California three-foot passing law: Why cyclists seem out of placeLos Angeles Post-Examiner

California Three-Foot Passing Law: Why cyclists seem out of place

Assembly member Steven Bradford authored the 3-foot passing bill

Assembly member Steven Bradford authored the 3-foot passing bill

With the three foot passing law coming into effect, there’s only one thing it’ll instantly guarantee: chaos! Certain drivers will be irritated for having to give more room, while some cyclists will over-react when this space is violated.

It’s not that the law is poorly written. Drivers need to give cyclists a three-foot buffer when passing. Simple enough.

Instead, the problem lies in the poor understanding on how to share a lane. This information is fundamental when potential drivers take their written test, but that knowledge is rarely retained, let alone practiced. Because cars take up the majority of volume on a roadway, it’s assumed that cyclists are supposed to be second-class citizens. Not according to the law.

Cyclists share many of the same laws as drivers. They even experience the same type of risks, but with much greater consequences. Despite the similarities, the respect factor doesn’t translate perfectly between the factions.

Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition’s Executive Director Jennifer Klausner addresses the crowd.

Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition’s Executive Director Jennifer Klausner addresses the crowd.

The most prevailing complaint I’ve heard is that cyclists act as antagonists out on the road. When drivers see a rider move out into the middle of a lane, some think they are daring cars not to run them over. So did I. That was until I started commuting longer distances. I realized I had to take more of the road to feel safer rather than navigating through thin pockets of traffic.

Coming to this understanding took experience. Most drivers will never practice these skills and I wouldn’t expect them to. It may be hard to believe, but most cyclists act the way they do because they DO respect being in the presence of cars. It’s the faith they have that all will obey traffic laws that gives them confidence to share the road.

Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition's Executive Director Jennifer Klausner addresses the crowd.

Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition’s Executive Director Jennifer Klausner addresses the crowd.

Since I’ve become known as a bicycling advocate, I get a fair amount of questions about the behavior of cyclists. Sometimes, the answers seem quite obvious once they are laid out. It just takes patience and giving a clear picture of a different perspective. Here’s a primer so those behind the wheel know why cyclists do what they do:

Riding in the middle of the lane – For cyclists, the law states that they travel as far right in the roadway as safely possible. Unfortunately, bikes have more difficulty handling road ailments than their vehicular counterparts. Cracks, glass and nails are some of the factors that cyclists commonly navigate around. If you’re riding all the way to the right, your only option to avoid these problems are to move out left. That’s into traffic. Cyclists prefer that there’s space to their right, so when the time comes they have a true out. And yes, that time comes daily.

Either move left or jump!

Either move left or jump!

Most bikes do not have doors – But cars do. If you’re asking what’s the most frequent cause of run-ins, survey says it’s doorings. While it is primarily the responsibility of the driver, there are far more fun things to do than making new friends with paramedics. Cyclists try to avoid this 3-4 foot kill zone because it leaves a small margin of error to react.

The larger problem is when traveling in a bike lane along parked cars. In California, the minimum width of a bike lane is five feet, which is all that many streets will give you. This isn’t enough space for both a cyclist and car door to occupy. Unless you have a DeLorean. The three-foot law is exempt to cars when passing riders in the bike lane. That’s why it may be safer to move out of the lane and into traffic to gain that extra buffer. You wouldn’t drive your car that close to parked cars.

3-feet law demonstration

3-feet law demonstration

I see you and you see me – Bicycles have a smaller footprint than motorcycles, which are tough enough to see on their own. Although bikes don’t approach as fast as cars, they can be invisible within the viewing frustum of vehicles making turns or coming out of driveways. Staying to the far right narrows this range further, so many cyclists move back into the lane in order to be better seen. A common theme when you’re on a bike is to make your presence known. It is very important to be proactive in this respect.

Neener, neener, neener (Bonus knowledge) – There are times when you’ll see a pack of cyclists point at a driver off to the side either making a turn or getting out of their car. To the untrained eye, it may seem like the group is trying to shame vehicles into proper behavior. In truth, they’re pointing out these potential hazards to other riders further back. It is the riders’ responsibility in front to point out all threats on the road through a series of hand signals.

Why driving close to cars limits your visibility

Why driving close to cars limits your visibility

What I didn’t get until recently is since you have the driver’s attention, why does the pointing continue? Once you’ve made eye contact, you figure the driver has given you acknowledgement that he’s not going to get run over. The logic for this charade is to alert the oncomer that there’s more cyclists to come. After you’ve been pointed out by the last rider, you’re free to roam. Ah, reasoning!

(There are obviously more topics to be discussed, but recognize these few points and we’re off to a great start.)

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Now that the law is in effect, we’ll get news coverage both good and bad. This law won’t save every cyclist’s life nor remove all anger from the streets. While this law is part of a bigger picture, no one can expect attitudes to change overnight.

Solutions to problems can only come from change. It isn’t always easy, but if anything come from this law, people will become more aware that cyclists have a right to the road too. At least we now have a forum for conversation.

 (All photos by Zachary Rynew)


About the author

Zachary Rynew

Zachary Rynew has touched Los Angeles in many ways. For years he helped visualize many of the city’s major projects (LA Live, Hollywood Blvd., Metro Rail, UCLA) and had his work featured at the Getty. He was a winner at the LA Improv Comedy Festival and ran in five LA Marathons. Now, he travels the city by bike and couples his local knowledge with his sports writing experience to bring you a different look at the blurs we normally pass by. Contact the author.
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