Proposed California bill aims to protect bike riders

Assembly Bill 60, introduced by Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, would prohibit drivers from passing cyclists unless their vehicle stays at least 3 feet from the bike.

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Published January 28, 2007 by TheReporter.com
By Edwin Garcia/MediaNews Sacramento

Gladwyn d'Souza of Belmont takes the usual precautions when preparing for a bike ride: He wears a bright yellow jacket, affixes a mirror to the handlebars and hangs a reflective triangle from his seat.

Once on the road, he constantly veers right, to avoid being "sucked in" by the vacuum created by trucks that pass too fast, too close.

But d'Souza, 51, and other cyclists may pedal with less angst if the Legislature adopts a measure intended to keep motorists from driving too close to bicycles. Assembly Bill 60, introduced by Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, would prohibit drivers from passing cyclists unless their vehicle stays at least 3 feet from the bike.

"What it does, is, it says if a driver passes you close, and there's a police car nearby, they can pull them over," said d'Souza, who rides 70 miles a week and advises the city of San Jose on bicycle issues for the task force studying development in Coyote Valley. "It's a step in the right direction."

The measure is gaining traction among serious cyclists and also parents whose children ride bikes to school. Still, it faces an uphill climb from the same forces that helped defeat Nava's similar bill last year.

Opponents, including the Teamsters Union, worry that drivers forced to swerve around cyclists would place themselves on a collision course with oncoming traffic, especially on narrow roads.

"The bill puts drivers, particularly commercial drivers, in a very difficult place since you're expected to keep a certain distance from bicyclists, and bicyclists are not required to keep a certain distance from you," said Barry Broad, a lobbyist for the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council.

"What happens when the bicycle comes up by you, and gets too close to you," Broad said. "What are you supposed to do, get a ticket?"

Nava introduced the measure after the death of 21-year-old Kendra Chiota Payne, a University of California-Santa Barbara triathlete who was struck by a passing truck while training along the side of a road.

"That was a situation that just cried out for some kind of relief," said Nava, a former prosecutor, adding that six states already have similar buffer laws.

The number of injury accidents caused by bike-car collisions have generally declined since at least 1999, according to the California Highway Patrol. The most recent statistics, from January 2006 through September 2006 showed 7,759 injury collisions, and 114 cyclist fatalities.

It is not known how many of those collisions result from motor vehicles passing bicycles. Under existing law, a driver overtaking a bicycle in the same direction is required to pass to the left at a "safe distance," or face fines of up to $250.

Under the proposed law, a driver passing a cyclist in the same direction must keep "a minimum of three feet," without interfering with the safe operation of the bicycle. Violators would face a $250 ticket. The measure also allows a motorist to swerve away from the bike and cross the double-yellow line into a center turn lane. Under existing law, that center lane can only be used to make left turns and, in some places, U-turns.

But driver safety groups worry that using the center lane for passing could lead to head-on collisions.

"You can conceivably get into a situation where you've got bicycle traffic on both sides of the roads, and you've got two drivers in the center lane," said AAA of Northern California spokesman Sean Comey. "You can have two vehicles accelerating toward each other in the same lane, in the opposite direction."

AAA of Northern California opposed the measure last year but hasn't taken a stance this time. "Ultimately we share the goal of trying to decrease injuries and deaths," Comey said. "It's just a question of how you achieve that goal."

The previous measure failed in the Assembly Transportation Committee in April when five Republicans opposed the bill, two Democrats favored it – and six Democrats didn't vote.

Republicans are likely to fight the measure again.

"I think this is a bill in search of a problem," said Assemblyman Guy Houston, R-Livermore. "I think you can make an argument that it would degrade safety for automobile drivers if you start going into ongoing traffic."

Nava said opponents should use common sense: "I'm not asking anybody, with this bill, to drive head first into a semi."

He's encouraged by similar buffer laws in Arizona, Utah, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Florida. "And if those states have figured it out," Nava said, "we should, too."

Nava believes the bill stands a better chance now that a crucial factor is riding in his favor: He was recently appointed chairman of the transportation committee.