Wider berth for California bicyclists sought to cut road deaths

A Santa Barbara assemblyman is fighting to change California state law — by 36 inches.

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Published December 18, 2006 by the Sacramento Bee
By Jim Sanders

A Santa Barbara assemblyman is fighting to change state law — by 36 inches.

Democrat Pedro Nava, in memory of a 21-year-old bicyclist struck and killed by a trailer truck on a narrow Santa Barbara road, is pushing for a 3-foot buffer zone for bicycles that are passed by cars or other motor vehicles.

"It's from your nose to the end of your fingertip," Nava said. "It's an easy distance to remember. And I think it's the least we can do for bicycle safety."

Violators would be subject to base fines of $250, rising to about $875 once local fees are tacked on. Motorists could be charged criminally if a bicyclist were killed or seriously injured.

Nava is pushing his measure, Assembly Bill 60, in honor of Kendra Chiota Payne, a triathlete for the University of California, Santa Barbara, who died in a morning training run last January.

Richard Payne, Kendra's father, applauds Nava's proposal but says nobody knows whether the collision that killed Kendra would have been avoided if AB 60 had been in effect.

"I'm not saying it would have saved her life, I'm saying that it could save future lives in terms of raising awareness and consciousness," said Payne, of San Francisco.

"I think (Kendra) certainly would be happy to see that other people were benefiting from an action taken because of her death."

Statewide, bicycle collisions killed an average of 123 people and injured 11,101 annually from 2000 to 2005, according to the California Highway Patrol, which does not keep tabs on how many crashes stemmed from an unsafe pass.

Current California law does not specify a minimum clearance but says motorists must pass to the left at a "safe distance without interfering with the safe operation" of a bicycle.

Opponents argue AB 60 would create unintended consequences in a state stretching hundreds of miles, with roads generally 11 or 12 feet wide, not counting shoulders or parking slots.

"I think the objective is admirable," said Assemblyman Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar. "But I just don't think our roads are wide enough to accommodate what they're trying to do."

Huff said the math doesn't add up: A 2-foot-wide bicycle, a 7-foot-wide car and a 3-foot-wide buffer zone can't squeeze into an 11-foot lane and would cram a 12-foot lane.

AB 60 could solve one safety problem by creating another, forcing cars routinely to cross center lines into oncoming traffic to honor the 3-foot buffer, critics say.

Nava's bill also would allow motorists to overtake or pass a bicycle by using separate lanes currently designated only for left or U-turns.

The result could be disastrous: Cars that slow or stop in the lanes, preparing to turn, would be confronted by cars accelerating to pass bicycles, critics claim.

"If you're actually encouraging people to use that as a passing lane, it could create additional problems," said Sean Comey, spokesman for the California State Automobile Association, which has concerns about AB 60 but has taken no formal position.

Huff said AB 60 could create enforcement problems as well. Neither motorists nor traffic officers, traveling at typical speeds, could tell with certainty that a car was exactly 3 feet — not 2.5 — from a bicycle, Huff said.

"It's not like you have a standard gauge hanging out your car that says 3 feet," he said.

The CHP does not comment on pending legislation, spokesman Tom Marshall said. The agency keeps no statistics on the number of citations issued for unsafely passing bicyclists.

Nava proposed the 3-foot buffer last winter, but it was rejected by the Assembly Transportation Commission. He should have more leverage this year, since he recently was named chairman of that committee.

Opponents of Nava's previous bill included the Amalgamated Transit Union and the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council, which argued that it could be particularly onerous to truck drivers and that a 3-foot buffer could narrow instantly if a bicyclist swerved.

Arizona, Minnesota, Utah and Wisconsin have laws similar to AB 60, according to Nava's staff.

Justin Fanslau of the California Bicycle Coalition said bicyclists routinely are crowded by insensitive motorists.

On a typical 60-mile Saturday bike ride, he said, "I'd say six different cars will buzz by me, without slowing down or making any real effort to avoid or mitigate the circumstances on the road."

"It doesn't make you feel safe," added Walt Seifert of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates. "And that's the kind of thing that will discourage people from cycling."

California law, by requiring only a "safe distance" for passage — not a specific buffer — can prompt motorists to conclude that close calls don't matter as long as a bicycle isn't struck, Nava said.

"We really shouldn't be defining the safe distance based on the result," he said.

Huff countered that a 3-foot mandate would cure nothing.

"As long as we're sharing roadways, we're going to have conflict," he said. "I think education and common sense are a better solution."