New California Law: Share the Road With Cyclists Or Pay a Fine

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California drivers will now be cited and fined if they do not adequately “Share the Road’ with cyclists. The Three Feet for Safety Act became state law this week and the law requires that drivers give cyclists a three-foot buffer zone before attempting to pass. Motorists caught violating the law face a $35 fine. Further, if a driver enters the “buffer zone” and a collision with a cyclist occurs the fine is increased to at least $220. The collision fine of $220 does not include court fees, which, according to the California Bicycle Coalition range between $230 to close to $1,000.

According to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the Three Feet for Safety Act mandates that motorists attempting to overtake and pass a bicycle traveling in the same direction have to maintain a “safe distance” that does not interfere with the cyclist’s operation of the bicycle. This distance has been set at a minimum of three feet. In addition, motorists must take into account the size of their vehicle, the size of the bicycle, the current traffic conditions including variables that affect visibility and other factors, which include weather and the road conditions.

In the event that a three foot buffer zone is not an option when attempting to pass a cyclist, motorists must slow their vehicle to a speed that is “reasonable and prudent” and wait for a “safe” opportunity to pass. Additional language clarifying the parameters of “reasonable and prudent” is not included in the law.

In addition to a Bicycle Safety Coalition, California has a well-developed “Share the Road” campaign. The campaign represents an ongoing effort to educate drivers and cyclists about the need to share road space in a cooperative manner to increase safety. The campaign includes not only educational information for drivers but also information for cyclists on road rules, biking etiquette and safety measures.

However, despite the Share the Road campaign, there exists a good deal of resentment between cyclists and motorists and while the new California law may serve to force drivers to create a buffer zone, it is likely to do very little to ameliorate the tensions that exist as a result of the two transportation methods. While it is a given that motorists are concerned with cyclist safety, there is also the issue of whether cyclists have an “own the road” mentality which causes motorists to experience a certain frustration and resentment that can lead to, if not “road rage” than at least “cyclist rage.”

Many of the comments made on media reports about the new law illustrate these frustrations. For example, one comment on a Los Angeles Times report reads, “The more laws you pass encouraging bicyclists to challenge cars over who rules the road, the more callous rogue cyclists will become.” On an Orange County Register report, a commenter wrote, “Another unenforceable law on the books. What if I give the biker 3 feet and he moves closer to me? Sad that the government thinks it can legislate common sense.” Still others following the “green” perspective accuse drivers of not taking into account that every bike on the road is one less car and they should appreciate the lack of a carbon footprint that cyclists represent.

It is true that many cyclists on the road do seem to have an “own the road” mentality, which causes not just frustration, but also safety issues. It is also true that some motorists, whether it is intentional or not, do not consider the vulnerable position that cyclists are in while riding in traffic. The overarching truth is that the safety of cyclists, pedestrians and motorists is a priority.

The new California law was put in place to enforce “Share the Road” commonsense. The law will allow California Highway Patrol to ticket motorists for not minding the three-foot buffer zone, but cyclists would do well to adopt a cooperative attitude and make the same effort to keep a three-foot buffer zone between themselves and vehicles. In this way, both drivers and cyclists can increase safety and decrease the number of bicycle related accidents. This level of cooperative effort, more than the legislated $35 fine, would serve to increase safety as well as to diffuse the current level of tension that exists between motorists and cyclists.

Opinion by Alana Marie Burke


California Department of Motor Vehicles
California Bicycle Coalition
Marin County Bicycle Coalition
Los Angeles Times
Orange County Register