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Bicycle Safety

Safe Passing Bill for Bicyclists Wins Key Assembly Committee Vote

A Sacramento bicyclist expresses her support for the "Give Me 3" campaign on Bike to Work Day. Photo: California Bicycle Coalition

The California Bicycle Coalition’s bill to give drivers clearer guidance about how to pass bicyclists safely was approved this week by the Assembly Transportation Committee in a raucous hearing that reflected California’s deeply conflicted relationship to motor vehicles and driving.

Senate Bill 910, authored by Sen. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach and co-sponsored by the City of Los Angeles, would amend the California Vehicle Code's vague guidance for how drivers must pass bicyclists by requiring drivers to give bicyclists at least three feet of clearance when passing from behind. Three feet is the passing distance required in 19 other states and also recommended by the California Department of Motor Vehicles in the California Driver’s Handbook.

Existing state law requires drivers to pass other vehicles and bicyclists at a “safe distance” that is not further defined in law. Passing-from-behind collisions account for about 40 percent of all adult bicyclist fatalities, the leading cause of such deaths.

The committee approved SB 910 on an 8-to-5 party-line vote Monday after nearly an hour of debate in which unionized truckers and the state’s two automobile clubs and their allies on the committee argued that specifying a minimum passing distance might confuse and inconvenience drivers, tie up traffic and lead to more collisions.

The bill goes next to the Assembly Appropriations Committee even though SB 910 does not require or allocate any public funds or have any other fiscal consequences for state or local government.

“I applaud the Assembly Transportation Committee for looking out for the safety of bicyclists in passing SB 910,” Lowenthal said after the hearing. “While the opposition to this bill tried to obfuscate and confuse the committee, members saw through this ruse and did the right thing. This simple measure will provide safety to bicyclists while at the same time providing clarity to motorists. This bill is a win-win for everyone.”

Representatives from the California State Automobile Association and the Automobile Club of Southern California proposed gutting the bill by making the three-foot passing provision optional, a proposal rejected by Lowenthal and the committee chair. In other states with 3-foot passing laws, AAA either supported or did not oppose the legislation.

A lobbyist for the Teamsters expressed their opposition by denouncing scofflaw bicyclists and predicting dire consequences for traffic and safety if the bill were enacted. “This bill is veto-bait!” he shouted before storming out of the hearing room, indicating the Teamsters plan to lean on Gov. Edmund G. Brown to veto the law if it’s passed.

Testifying in support of the bill were representatives from the California Bicycle Coalition, the cities of Los Angeles and Pasadena, and the Sierra Club, the California Association of Bicycling Organizations, and Policy in Motion, among others. Dozens of local bicycle advocacy organizations, bicycling clubs, environmental groups, safety advocates and businesses, and more than 200 individuals throughout California, also contacted the committee to express their support for the bill.

Sen. Michael Rubio of Bakersfield made a surprise appearance to testify in support of the bill as a private citizen. An active bicyclist, Rubio recounted a bicycle pile-up near Bakersfield on Fathers Day caused when by a driver impatient to pass struck a line of 15 bicyclists. Testimony given in legislative committee by legislators speaking as private citizens is extremely rare.

“We’re thrilled with the committee’s vote and with the significant support this bill has attracted,” said CBC Executive Director Dave Snyder. “Putting the priority on safer roads is absolutely the right policy, especially as more people choose bicycling for transportation.

“But the hearing offered a sobering reminder of how far California still has to go to ensure that everyone who uses the roads can do so safely. It’s disturbing to see AAA and the Teamsters try to defeat a measure that would give drivers – those with the greatest potential to harm others on the road – clear guidance on how to share the road more safely. Drivers who ride bicycles or know someone who does should be deeply concerned about how they’re being represented before lawmakers in Sacramento.”

Jim Brown is the communications director for the California Bicycle Coalition. For more information, visit the Give Me 3 website.

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