Governor Brown vetoes three foot bill: Our thoughts on the matter (Part 1 of 2)

Three feet passing distance. Photo from bikingbis.com.

Late last month, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the three foot passing bill for the second time in as many years.  This bill was authored by Senator Alan Lowenthal and was co-sponsored by the Sacramento based California Bicycle Coalition and the City of Los Angeles.

Dave Snyder, the Executive Director of the California Bicycle Coalition, stated that the purpose of the three-foot passing bill was to,

raise awareness about the importance of giving plenty of distance when passing, helping to improve safety and increase people’s confidence in their safety so that more people can enjoy bicycling on the roads.

This year the governor vetoed the three foot bill but signed two other pieces of legislation into law that will translate into bike safety in the future. However, we believe that in vetoing the three foot bill, the Governor has delayed in providing an immediate safety benefit for the state’s riders.

Existing law in California states that a driver passing a bicycle rider can pass on the left “at a safe distance” without defining what a “safe distance” is. Violation of this provision results in a fine of “$100 for a first conviction, and up to a $250 fine for a 3rd and subsequent conviction occurring within one year of 2 or more prior infractions.” The law however doesn’t specify what a safe distance is, and the purpose of the three foot bill was to mandate a the minimum distance as being three-feet while passing.

The three foot bill that was vetoed both last year and this year specified that the safe passing distance would be defined as three feet. Last year, the bill included language that stated that a driver would have to slow down to 15 mph while passing a rider. The Governor vetoed the bill last year stating (in part):

This bill changes the longstanding law for how motor vehicles should pass a bicycle traveling in the same direction. Current law requires drivers to pass at a safe distance; this bill would specify that the distance must be at least 3 feet or at a speed not exceeding 15mph.

This bill offers some needed and clear improvements to the law such as specifying a minimum buffer of 3 feet. However, Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol have raised legitimate concerns about other provisions such as the 15mph requirement. On streets with speed limits of 35 or 40mph, slowing to 15mph to pass a bicycle could cause rear end collisions. On other roads, a bicycle may travel at or near 15mph creating a long line of cars behind the cyclist.

When the bill’s author, State Senator Alan Lowenthal, reintroduced the three feet passing bill earlier this year, he noted that the bill’s main difference would be the removal of the 15 mph provision that was stated as a reason  for last year’s veto:

Except for one difference, this bill is essentially the same as [last year’s three foot bill], which this committee passed last year 6 to 3 on May 3, 2011, but which the governor ultimately vetoed. The governor indicated in his veto message that he wholeheartedly supports improving bicycle safety, and he believed last year’s bill offered some needed and clear improvements to the law such as specifying a minimum passing buffer of three feet. The only concern the governor raised involved the provision of [last year’s bill] which required passing cars to slow to 15 MPH. The author believes the governor’s concern has been addressed in this bill by replacing the 15 MPH provision with language allowing a passing vehicle, should conditions require, to slow to a reasonable and prudent speed and pass within the three-foot margin.

This year, the bill made it through both legislative houses and wound up on the Governor’s desk only to be vetoed with the following message (in part):

Crossing a double yellow line is an inherently dangerous act that increases the risk of head-on collisions. When a collision occurs, it will result in a lawsuit where the state is likely to be sued as a “deep pocket.” By making it legal to cross a double yellow line, the bill weakens the state’s defense to these lawsuits.

Last year’s bill did include language that would have allowed a driver to cross a double yellow line (if needed to give a rider the three feet of space when passing), but the Governor made no mention of this issue in his veto message last year.

In the U.S. twenty four states have a three foot passing or an equivalent law.  We looked at the language of the laws in each of the states to determine if the language of the existing laws in other states included the sort of language that Governor Brown found objectionable.

 

