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

Image: ABC 7/Twitter

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.”

Image: ABC 7 via CalBike/Twitter
  • murphstahoe

    Not watching

  • Kevin

    Drivers are not entitled to driving the speed limit wherever they go, especially in dense urban areas like SF. Aaron got it right, in the Market street situation, there is even another lane to pass cyclists. Is it really such a bad thing to slow down and merge on the left lane? The driver looses 30s, maybe a minute in travel time. Outrage over being forced to slow down really shows how entitled automobility is.

    Even if in a two lane road situation, what’s wrong with slowing down a finding a safe time to pass?

  • Clearly, the newspeople are not geniuses or cyclists. It’s only reasonable that the law enables police to ticket harassment by vehicles.

  • chetshome

    wait… is it legal to use the taxi/bus-only left lane on Market for passing?

  • Prinzrob

    If it’s clear, and safer than buzzing a bicyclist in the same lane then does it really matter? Same principal on single lane, narrow streets with a double yellow center line. It’s just a line of paint.

  • mcas

    As I pointed out to Dan Noyes the other day: the arrow representing 3 feet is wider than the entire car… ugh.

  • cguella

    For whatever reason you put a person in a car and they stop caring about the humanity of the person on a bike. It’s a control thing. People control so little in their lives that this safety in their car makes them feel empowered. If they, in their car, were buzzed by speeding tractor trailers and cement trucks they may then understand what it’s like to be a biker.

  • KL

    Biking down 4th street, approching Howard, where there are 2 left lanes to continue straight, a large median and 2 right lanes to turn right. I was in the second lane that continues straight on 4th street a large VA shuttle driver, with half a block left between Howard and Mission, decided I was going too slow for him, and passed me. Normally passing is not a problem, except he decides to pass me by driving on the painted median, passes me with inches to spareand stops at the red light. What about the left lane? The left lane was completely empty, with no cars in it. I’m still perplexed as to why he chose that as his way to pass.

  • Guest

    Actual scale

  • lund mann

    SUV and three feet at actual scale in Skethcup

  • ladyfleur

    Not quite.The distance is from the widest part of the car to the the widest point on the bike/rider, so the 3′ starts at the car’s mirrors not the body of the car.

  • Ian

    Perfect opportunity to bring a 3 foot passing law criminal case to court! They even provided a self-incriminating evidence video!

  • Nathan Kiger

    Goofy – Motor Mania, 1950 (HQ):

  • lund mann

    yeah, I drew it that way the first time and decided to open the question. Thanks for the clarification.

  • chetshome

    A double yellow center line legally defines that it is not safe to pass. A safety law can’t be effective if it’s confusing or ambiguous. So the double-yellow law doesn’t say “no passing, unless you think it’s ok”.

    Similarly, we can’t have a law that says drivers cannot legally use the taxi/bus lane, except when they think it’s ok.

  • Prinzrob

    I understand the letter of the law, but what is often more important when a case comes to court is the intent of the law. Here we have two laws, a 3-foot passing law and a double yellow line law, which provide opposing intentions when it comes to lane position. Considering the fact that it is already legal to cross a double yellow line in order to reach a driveway or to avoid an obstruction, I imagine that the 3-foot law would win out in order if importance, especially since it helps to protect a human being rather than just keep a driver within an invisible boundary.

    The original version of the 3-foot law (passed by the CA legislature) had a provision which would have allowed drivers to cross a double yellow when passing, making sure first that the road ahead was clear. This is what most careful drivers already do in the real world, but Gov Brown vetoed it based on a flawed argument by the CHP. A hard-line rule which flies in the face of common sense, like the version that got passed, is less likely to be understood and obeyed.

    I indeed would much rather see a rule that says “no passing, unless you think it’s ok”, not just for double yellow lines, but in all situations, with some specific guidance regarding oncoming traffic, blind curves, hill crests, and other situations where passing is specifically inappropriate. Even without this rule, though, most drivers will still behave this way, and I will recommend that they do so in order to protect bicyclists’ safety. The fact that the law does not allow for this preferred behavior represents a failure of our system, in my opinion.

  • Guest


  • not sure

    The “take the lane/ three feet distance passing a bike” law is a failure. Its physically impossible to comply with the law. Traffic lanes are around 10 feet wide. Cars are 6 feet wide. Cyclist wants to ride three feet out from parked car. Moving car has to stay three feet from bike. That leaves 4 feet in the lane. Car won’t fit. So car can follow bike for a mile at 10 MPH unless bike pulls over or pass in 2 feet of oncoming lane of traffic risking head on collision. Neither option is practical or going to happen. 21202 says (3) When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge, subject to the provisions of Section 21656. For purposes of this section, a “substandard width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane. It doesnt say 14 feet wide. If the biker rider rides near the edge of the lane like I do, there is 8 feet to pass. I predict the 3 foot laws will be repealed.


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