Three-foot buffer law for cyclists now in effect

As of Tuesday, California law requires drivers to give cyclists 36 inches of elbow room or face citation. But Sacramento area law enforcement officials said they don’t expect the new statute to produce a bout of ticket writing.

Sacramento police and local California Highway Patrol representatives said they plan a case-by-case approach in deciding whether a driver is giving a cyclist a fair path down the street.

“If a driver is not giving due regard, and had the opportunity to give 3 feet, but just brushed by him, that driver can get cited,” CHP North Sacramento spokesman Chad Hertzell said. “But if they are making a good faith effort, they are not going to have any problem from us.”

The base fine for breaking the new law is $35, but that is not the amount a cited driver must pay. Additional fees and court costs make the payment for a violation $238, Sacramento court officials said. If a driver violates the law and it results in a cyclist being injured, the fine will be $982.

Critics have complained the law could put drivers at risk of getting a ticket if they are unable to determine, on the fly, whether or not they are a full 3 feet away from a moving cyclist. Hertzell of the CHP said officers will be looking for safe and courteous driving when the street is tight, and not necessarily pulling out the yardstick.

“We’re telling people, if you cannot give them 36 inches, you need to slow down to a prudent speed. What is that? There isn’t anything specifically that says it’s 25 miles per hour or 15. We are asking people to use common sense, ‘Can I pass this person safely at less than 3 feet? You have to take into consideration road conditions, your vehicle size, traffic, weather – all those play a role.”

Sacramento city police said Tuesday their priority early on will be making drivers aware of the new law.

“I can see an officer issuing a ticket, but our main objective is to educate the public on increased safety awareness,” police spokesman Justin Brown said. “If we observe a motorist, and see the distance is not correct, we may stop and educate the motorist about the law.”

The law, AB 1371, was authored by Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Gardena. The new vehicle code section 21760 states: “A driver of a motor vehicle shall not overtake or pass a bicycle proceeding in the same direction on a highway (street) at a distance of less than three feet between any part of the motor vehicle and any part of the bicycle or its operator.”

If it is impossible to pass a cyclist at 3 or more feet distance, the law says drivers “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.”

California joins 22 other states that already have similar laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Jim Brown, executive director of the Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, said the law should make drivers more cognizant of sharing the road with cyclists, and allow more people who are interested in cycling to feel confident it is safe enough to give it a try.

“This law reminds drivers that bicyclists need more space to feel safe than you might think,” he said. “Bicyclists encounter things on the road that require lateral movements – debris, broken pavement, car doors.”

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