  1. Arizona (A.R.S. § 28-735): The law specifies the three feet passing distance. Violation of the law resulting in serious physical injury results in a fine of $500, a death results in a civil penalty of up to $1,000.
  2. Arkansas (A.C.A. § 27-51-311): The law specifies the three feet passing distance. The fine for violation starts at $1,000
  3. Colorado (C.R.S. 42-4-1002): The law specifies the three feet passing distance. The fine for violating is a “Class A traffic infraction” which is a fine between $15-$100 with penalty points reported to the Colorado DMV.
  4. Connecticut (Conn. Gen. Stat. § 14-232): The law specifies the three feet passing distance and adds the provision that, “the driver of an overtaken vehicle shall give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle and shall not increase the speed of his vehicle until completely passed by the overtaking vehicle”. The violation of this law results in an infraction.
  5. Delaware (21 Del. C. § 4116): The law specifies the three feet passing distance and adds the provision for drivers to reduce “the speed of the vehicle to a safe speed”. Violation of this law for first time offenders results in a fine between $25 – $75 and subsequent fines cost $57.50 – $95.
  6. District of Columbia (Rule 18-2202.10): The law specifies the three feet passing distance. The law also prevents a driver from passing a bicycle rider on the right side.
  7. Florida (Fla. Stat. § 316.083): The law specifies the three feet passing distance and a violation results in a noncriminal traffic infraction.
  8. Georgia (O.C.G.A. § 40-6-56): The law specifies the three feet passing distance.
  9. Illinois (625 ILCS 5/11-703): The law specifies the three feet passing distance. Violation of this law will result in a Class A misdemeanor “if the violation does not result in great bodily harm or permanent disability or disfigurement to another. If the violation results in great bodily harm or permanent disability or disfigurement to another, the person shall be guilty of a Class 3 felony.”
  10. Kansas (K.S.A. § 8-1516): The law specifies the three feet passing distance and includes the provision that passing in a no-passing zone is allowed only “when it is safe to do so.”
  11. Louisiana (La. R.S. 32:76.1): The law specifies the three feet passing distance and includes the provision that passing in a no-passing zone is allowed only when it is safe to do so.” Violations of this law results in a fee capped at $250.
  12. Maine (29-A M.R.S. § 2070): ): The law specifies the three feet passing distance and includes the provision that passing in a no-passing zone is allowed only “when it is safe to do so.”
  13. Maryland (Md. TRANSPORTATION Code Ann. § 21-1209): This year, Bike Maryland tried to amend the existing three feet law to allow an exception that would allow drivers to cross a solid line to pass– when safe to do so – in order to give riders the three feet of space that is already a law on the books. Violators failing to adhere to the law can expect to receive a $1,000 fine and a three points on the driver’s driving record. This amendment failed and was opposed by the Maryland Department of Transportation on the grounds that the existing law was clear enough and opposed the amendment on the grounds that the law shouldn’t make exceptions for specific types of vehicles. Perhaps in response to Bike Maryland’s effort, MDOT began a publicity campaign to inform drivers to provide riders with three feet of a buffer when passing.
  14. Minnesota (Minn. Stat. § 169.18): The law specifies the three feet passing distance.
  15. Mississippi (Miss. Code Ann. § 63-3-1309): The law specifies the three feet passing distance. The punishment for violating this law is quite detailed: “It is unlawful to harass, taunt or maliciously throw an object at or in the direction of any person riding a bicycle. A person convicted of a violation of this section shall be fined One Hundred Dollars ($100.00) for the first offense, Five Hundred Dollars ($500.00) for the second offense, and a fine of Two Thousand Five Hundred Dollars ($2,500.00) and  imprisonment in the county jail for seven (7) days for the third and subsequent offenses.” (Updated with most current code on 10/23/12)
  16. Nevada (Nev. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 484B.270): The law specifies the three feet passing distance. Violation of the law results in a staggered set of punishments: from monetary fines and community service to imprisonment.
  17. New Hampshire (RSA 265:143-a): The law specifies the three feet passing distance. The law also specifies additional room based on the speed of the vehicle, “The distance shall be presumed to be reasonable and prudent if it is at least 3 feet when the vehicle is traveling at 30 miles per hour or less, with one additional foot of clearance required for every 10 miles per hour above 30 miles per hour.”
  18. Oklahoma (47 Okl. St. §11-1208): The law specifies the three feet passing distance. Violators who cause injury to a rider can expect to pay a fine up to $500. A death can result in a fine of no more than $1,000.
  19. Oregon (ORS § 811.065): The law is fairly detailed and doesn’t specify “3 feet” as a passing distance, but instead states passing at a safe distance where, “safe distance means a distance that is sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the drivers lane of traffic.” The law also requires the drivers to drive at a speed no more than 35 mph when passing and prevents passing in “no passing zones”
  20. Pennsylvania (75 Pa.C.S. § 3303): The law specifies the four feet passing distance and also requires drivers to pass at a “careful and prudent reduced speed”
  21. Rhode Island (R.I. Gen. Laws § 31-15-18): The Rhode Island law  is very similar to Oregan’s law and specifies distance to mean  “a distance that is sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the driver’s lane of traffic”. The law also requires drivers to pass at 15 mph (a provision that ensured the veto of the bill last year by our Governor)
  22. Tennessee (Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-175): The law specifies the three feet passing distance and a violation results in a Class C misdemeanor.
  23. Utah (Utah Code Ann. § 41-6a-706.5): The law does specify passing, but is phrased in terms of endangerment: “[a]n operator of a motor vehicle may not knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly operate a motor vehicle within three feet of a moving bicycle, unless the operator of the motor vehicle operates the motor vehicle within a reasonable and safe distance of the bicycle.
  24. Wisconsin (Wis. Stat. § 346.075): The first state to pass a three foot passing bill back in 1973, the law specifies the three  feet passing distance

On the same day that Governor Brown vetoed the three foot bill, he also signed into law two bills that opened the doors to implementing bike infrastructure quicker. However in terms of safety and legal protection from moving vehicles, the three foot bill would have given an immediate safety benefit to riders that is now being delayed thanks to the veto.

We read what appears to be the only study on three foot laws. In it, the authors concluded that drivers consistently violated the 3-foot passing law on roads that had narrow travel lanes or no bike lanes altogether. The authors recommended legal enforcement to ensure driver compliance of the law and constructing bike lanes “that would engineer out deficiencies in motorist behavior toward cyclists.” Given that most of the nearly 200,000 miles in California do not have bike infrastructure and the reality that striping bike lanes or building separated bike facilities takes time, the passage of the three foot bill was something that would have yielded immediate safety benefits for California’s riders – a goal that the Governor stated he also supports.

Edit: In an earlier version of this post, we mentioned that drivers passed riders on streets with narrow bike lanes. The author of the study, Dr. David Love, contacted us and offered clarification that “decreasing lane widths” in the study referred to narrow vehicle travel lanes and not narrow bike lanes. We regret the error. Below is the specific quote on that subject which also shows that lanes with sharrows do not reduce close passing by drivers, especially when sharrows are placed in the middle of the travel lane:

Bicycle infrastructure was a significant variable (p < 0.0001), explaining 8% of the variance in the VPD model. Compared to standard lanes, bicycle lane streets significantly increased VPD (p < 0.0001), while sharrows did not (p = 0.28) (Fig. 2). Vehicle passes three feet or less were common in standard lanes or sharrows, but not in bicycle lane streets. In standard lanes, 17% of vehicle passes (78 of 451 passes) were three feet or less. In sharrows, 23% of vehicle passes (11 of 47 passes) were three feet or less. None of the 88 passes that occurred in bicycle lane streets were three feet or less.

Part 2 of this write-up will be posted tomorrow.

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