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

Part one of this post is here.

Do regions that have a high bike mode share (where a high percentage of their residents ride a bicycle for transportation) have such a thing as a safe passing law?

We researched what the laws were like in the Netherlands (a country with a high bike mode share) and learned that there are some roads in the Netherlands that do not have any bike infrastructure. While the Netherlands has no notion of a safe passing law, they do have a legal concept that work really well which is penalizing what the Dutch call “careless driving”. Careless driving includes driving close to a group of school chidlren at 30 mph (which is the limit in most Dutch municipalities). Fines are very steep for careless driving. Attorney (and rider) Bob Mionske has written on this subject articulating how the Dutch differ in their approach on who is considered to be at fault in car/bike collisions:

The Dutch have a different approach. Instead of shielding drivers and their insurance companies from the consequences of careless driving, Dutch law shields cyclists. If a cyclist is involved in a collision with a driver, the cyclist does not have to prove that the driver was negligent. Dutch law begins with the assumption that the driver is at fault. If the cyclist was the person at fault, the Dutch driver must prove that with evidence. Under Dutch law, the burden of proof has been shifted from the injured cyclist to the driver—which is exactly as it should be.

Why? The driver is physically protected by a steel cage, and the cyclist is not. Also, when the driver is legally shielded from the consequences of careless driving, there is little incentive to be careful while operating a motor vehicle. The result: 630 cyclists were killed on American roads in 2009 alone, and more than 50,000 were injured. As the Dutch have discovered, when the law requires the driver to prove that the cyclist was at fault, drivers become more careful. A lot more careful. And that is a law we can all live with

In Belgium (a country that has 8% bicycle mode share – the U.S. has hovered around 1% for years) the “rights of cyclists” state the following:

Een chauffeur moet minstens één meter zijdelingse afstand houden tussen zijn voertuig en de fietser.

or in English, “A driver must keep at least one meter (~3ft) of distance between his vehicle and the cyclist.”

Back home in California, Governor Brown in his veto message this year stated that the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) had attempted to propose a solution but that the author of the bill (Lowenthal) didn’t accept this solution. We do not know what this solution was nor while this solution wasn’t made public or accepted by the author. The bill was eventually vetoed based on the bill’s language that would have allowed drivers to cross a double yellow line to pass a rider.

This year Maryland also experienced the defeat of a similar safe passing bill bill that wanted to permit drivers to cross double yellow lines in order to allow riders the three foot buffer.

Three feet passing distance. Photo from bikingbis.com.

The Maryland state-based bike advocacy group proposed a very similar solution, as the California state bike advocacy group did with language that would have allowed drivers to cross a double yellow line when passing riders. The bill in Maryland was opposed by the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT) on the grounds they didn’t want exceptions based on certain types of vehicles. Perhaps in an attempt to ensure that the drivers in the state were aware of the state’s existing three foot passing law, MDOT undertook a public safety campaign to ensure that all residents were made aware of the law.

As of today, California does have an existing safe passing law that states that passing should be done (in part)

at a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle or bicycle.

The law does not specify what the distance for safe passing should be. For someone who rides a bicycle, being passed at a close distance by motorized vehicles is physically destabilizing and can increase the risk of a collision of a rider with traffic or a parked vehicle. Allowing space between a rider and vehicular traffic can result in making the riding environment more pleasant. Absent bike infrastructure that provides that dedicated safe space to ride, a three foot buffer would be the bare minimum that would create that buffer of safety.

We see two possible solutions that can be implemented immediately in light of this veto by the Governor:

  1. Ensuring that drivers are made aware of the dangers of unsafe passing by means of a public safety campaign. Caltrans as our state-based transportation agency should take a lead on this iniative.
  2. Ensuring that drivers that do strike riders are penalized with either driving privileges removed or steep fines that will ensure compliance far better than any public safety campaign ever could. Further more, the burden of proof on who is a bigger dangerous on our roadways must shift to the driver.

Perhaps next year, the bill’s language could be modified to be more along the lines of the law in Oregon: allowing no passing in no-passing zones (that have roads with solid dividing lines) along with defining what “safe distance” means. This along with a campaign to make the public aware of the issue along with potential costs for violation can then, can be a bill that the Governor can sign into law.

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