Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
California drivers are now legally required to give cyclists at least three feet of clearance when passing. But do these laws really work?
Another splash of fuel to the share-the-road debate: On Tuesday, California became the 24th state in the nation to enact a formal passing law for cyclists. That means cars are now legally required to give a berth of at least three feet while passing bikes, or face penalties: $35 for veering too close, or $220 if a cyclist is injured as result.
As the L.A. Times reports, the law had previously only required that cars pass at a non-specific "safe distance." Under the new regulations, drivers are still expected to use their personal judgment in certain cases. If heavy traffic makes it impossible to give three feet of space, drivers must slow to a "reasonable and prudent speed," and verify that the cyclist is safe before passing.
Of course, what's "reasonable and prudent" for one driver is entirely different for another. And it's the subjectivity of these laws in other states, as well as their difficulty to enforce, that's caused many a cyclist to question their efficacy. Writing for CityLab in 2012, Andrew Zaleski cited a Johns Hopkins study that found one in six of 451 drivers had violated Maryland’s three-foot law, enacted in 2010. At the time, there had been just two times that the measure had actually been enforced, both after vehicle-bicycle collisions.
Enforcement—and a greater awareness of cyclists' safety concerns—are key for buffer zones to work, Zaleski argues. And what's even better than a buffer zone? Dedicated bike lanes.