New law sure to challenge drivers, cyclists

By Peggy Spear on October 7, 2013

jennifer jay_for websiteIt’s ironic to think of the gently sloping roads along the lush foothills of Mt. Diablo as a war zone. But that’s what they become sometimes as cyclists and cars jockey for position, resulting in altercations ranging from an errant middle finger to dangerous collisions.

Now, a new bill signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last month hopes to put the brakes on motorists who would drive too closely to cyclists.

Known as the “Three Feet for Safety Act” – or the “three-feet rule” – AB 1371 requires motorists to give bicyclists a three feet cushion on all roads. It will go into effect Sept. 16, 2014.

“This is a common sense measure to protect cyclists on our roads,” said Assembly Member Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), who authored the bill. “This bill is a great reminder that we all have to work together to keep our roads safe for all users.”

For Clayton cyclist Jennifer Jay, it’s all about working together – and that doesn’t happen enough, she says.

“People are rude,” Jay says of drivers along Marsh Creek and Morgan Territory Roads. “Sometimes they even throw things at you.”

Yet drivers often say that cyclists hog the roads, backing up traffic, darting in front of them and causing safety issues for drivers.

Walnut Creek resident Kristen Giatzis lives off of Northgate Road, a popular route for cyclists traveling up Mt. Diablo. She says that she doesn’t see that cyclists share the roads well at all.

“On Northgate Road, I see many cyclists spreading out into the oncoming lane,” she says. “It’s dangerous because there are a lot of blind curves and gravel shoulders.”

What Giatzis sees as encroachment may be a simple safety maneuver, Jay says. “It’s dangerous for cyclists to ride on gravel, so that’s why we stay on the paved roads.”

According to the National Highway Safety Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation, 677 pedal cyclists were killed in 2011. More than 48,000 cyclists were injured that same year, constituting two percent of people injured in car accidents and marking a nine percent increase in injuries from 2010.

Jay says she doesn’t know how effective the “three-feet rule” will be, but that anything that reminds drivers to share the roads with cyclists is good.

3-feet vs. double yellow

This is not the first time a law protecting cyclists has come up in the Legislature. Similar bills have failed five times. Some earlier bills gave drivers explicit permission to cross a double yellow line if required to observe the three-feet rule. Those bills, however, did not make it past the Governor who was said to have safety concerns about the liability of an accident were to occur.

Bradford’s bill does not give permission for drivers to cross a double yellow line.

In AB 1371, they took out specific references regarding both the double yellow line and the speed limit in order to make a safer bill.

One of the concerns that Jay and other cyclists have is enforcement of the bill. Failing to comply with the three-feet clearance would result in a $35 base fine, with extra fees increasing the fine to $154. Additionally, if a motorist collides with a cyclist and injures them, the fine would be $220, according to Bradford’s staff.

But, says Jay, “I’m not going to carry a measuring stick on my bike and call the cops whenever a driver gets too close.”

Vehicle Code applies to both drivers and cyclists

On narrow, winding roads, like Marsh Creek and Morgan Territory where a double yellow line can run for miles, it can be impossible to pass a bicycle with a three-foot cushion. A lane is only 12 feet wide; a cyclist riding in the lane and not on the shoulder will extend at least two feet into the lane. A small car is six feet wide and a SUV is almost eight feet wide. Add the required three feet cushion, and it is impossible to pass without crossing the double yellow line.

In these cases, drivers must stay behind the cyclist until it is clear that it is safe to pass or the cyclist moves off the road.

The law requires a vehicle that is moving slower than the flow of traffic to pull over at the first safe opportunity if it is holding up five cars. According to Clayton Police Department officer Allen White, cyclists are subject to the same vehicle laws as all other vehicles on the road.

“If I’m driving behind a line of slow traffic and see that a bicycle is holding things up, I’ll give him a couple of opportunities to pull over and let the traffic go by,” White says. “If he doesn’t, I’ll cite him.”

It all comes down to common sense – whether you are cycling or driving, Jay says. “I don’t tend to ride where there isn’t room for cars to pass. If a bicycle is going uphill, like to the top of Morgan Territory or Mount Diablo, it is difficult for a cyclist to start again on a steep uphill and to also clip out of my pedals on a steep uphill,” she says. “I’d fall over and get run over. I can’t stop until I get to a level part of the hill. Drivers need to be patient. A minute of slowing down won’t kill them since they are in a car.”

She also says that cyclists need to use common sense and courtesy as well and ride single file on one-lane roads so that cars can pass. “I try to be aware of my surroundings at all times. And I don’t ride during busy times. It’s pretty basic – like you learned when you first learned to ride a bike.”

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