing:

SEC. 4. No reimbursement is required by this act pursuant to Section 6 of Article XIII B of the California Constitution because the only costs that may be incurred by a local agency or school district will be incurred because this act creates a new crime or infraction, eliminates a crime or infraction, or changes the penalty for a crime or infraction, within the meaning of Section 17556 of the Government Code, or changes the definition of a crime within the meaning of Section 6 of Article XIII B of the California Constitution.

So that's it. If I had to rate it 0-5, I'd give it a 3. I'd really really have preferred it with the double-line-crossing language. And I also think allowing drivers to pass cyclists with less than a 3-foot buffer without an explicit speed limit for that sort of pass is insane. But CalBike tried, not once but twice, and the Governor rejected both times. I'll take what I can get. It is a lot better than status quo. I just need to make it through the next year until the 3-foot limit goes into effect.

2 comments:

Rich said...

After the last two, I was sure Brown would object to something in this one and veto it as well. It's pretty toothless but hopefully it'll raise a little awareness. At least it makes clear that buzzing by with 6" clearance is not "safe".

djconnel said...

I completely agree. To me the biggest disappointment is the one-year delay. It's not as if compliance should require any behavior change, since it's obvious less than 3 foot should already be forbidden by virtue of being unsafe. But people will be killed, paralyzed, and injured in that year who deserve the explicit protection of the law. On the other hand, since "safe" is such a vague term, hopefully the mere fact that this bill was passed and signed and will become law in a year will establish 3-foot as a de fact definition of "safe" for passing bicycles. If that is the case, then it can have a positive effect immediately.