Why the 3-Foot Law Doesn’t Work
California’s rule requiring cars to give cyclists a three-foot berth went into effect last week. Too bad it doesn't actually keep riders safe.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
On September 16, a law requiring drivers to stay three feet away from cyclists went into effect in California. The law, finally passed in 2013 after several years of back-and-forth between bike advocates and legislators, seems like a victory for California cyclists. But while state legislators are taking steps to recognize bike safety issues, Los Angeles lawmakers are pulling the plug on promised bike lane projects, leaving us with one question: Can the three-feet law make up for a lack of cycling infrastructure in the state’s most populous city?
Let’s look a little closer at the three-foot law. The Golden State is the 23rd to enact such a rule. Advocates claim the rule increases awareness of riders on the road, which could make them safer. But there’s little proof it actually does either of those things, according to a Rutgers analysis of 20 states with similar laws.
Some bicycle attorneys say they support the law because it helps them demonstrate a driver’s negligence when a car strikes a bike. Assuming the cyclist lives through the crash, the idea is he’ll have no problem proving his innocence in the matter. After all, the driver clearly broke the three-foot barrier—and the law. But even that isn’t true in all 23 states. As the Rutgers researchers write, some states “carved out caveats and technicalities within the legislation that render it virtually ineffective.”
In Maryland, for instance, if riders weren’t as far to the right as possible, weren’t maintaining a “steady course,” or were riding on a highway that’s “not wide enough” for cars to give riders a three-foot berth, the offending drivers are off the hook. California’s law leaves wiggle room for drivers, too; if they can’t leave three feet without passing over the center line, they must “slow to a speed that is reasonable and prudent” before passing, which they can only do at a spot where they won’t endanger the cyclist. Defense lawyers will certainly argue their driver’s speed was quite reasonable and prudent. Quite.
If the three-foot rule doesn’t necessarily make cyclists any safer, what does? Answer: bike lanes.
The law’s detractors say three feet isn’t enough, that a lack of awareness makes the law unhelpful, and that a lack of enforcement renders it a symbolic safeguard. It’s hard for police to bust a driver who gets within three feet of a rider: first, they have to catch them in the act and judging distance can be tough. The detractors have a point; in Boulder County, Colorado, law enforcement wrote an average of two tickets per month to drivers passing cyclists too closely during the first three months the three-foot law was in effect, according to the Rutgers study. That same year, officers wrote a monthly average of 8,600 parking tickets, according to the Daily Camera.
The California law set the fine for violating its three-foot rule at $35. The current fine for parking at an expired meter in Los Angeles is $63. Perhaps those numbers are a reflection on Los Angeles’ backward-bike values, rather than the state’s. Almost behead a person with your side mirror? $35. Forget to feed your parking meter? $63!?
So if the three-foot rule doesn’t necessarily make cyclists any safer, what does? Answer: bike lanes. Cycling advocacy group PeopleForBikes.org compiled a list of studies showing that bike lanes not only improve cyclist safety, they also boost pedestrian safety.
The protected bike lane on New York City’s 9th Avenue, for example, reduced injuries to cyclists by 57 percent, and injuries to walkers by 29 percent. Another study found protected bike lanes reduce a cyclist’s injury risk by up to 90 percent. Yet the L.A. Times reported back in July that City Councilman Gil Cedillo plans to halt work “indefinitely on northbound and southbound bike lanes planned for a three-mile stretch” of a street near downtown Los Angeles.
Cedillo claims the loss of a single southbound car lane will slow emergency response times. According to Cedillo, the bike plan, approved by the city council in 2011, was developed by a “microscopic percentage” of Los Angeles’ total population, the L.A. Times reported. Even more infuriating to local cyclists: Cedillo voiced support for those bike lanes during his 2013 election campaign.
The councilman’s about-face might be part political vendetta—the pro-bike lane councilman who preceded him backed his opponent in the last election. But he’s forgetting one thing we all learned in 1994 from Angels in the Outfield, and again in 2011 from New York City: if you build it, they will come.
Between 2006 and 2013, NYC added about 314 miles of bike lanes. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of people bike commuting in the city doubled. And in a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey from 2008, nearly 65 percent of Americans who don’t ride a bike said they would like to ride more. In other words, Cedillo’s argument that the street’s agendas shouldn’t be set by a “microscopic percentage of people” is weakened by the fact that, as we’ve seen in NYC, with the right infrastructure in place, more people will commute. Heck, that might lead to lower traffic congestion, making it easier for emergency vehicles to get through.
In closing, as Stephen Colbert would say, tip of the hat to the state of California for attempting to make much-needed progress on the issue of bicycle safety. Wag of the finger to the city of Los Angeles for killing a program that actually would actually keep riders safe on the roads.