Godofredo Vasquez/2012 S.F. Examiner file photoThe SFMTA’s engineering division is meeting Friday about a contentious plan for Polk Street that has pitted neighborhood merchants against cyclists.

Godofredo Vasquez/2012 S.F. Examiner file photoThe SFMTA’s engineering division is meeting Friday about a contentious plan for Polk Street that has pitted neighborhood merchants against cyclists.

New bike safety law off to slow start in SF

Biking in San Francisco is often described as a blood sport.

But a new California law that took effect in September was poised to give bicyclists extra breathing room from passing cars. So far, that law appears to be off to a slow start.

In the first four months after the Three Feet for Safety Act became law, nine citations were issued to drivers in The City, according to a San Francisco Examiner review of citation data. The law requires that motorists give bicyclists at least 3 feet of space while passing them.

A driver overtaking a bicycle proceeding in the same direction used to be required to pass to the left at “a safe distance,” according to law. But many bicyclists in San Francisco told The Examiner that vehicles often came within a hair of knocking them out while passing.

“It happens all the time,” bicyclist M.J. Satlak said.

In 2012, 147 cyclists were killed and 13,921 injured as a result of collisions with vehicles, according to the most recent data available from the California Highway Patrol.

Violations of the new law can result in a fine of $35, or $220 if the cyclist is hit. Court fees increase those fines to $237 and $959, respectively.

Data show that San Francisco traffic enforcers and police officers only cited two drivers in September, one in October, five in November and one in December under the new law.

However, Ann Donlan, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Superior Court, said five of those citations were invalidated because “the officer did not use the right code to cite the person.”

U.S. Census Bureau data show 3.4 percent of San Francisco's 439,700 workers biked for their commutes in 2012, the most recent information available. Forty-five percent of those workers drove.

That means that in a city with some 197,000 daily car commuters and 14,950 bike commuters, only four citations were issued for cars passing too closely to bikes.

Cmdr. Mikail Ali, who heads the Police Department's traffic enforcement division, did not reply to requests for comment.

Tyler Frisbee, policy director at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said that “we'll need more time to pass before knowing what to conclude regarding behavior and enforcement.”

Frisbee pointed out that the Bicycle Coalition did extensive outreach and education on the law. The group has taught more than 1,700 drivers and 3,000 bicyclists the rules of the road in its workshops.

But there may be another issue, Frisbee said.

“The reality is that in San Francisco there's rarely 3 feet of extra road space, which is why the law's language around safely and respectfully passing is particularly critical,” she said.

Indeed, the text of the law says that in places where there is not 3 feet of space to pass a bicyclist safely, “the driver shall slow to a speed that is reasonable and prudent, and may pass only when doing so would not endanger the safety of the operator of the bicycle.”

This scene played out on Market Street recently, as cyclists and drivers mingled within a foot of each other in the narrow spaces between the sidewalk and Muni islands.

Stopping to talk, bicyclist Tiffany Nichols said she does not feel safe near driver or fellow cyclists.

“I don't think people really know about the law,” she said.

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