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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

More on AB 60: 3-foot passing legislation

Image of motorist passing a bicyclistLate last month I wrote about AB 60, a bill by California Assembly Member Pedro Nava to require a 3-foot minimum passing distance by cars overtaking bicyclists. My opinion is that this bill will offer negligible improvement for bicyclists, and is a distraction from more pressing priorities. AB 60 is a trifling piece of legislation for California's bicycling community, which has many legislative needs and, sadly, minimal political clout.

AB 60 will have its first committee hearing on January 4. Most of California's bicyclists are blissfully unaware of AB 60, reflecting the general indifference to politics afflicting most of the state's residents. Bike legislation rarely makes headlines, especially when lacking a strong advocacy push. Media coverage for AB 60, apart from a news article and an editorial from the Sacramento Bee, has been scarce.

However, among many politicized bicyclists in San Francisco and elsewhere, the bill has initiated considerable discussion. Support seems to be mixed, and largely informed by the level of political development of the respective bicycling localities.

Jim Baross of San Diego posted to listserves for the California Bicycle Coalition and CABO:

A 3-foot space is an arbitrarily derived distance. It's not enough in some cases and unnecessarily wide in others. A pre-determined minimum passing distance does VERY LITTLE to address hit-from-behind collisions; the kind of crash that apparently set off this legislative effort... overtaking collisions are the most feared but also the least frequent of collisions bicyclists get involved in.

Passing a new law about a 3-foot minimum passing distance MIGHT get the attention of some motorists, and might discourage their likelihood of attempting to pass us too closely but the driver who hits a bicyclist from behind isn't going to be deterred or even effected by a this law -- that the driver didn't see the bicyclist AT ALL! Besides, it's going to take a significant legislative effort to pass this legislation. I don't think it's worth it.
An important point about the likely political course of AB 60 came from Jym Dyer of San Francisco, who reminded bicyclists of AB 60's predecessor bill in a post to several listserves:
One troubling aspect of the wrangling over AB 1941 (similar bill to AB 60 that failed in committee during 2006) is that some politicos pulled the "if you get something, you have to give something up" game. One version of the bill had rules enforcing single-file riding and language to make bicyclists at fault for such things as not being in a bike lane. That sort of thing is unconscionable when a bill is about saving lives. Thankfully, we didn't stand for it then, and we must not stand for it now.
A handful of bicyclists indicated minimal support for AB 60, on the grounds that it is "better than nothing" or "a good start." I replied to one such comment on the SFBIKE listserve:
Sadly, the idea that "ANY bill is better than NO bill" is a recipe for failure. My objection isn't so much about this specific 3-foot minimum passing legislation, which offers, at best, negligible improvement for bicyclists. Motorists shape their driving behavior according to their "needs" and prevailing conditions, not minutia in the vehicle code.

My objection is more about why this bill at all? Why wasn't this well-meaning legislator guided by advocates to a more meaningful reform (say increasing funding for the BTA)? Why does California's sizeable bicycling community have so little political muscle in the state capital, despite notable success at the local level in many communities? Having close experience with the situation, my opinion is it's about the difference between STRATEGIC and OPPORTUNISTIC.

A STRATEGIC advocacy organization solicits member involvement and feedback, discusses options with allied organizations, analyzes the political landscape, establishes clear priorities, identifies and pursues resources needed to achieve priorities--and offers a proactive legislative and activist agenda for advancing bicycling. A strategic bicycle advocacy organization focuses on building the political strength of its constituency, not on diversions.

Lacking any strategic sense of what its priorities should be, an organization becomes vulnerable to OPPORTUNISM--leaping on whatever project might assist the group in the short term. Frankly, CBC's involvement with AB 60 smacks of opportunism. It's always easier to join policymakers's efforts for greater state repression than to lead or push them in an expansive direction. Where does this bill fit into an overall strategic vision for bicycling in California? Or is it simply this year's "feel good" measure?
In the dubious event that AB 60 becomes law, I and many bicyclists, and most motorists, will simply shrug our shoulders and sigh, "whatever." We can do better than AB 60.

Image: Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center
See: Assemblymember Pedro Nava
See: California Bicycle Coalition
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site


Yokota Fritz said...

What's your opinion of the "Share the Road" license plate campaign?

Paul Dorn said...

"Share the Road" licenses are symbolic, not practical. They will have minimal postive impact for bicyclists.

However, in the right context, symbolic victories are not bad things. A strategic organization could win many "symbolic" victories as it builds strength and membership on its way toward greater practical victories. Harvest the "low-hanging" fruit first, so to speak.

The great challenge facing California bicyclists, IMHO, is that we do NOT get an equitable or representative share of state transportation funding. (See the recent reduction in the Bicycle Transportation Account, or the absence of any significan funding for bicycles in the recent state bond measure, Proposition 1B.

