What Does 3 Feet for Safety Mean?

Last month Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1371, a three foot passing bill that requires drivers to pass bikes with three feet or greater clearance. The bill has had some people wondering what it means for them. The good news is that for the overwhelming majority of drivers, this law doesn’t require any changes in their driving behavior.

In my experience riding my bike around Silicon Valley on a daily basis, most drivers pass me safely, giving me more than 3 feet clearance. Safe drivers know that passing anything on the roadway closer than three feet, whether it’s someone standing on the sidewalk, a parked car, or even a lamp post, is risky if their car is moving faster than a crawl. And if what they’re passing is moving too, like another car or someone on a bike, safe drivers allow even more room. Both drivers and bicyclists often make small adjustments to maneuver around potholes, avoid people stepping out of cars, or react to other unexpected road conditions. A bigger buffer keeps everyone safer.

So what exactly are the provisions of the bill? The bill enacts the Three Feet for Safety Act, which prohibits the drivers from passing bicycles moving in the same direction “at a distance of less than 3 feet between any part of the motor vehicle and any part of the bicycle or its operator.” That means three feet between the car’s rear view mirror, not the body of the car, and the bicycle’s handlebars or rider’s elbow.

The act also requires drivers to pass “at a safe distance that does not interfere with the safe operation of the overtaken bicycle, having due regard for the size and speed of the motor vehicle and the bicycle, traffic conditions, weather, and the surface and width of the highway.” In other words, large trucks traveling at high speeds that could create a dangerous draft would be required to give more clearance than a small car at lower speeds that doesn’t create a wind draft.

If three feet clearance is not possible due to traffic or roadway conditions, the act allows the vehicle to pass closer if the driver slows to a speed that is “reasonable and prudent” and doesn’t “endanger the safety of the operator of the bicycle” as described above.

As a driver, how do you know how far three feet is? It’s about how much room you need between parked cars to exit yours without hitting the other car. In other words, roughly a car door’s width.

Another thing the Three Feet for Safety Act does is clarify when a lane is too narrow for a car and a bike to travel safely in the same lane. This is important because bicyclists are not required to ride on the right-hand side of the road when a lane is too narrow, per CVC 20122. If the right lane is “too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane” then people may ride their bikes in the middle of the lane to ensure that drivers change lanes to pass instead of passing too closely in the same lane.

There are streets in Mountain View where there are parked cars on the right and the lane is not wide enough to allow three feet of “door zone” clearance between the parked car and the bicyclist, plus three feet between the bicyclist and a passing vehicle. That’s why you’ll sometimes see people riding in the middle of the lane, especially on the narrow streets downtown. It’s perfectly legal for narrow lanes, and it discourages drivers from unsafely squeezing past.

But once again, the vast majority of drivers pass safely because they know the potential for injury. The Three Feet for Safety Act just spells it out for the dangerous few who don’t.

Will the Three Feet for Safety Act change how you drive or ride a bike? Will it make you feel safer riding a bike? Will it change your behavior when you drive?

Categories: Bike Safety | Leave a comment

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