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Dolan: 3-foot law in best interests of drivers, cyclists

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The three-foot law, which went into effect in September, is designed to protect bicyclists and drivers from dangerous accidents. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Long ago, Mark Twain famously said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”  Well, even though the fog has settled in and we are all wearing our snowboarding parkas in July, summer is here in San Francisco. And that means more pedestrians and bicyclists on the streets, every day, be they locals or tourists. We all have a legal obligation to keep a vigilant watch for all other fellow travelers on roadways and sidewalks, at all times. That theory, and trying to reduce injury collisions involving autos and bicyclists on California roadways, was the driving force behind a law that was passed in 2013, commonly known as the “three-foot law.”

Signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 23, 2013, the three-foot law went into effect a year later in September 2014. The law requires motorists to refrain from passing bicyclists on California roadways unless they can do so leaving a three-foot gap between the bicyclist and the driver’s vehicle or to, “slow to a speed that is reasonable and prudent” passing bicyclists, “only when doing so would not endanger the safety of the operator of the bicycle.” The bill, as signed by Gov. Brown, had been authored by Assemblymen Steven Bradford of Gardena, Calif.

Earlier versions of the three-foot law died in committee at the statehouse in 2006 and 2008. Gov. Brown had vetoed two subsequent versions of the bill in 2011 and 2012 on recommendations from CalTrans, citing mobility and passing issues, leaving cyclists across the state who were sideswiped by passing motorists referring to it as getting “Jerry Browned.”

Achieving passage of this bill has thus been an almost decade long fight for bicycle advocates across California and, after five tries, it was ultimately a successful one.

But is the victory merely symbolic? In a previously published interview, Steve Jones, former editor of the S.F. Bay Guardian, noted that, “at least it’s finally becoming illegal for cars to zip closely past cyclists, a dangerous, unnerving and unfortunately too common practice.” And safety is always a paramount concern when bicyclists and motor vehicles share the same roadway. Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition, issued a statement at the time the law was enacted stating, “Bicycling is safer than most people think, but obviously it’s not safe enough. Gov. Brown has taken a big step forward improving safety on our roadways by signing this bill.”

But how will the law be enforced? “The main benefit [of the law] is educational, just getting people who drive to give people on bikes plenty of space,” Snyder said. “I don’t expect much enforcement.”

Obviously, it would be next to impossible for any law enforcement officer to spot a moving motor vehicle passing a moving bicyclist allowing for only two or two-and-a-half feet when passing, in violation of the law, which reinforces Snyder’s comments regarding awareness and education as being significant goals of the legislation. We all need to share the roadways, regardless of what kind of vehicle we are operating, and do so in a manner that preserves the lives and safety of those around us, especially now that summer is upon us.

Christopher B. Dolan is owner of the Dolan Law Firm. Email questions to help@dolanlawfirm.com.

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