A new law aimed at making it safer to ride a bicycle went into effect in California on Tuesday, requiring motorists to keep a 3-foot buffer when passing cyclists.
A long-standing law required drivers passing cyclists to maintain a safe distance, but it failed to define how big that space had to be. Now California joins 24 other states that have similar laws.
The law doesn’t require motorists to stay behind cyclists until a narrow road ends or widens; it allows a driver to pass within 3 feet if he or she slows to a safe speed.
Bike advocates say they hope the law will reduce accidents and ease tension between cyclists and drivers who share urban and rural roads.
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“More and more Californians are discovering that bikes are an easy, healthy and fun way to get around, but it’s unnecessarily dangerous when a motorist passes too closely,” said Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition.
Local reaction was mixed.
Margie Machado called the law good but “unenforceable.”
In a response to a post on The Modesto Bee’s Facebook page, Machado said, “I have ridden my bicycle clear across the USA. Most drivers are courteous! I wear bright colors, have a light on my bike flashing, travel with traffic. It is my responsibility to be as safe as I can. That said, I have been flipped off by gentlemen who might have had to tap their brakes to get around on a narrow road. The roads are not race tracks.”
Sarah Meyers said she sees both sides of the issue. “I’ll be riding as close to the shoulder as I can, but drivers still drive so close to me that I could reach in their car and shake their hand if I wanted to,” she said. “Also, as a driver, I do see the idiots going against traffic laws.”
Mavela Mora suggested a team approach. “Even without this law, it is common courtesy to allow a safe space around cyclists,” she said. “The common courtesy should go both ways. Cyclists should practice safe riding. We need to work together on avoiding fatalities.”
In 2012, 153 bicyclists died in accidents – solo and in collisions with autos – statewide, a 7 percent increase from the previous year, state data show. Those deaths accounted for 5 percent of the total collision fatalities in California in 2012.
At the end of August, a reader shared with The Modesto Bee a video on YouTube of his close call while cycling east of Oakdale. Diego Hernandez of Riverbank said the Highway 108-120 route out to Knights Ferry typically is “a joy to ride.” But Aug. 29, “despite the numerous signs posted ‘Share the Road,’ this driver didn’t care. The driver of a Dodge Pickup Truck 2500 hauling a cattle trailer decided my life was less valuable than five seconds of his time, and I nearly died.”
The bike-mounted camera shows Hernandez generally staying to the right of the solid white line at the road’s edge, but the truck’s trailer crossing that line while passing Hernandez at a spot where there was almost no shoulder to the highway.
Bike crashes are especially risky for youngsters 5 to 14, who are more likely to be seen in hospital emergency rooms for injures related to cycling than for any other sport, according to Safekids.org.
The fine for violating the 3-foot rule is $35, plus court costs, which can amount to about $200. If a bicyclist is injured, however, the basic fine rises to $233, plus court costs that can be as high as $780.
The CHP says it’s prepared to enforce the law but is not gearing up for any big crackdown or ticket-writing campaign to catch motorists a few inches inside the 3-foot space.