Brown signs bike buffer law as SF wrestles with cyclist-motorist relations

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Missouri and other states have managed to enforce wider, stricter bike buffers than California's new three-foot rule.

It took three tries, but cycling advocates and California legislators were finally able to get Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature yesterday on a new law requiring motorists to give at least three feet of clearance when passing bicyclists.

We criticized Brown for vetoing a similar bill in 2011 when he raised concerns about slowing automobile traffic, and then he frustrated supporters of the bill last year when his veto-prompting issue was how the new bill encouraged motorists to cross a double-yellow line to pass cyclists when it was safe to do so.

This time, the compromise that won Brown over was a requirement that drivers slow down to a “reasonable and prudent” speed if they aren’t able to given cyclists a full three feet because of road conditions. That’s not ideal, but at least it’s finally becoming illegal for cars to zip closely past cyclists, a dangerous, unnerving, and unfortunately too common practice.

San Francisco has become an intriguing testing ground for cyclist-motorist relations as the number of people choosing to pedal to work, play, or on errands has exploded, based on both official stats and by simply observing Market Street at commute time, which is like a mini Critical Mass everyday, or the overflowing bike parking areas in downtown buildings.

The city is also now wrestling with anti-cyclists biases in law enforcement and among some political figures, which will be the subject of City Hall hearings next month. Certainly, there is bad behavior on the roads by both cyclists and motorists, and often times poor understanding by both about the rules of the road, particularly on those dangerous “right hook” turns when motorists cross a bike lane (motorists should signal, then pull all the way to the right when it’s their turn, and cyclists should pass on their left, taking the lane if necessary), which have resulted in at least two cyclist fatalities in SF this year.

This new law provides some much needed clarity and public awareness to an important public safety issue -- and it should be just the beginning of creating new laws and public education campaigns to help promote safe cycling and raise driver awareness of the need to slow down, pay attention, and share the roads. 

UPDATE: Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition, which worked on the new law, told us he expects more benefit from publicizing the new law than from police enforcing it.

"The main benefit is educational, just getting people who drive to give people on bikes plenty of space. I don't expect much enforcement," he told us. "There's a heckuva lot more that we need to do to make California bicyclists safer."

The main need he cited is more money for bike lanes, particularly those separated from automobile traffic: We ned funding to build bike networks so we dno't need to worry about being passed at high speed."