ABC 7: Our Drivers Won’t Follow CA’s 3-Ft Bike Passing Law, So Why Bother?

ABC 7 is back with another blurry watercolor painting of street safety issues — this time, setting sights on California’s new 3-foot bicycle passing law. ABC reporter Dan Noyes went to great lengths to film real-world examples of the issue, setting up a camera to film passing bike commuters and drivers on Market Street, and drawing out chalk lines to measure how much room drivers are giving. Bizarrely, Noyes and crew even rigged a camera to their vehicle to film themselves violating the law.

The use of Market’s wide geometry to demonstrate the difficulty of passing is pretty perplexing in itself: the street has a second traffic lane on each side in which drivers can pass, so Market is irrelevant to Noyes’ illogical attempt to demonstrate the “difficulty” of enforcing of a three-foot passing law on narrow city streets.

The segment shows drivers, including ABC 7′s, unsafely passing bike commuters in a traffic lane that is too narrow to share, instead of passing safely in a left lane that offers ample room. If nothing else, it demonstrates Noyes’ fundamental misunderstanding of how to follow the law and drive safely. The crew seems to have no clue how not to endanger people on bikes, and uses their cluelessness to make their case.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time a San Francisco broadcast reporter has filmed himself harassing people on bikes from behind the windshield.

As all CA drivers license holders should know, drivers are expected to make a full lane change before passing a bicyclist in any lane that’s too narrow to share safely. Otherwise, drivers must maintain a safe following distance. California Vehicle Code 21202 allows bicyclists the full use of any lane of “substandard width” lane of less than 14 feet wide, according to American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials standards. Few 14-foot traffic lanes exist on major San Francisco streets.

The typical criticism of three-foot passing laws, which Noyes seems to echo, is that when there is only one oncoming traffic lane available to pass in, impatient drivers will find it impractical to slow down and wait to pass safely and legally. (After all, many motorists like to remain unhindered by the safety of those on bikes.) But that has nothing to do with wide streets like Market, which Noyes apparently chose as his “smoking gun” for his argument that drivers are incapable of passing with three feet.

City streets with multiple narrow traffic lanes should actually be the easiest places for police to enforce the 3-foot law, since drivers are able to make a full lane change to pass in most cases. It’s pretty easy to tell whether drivers have followed the law or not: Any lawful driver will merge left to pass, and any driver who passes within the right lane is breaking the law.

Unfortunately, SFPD Traffic Company Commander doesn’t seem to understand that, instead telling ABC, “I would suspect that this law was not written with San Francisco in mind.” Noyes says that “several” SFPD officers told him that, “without a collision, they won’t even bother to enforce the law.” What better way for SFPD to express its unwavering commitment to safe streets and upholding the law?

By the way, Noyes does note that similar laws exist in 22 other states, and Pennsylvania mandates four feet.

As California Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Dave Snyder notes in the segment, the law isn’t strictly about the actual enforcement. It’s about setting a clear expectation for drivers that people on bikes need at least three feet of room to feel safe when being overtaken by a motor vehicle driver. “It’s scary to be passed really closely by a car,” he said, after ABC showed video of many such instances.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that ABC 7 hyped the segment on social media before it aired, posting an image that said, “Can you keep your distance? #BikeVsCar”. CalBike responded thusly on Twitter: “#BikeVsCar is the wrong message, @ABC7. Respect of any person on our streets should never be a controversial issue.”