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Give Cyclists 3 Feet: It’s The Law

Posted by: on September, 16 2014

Found on OCRegister.com and written by Morgan Cook

John Greg Colvin was riding his bicycle along the east side of Pacific Coast Highway, heading home to his family, when a car hit from behind, killing him, police said.

Coincidentally, the 55-year-old business executive’s wife and daughter both passed the scene on their drives home after the June 17 collision. Neither of them had any idea the injured cyclist was Colvin.3 foot law

Nothing can bring back the Laguna Beach resident or the approximately dozen bicyclists killed on Orange County roads each year. But friends, family members and fellow cyclists of Colvin and others who have been hurt or killed by vehicles hope a law that goes into effect Tuesday, known as the “three-foot law,” will help prevent more tragedies.

“The three-foot law is absolutely bringing all this positive light on the vulnerability of cyclists and their right to be there,” said Stacy Kline, spokeswoman for the local bicycling club, the Orange County Wheelmen. “It’s time for people to understand you need to change lanes because nobody, no matter how mad they are, wants to run over cyclists.”

The new law requires drivers leave at least three feet of space when passing a bicyclist or slow down to a “reasonable and prudent” speed and wait for a chance to pass safely. There’s a $35 fine for violating the law and a $220 fine if there is a collision and the bicyclist gets hurt. With court fees, fines are about $230 and $960, respectively, according to the California Bicycle Coalition.

About two dozen states have a similar three-foot law.

California long has required drivers to provide a safe distance when passing bicyclists, but the new law provides a “bright line” so that everyone – drivers, bicyclists, law enforcement and the courts – knows the minimum distance the law considers safe, supporters of the law said.

Santa Ana police Sgt. Norm Gielda said police plan to do extra enforcement to encourage bicyclist and pedestrian safety. But he acknowledged that enforcing the three-foot law may be easier said than done.

“I think it’s going to be a challenge enforcing this because of the vagueness in the law and the judgment call required on the part of the officer,” Gielda said. “If it’s going to be to that close of an outside measurement, it’s going to be a tough call.”

Huntington Beach police Sgt. David Dereszynski said that after the law takes effect, police will conduct extra enforcement on roads such as Beach Boulevard, where there is no bike lane but many bicyclists share the road. Starting out, officers will give violators warnings instead of citations and will explain the law.

“We want to educate the public first and give people an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the law before we start (writing tickets),” Dereszynski said.

“Nothing absolves the bicyclist from following the rules of the road as well, but if everybody does their part they can get where they’re going safely,” Dereszynski added.


Although Kline and other bicyclists praised the law as a step in the right direction, they say it doesn’t go far enough to protect bicyclists.

“Frankly, we think the law should have said that you have to change lanes and pass them with a full lane change,” said Bill Sellin, a bicycle enthusiast and founding member of the Bicycle Club of Irvine. Sellin said the law also doesn’t allow drivers to cross a double yellow line to give bicyclists space, nor does it set a specific speed differential that qualifies as “reasonable and prudent.”

“If you pass them at 5 to 10 mph, that’s a reasonable and prudent speed,” said Deputy Michael Matranga of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Regional Traffic Bureau. “The deputy or officer on the street is going to make that judgment call.”

Matranga said that, unless there is a collision, a law enforcement officer must witness a driver violating the law in order to cite the driver.

For Peter Van Nuys, executive director for the Orange County Bicycle Coalition, the new law gives drivers too much wiggle room to justify passing too close to bicyclists and at too fast a speed.

“It doesn’t make any difference from the previous law,” he said. “It’s a feel-good law.

“The only thing we can hope is that, given the average motorists complete ignorance of the California Vehicle Code, that the idea of 3 feet will somehow stick in their mind,” he said.

But bicyclists need to know and follow the state’s traffic laws, too, Sellin and Van Nuys agreed.

“Put yourself in the line of traffic so drivers see you as traffic, use signals and obey traffic laws,” Sellin advised bicyclists. “And once you start learning to ride your bicycle that way, you are part of traffic instead of a possible victim of traffic.”

When drivers don’t respect bicyclists’ right to ride in normal traffic and bicyclists don’t obey traffic laws, it contributes to a dangerous us-versus-them mentality, bicyclists said.

“They (drivers) scream at us to get on the sidewalk, and then you see bicyclists riding against traffic on the wrong side of the street,” Sellin said. “And those are the people who make people point at them and say, ‘Bicyclists are really bad drivers, too.’ But let’s separate the problem from the people.”


Regardless of who is at fault in a collision between a vehicle and a bicyclist, the bicyclist is almost always the one who ends up hurt or dead, according to traffic statistics compiled by the California Highway Patrol.

In 2012, the most recent year for which data were available, there were 1,256 collisions involving motor vehicles and bicycles in Orange County. Thirteen bicyclists were killed and 1,264 were injured. Five pedestrians and two motorcyclists also were injured in the collisions.

Bicyclists were listed as the “party at fault” in 827 of the motor vehicle-bicycle collisions, including 10 of the 13 fatal collisions. The party at fault was listed as the motorist or was not identified in the other collisions.

In collisions where the bicyclist was at fault, the most common cause was a bicyclist riding in a different direction than the flow of traffic, data showed.

When drivers were at fault, the most common cause listed was unsafe turning.

At least 11 of the the total 1,256 collisions were attributed to “improper passing,” according to an Orange County Register analysis of CHP data. The 11 collisions killed one bicyclist and injured another 11.

Three of the 11 “improper passing” collisions were caused by bicyclists, and drivers caused seven and the party at fault was unknown in one.


For bicyclists, law enforcement agencies and transportation officials alike, the new three-foot law is an opportunity to educate people about safety.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles will update its drivers handbook, making the law part of education for all new drivers. The Orange County Transportation Authority has an educational outreach campaign underway, and law enforcement agencies have been training officers.

Bicyclists also have launched campaigns to get the word out, piggybacking on the start of the new law to encourage drivers to change lanes altogether when passing bicyclists.

Stacy Kline said her husband, Greg, and graphic artist Keri Caffrey designed a bumper sticker that says, “Change lanes to pass a bicyclist” to promote safety as the new three-foot law takes effect. The Orange County Wheelmen paid to print 3,000 copies.

The Klines’ hope is that educating drivers will reduce preventable collisions like the one that killed their friend, Matthew O’Neill, last month in Santa Maria.

“Our one simple message is, ‘Change lanes to pass a bicycle and it won’t happen again,”’ Stacy Kline said.