This additional money could be used to fund a range of pro-bicycling activities: bike lanes, parking, multimodal access, bike maps, signage, education, whatever. We need a strong advocate in state government to fight for our share.

Sadly, we lack that strong advocate at present. That's my primary objection to bills like AB 60 or the "share the road" license plates. Where's the substantive legislation? Where's the plan or strategy to win greater "on the street" improvements?

Unknown said...

True, the proposed 3-ft rule won't change much out on the road. I still support it if only because it provides police with a specific law they can charge motorists with who are seen "buzzing" cyclists. It also can be used as part of an education campaign. Imagine a billboard showing a car and bike side by side, with the slogan, "Three feet minimum. It's the law."

Anonymous said...

I'm an attorney in Oakland ( who repesents injured bicyclists. Increased transportation funding for bicyclists is great, but is not the only thing needed. Increased safety is also needed and should be a regulatory priority. I'm working on a case right now where the car hit the bicyclist from behind precisely because the driver tried to pass with less than 3 feet separation on a one lane road, where there was insufficient room for a safe pass in the first place. When the car suddenly pulled up next to the bike, the cyclist apparently wobbled her front wheel to the left out of fright, causing the driver to freak out, hit the brake and slam into the back wheel of bike. The cyclist sustained a concussion, a partially disclocated jaw joint and sprains to her neck, back and right knee. The local police in Concord put the fault on the cyclist for veering to the left. In deposition the driver admitted she was 1.5 feet next to the bike, when she decided to pass, so the front wheel wobble occurred within that space. If the police were forced to apply a 3 foot rule they would have necessarily found the driver at fault for invading the 3 foot bubble, and they would have disregarded the front wheel wobble as a panic reaction to car violating the cyclist's rights that did not cause the crash. For the many situations where there simply is not enough space on the left of the bike for a wide car to pass more than 3 feet to the left, the only legal thing the driver can do is not pass. How wonderful is that! We would have a law legislating drivers to be patient. In my client's case the road widened from 1 to 3 lanes about 500 feet from the area of impact. Had the driver not tried to pass, she would have taken the left (#1) lane to go to Starbucks, and my client would have taken the right (#3) lane to continue on her way to work that morning. I support the NAVA bill both for its content and as a precedent for legislating protection of bicyclists using the roadway. Such laws would FORCE drivers to start looking for bikes or face consequences. Harvey Hyman

David B. said...

Now, I am not from California, or even the United States, but rather a rural community in Nova Scotia, Canada...I've had motorists pass me so close, it was either I move onto the shoulder, or I get a mirror in the back with the motorist moving at 80Km/h (50Mph) or more while I'm already doing AT LEAST half that...also I've had them not pass me, but rather be in the oncoming lane, passing another motorist, and nearly having a head on with them, and for what? Me following the local traffic laws and staying in my own lane while some asinine motorist decides to pass another motorist moving in the opposite direction that I am, and risk having a head on? And not only that, but the most recent one came so close to hitting me, I was once again on the shoulder and heading for the 5' deep ditch, and still only had inches to spare (the shoulders of the road around here are between 2' and 3' wide, and I still was running out of room!) Rural roads, although fewer encounters, are by far more dangerous than city roads, higher speeds, fewer "safe places" and if it's a hit-and-run, depending on the specific collision, you're dead before anyone else even knows it happened, because often there is only you and the offending motorist...

Anonymous said...

The below wuz reported on the Oklahoma bicycling Socienty's Yahoo list last year

"I try and follow and otherwise keep up with what is happening across the country as pertains to bicycling road use "advocacy"

I support and maintain memberships in a number of bicyclist's advocacy
groups; my favorite is my "home state's" group, Maine's BCM

...........from a bicycling friendly state prospective, they (Maine) claim to be nationally 3rd!

Three (3) foot passing rules have been a popular item nationally over the past year; ostensible lack of enforcement thereof in many cases has been more of a bitching exercise than anything else

In the Summer 2009 issue of the the "Maine Cyclist", BCM's newsletter, the below is reported; knot only a traffic citation for the three foot violation butt a criminal complaint of "endangerment"

“Brunswick Police Cite Motorist for 'Three-Foot" Violation

Brunswick police may have issued the state's first citation under a state law that requires motorists to give three feet of clearance when passing bicyclists. The motorist allegedly passed two bicyclists on the afternoon of
April 12 on Maine Street in Brunswick and struck one of them in the arm with his sports utility vehicle, then stopped and told them they shouldn't be in the road.

The bicyclists reported the incident to police. The motorist received a $137 traffic ticket for failure to use due care when passing a bicyclist, said
Lt. Mark Waltz of the Brunswick Police Department. That is a violation also known as the "three-foot law." Waltz said police also charged the motorist with driving to endanger, a criminal offense.”

BCM Summer 2009 Newsletter, p.6