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Local Bicycle Commuters Hail New Rules of the Road Requiring Drivers to Keep Their Distance

Critics of California's new 3-foot buffer law point out already tight squeeze on many South Coast streets

A new state law requiring drivers to give three feet of leeway when passing bicyclists has drawn mixed reactions locally — depending on which side of the road you're on.

Signed last week by Gov. Jerry Brown, the new law will take effect next September. Assembly Bill 1371, also known as the "Three Feet for Safety Act," requires motorists to keep at least three feet of distance between their vehicles and cyclists on the road.

Under current law, motorists are required to pass bicycles going in the same direction "at a safe distance" without interfering with the bicycle's safe operation.

The infraction is punishable by a fine not exceeding $100 for a first conviction, and up to a $250 fine for a third and subsequent conviction occurring within one year of two or more prior infractions.

The new law requires drivers to maintain a distance of not less than three feet between any part of the motor vehicle and any part of the bicycle or its operator. In addition, the law does not allow drivers to cross a double-yellow line to avoid bike riders. Instead, motorists are required to slow to a safe speed to pass.

The law, which goes into effect on Sept. 16, 2014, would make a violation of these provisions an infraction punishable by a $35 fine. If a collision occurs between the motor vehicle and the cyclist, a $220 fine would be imposed on the driver if the bicyclist is harmed.

Santa Barbara has a significant cycling community, and Noozhawk checked in with Ed France, executive director of the Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition, for his thoughts.

"I think this is a meaningful step forward for respectful roadway behavior," he said.

France said that while it's important that some roadways have bike lanes or separated space, many streets and highways will require shared road lanes for cyclists.

"Getting 'buzzed' by a car is not only rude, but fiercely intimidating and quite hazardous," he said. "It is the kind of thing that scares off casual cyclists and can result in serious injury. It is important for drivers to know that this behavior is now a criminal act."

France also said sharing the road is "a two-way street." With more respect from motorists, he said, cyclists "will increasingly adhere to the rules of the road, such as stops and signaling."

It has been almost seven years since UC Santa Barbara triathlete Kendra Payne was struck and killed while bicycling up Gibraltar Road on a training ride, and France said he hopes the law will prevent similar incidents.

He noted that the bill is not as strong as earlier versions, like AB 60 introduced by then-Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, in 2008. That legislation would have required drivers to pass bicyclists with a minimum clearance of three feet, a violation of which would have been an infraction punishable by a $250 fine.

Motorists who caused great bodily harm to a cyclist also would have been charged with a misdemeanor or felony, but the legislation died in the Assembly Transportation Committee.

Jim Halverson, who works at UCSB and commutes from his downtown home five days a week, said he feels that overall bike safety is good in Santa Barbara already.

"People typically keep their distance, in my experience, even when there isn't a bike lane," he said. "Still, this bill seems like a no-brainer. When the mismatch in vehicle size makes it much more dangerous for one person than the other, why not protect them?"

Not everyone was so enthusiastic about the new law.

Scott Wenz, president of the traffic and transportation watchdog group Cars Are Basic, noted there isn't enough room to provide a three-foot buffer for bicycles on a standard two-lane street.

"That means at any time a bicyclist can intentionally obstruct the flow of traffic in violation of the traffic code," he said.

"The California Vehicle Code states clearly that if any vehicle cannot maintain the speed of traffic they have to pull to the right of the road and allow vehicles to pass you," he added. "This includes bikes."

Wenz also maintains that core routes like State, De la Vina and Santa Barbara streets and Hollister Avenue do not have enough room for the law's buffers to be implemented.

This will create people breaking the law whether they mean it or not, he said.

"All they have to say is you broke the law by not giving me my three feet space," he said of bicyclists.

News of the law also comes as the results of the Census Bureau's 2012 American Community Survey were released. The survey found that 6.9 percent of Santa Barbarans were commuting to and from their jobs in 2012, an increase from 3.5 percent in 2000.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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