California Cyclists Buzzed--By the CHP!

By Rick Bernardi

When the Beatles were in the studio recording what has gone down in music history as “the most important rock & roll album ever made,” Paul McCartney, working on one of his songs, sang “it’s getting better all the time”… to which John Lennon countered “it couldn’t get no worse.”

Bicycling advocacy is kind of like that. Every now and then, bicycling advocacy advances another step. But the victories we win are just the visible tip of the iceberg. Often unseen are the lives forever changed by traffic violence, and the years of battles fought to put a much-needed, common-sense law into place. The three-foot safe passing law is one such example. Safe passing has always been required by law, and yet there are countless examples of drivers passing cyclists within inches—and sometimes, by much less.

And yet the burden has always been on the victims of traffic violence to prove that the unsafe pass was in fact unsafe. In response to this topsy-turvy, Alice-In-Wonderland application of the law, a movement sprang up to establish a minimum safe-passing distance in all of the states. If drivers were incapable of determining what makes a safe distance when passing cyclists, the law would spell it out for them. Typically, states have established 3 feet as the minimum safe-passing distance, although that minimum does vary in some states. For example, in Virginia, the minimum was 2 feet (now increased to 3 feet as of last July), while in Pennsylvania, it is 4 feet—and in New Hampshire, the minimum starts at 3 feet for a driver passing at 30 MPH, but increases by 1 foot with every10 MPH increase in the driver’s speed, up to a 5 feet minimum safe passing distance at 50 MPH.

Ten months ago, California joined the ranks of states that have established a minimum safe passing distance for cyclists. That was an advocacy victory for cyclists, but lying just below the surface, unseen, was just how hard it was to get the law passed. In fact, the California Legislature had passed a three-foot safe passing law 3 times, but Governor Brown sided squarely with unsafe drivers when he vetoed the law the first two times it was passed. Still, the law finally instructed California drivers about what constitutes a minimum safe passing distance, and even instructed drivers about how to make a safe pass when it’s not possible to leave three feet of safe passing distance. Although the law is not perfect (it was weakened at Governor Brown’s insistence), that’s still a victory for cyclists.

But as we might expect, not all drivers got the message. That’s where enforcement comes in. Without enforcement, the message sent to unsafe drivers is that they will not be held accountable. And early warnings about three-foot laws were that they would be unenforceable, because law enforcement wouldn’t be able to prove that a driver passed closer than 3 feet.

In fact, however, law enforcement officers in several cities (Austin, Texas, Naples, Florida, and Chattanooga, Tennessee) have demonstrated that where the will to enforce the law exists, it is enforceable. So passing these laws is one hurdle, but it’s not the last hurdle; the laws help educate the public, but enforcement is still the key to making the law work.

But what happens when the dangerous driver is a law enforcement officer? This was the question raised in an incident in Los Angeles County this past Saturday, when a California Highway Patrol officer buzzed two cyclists outside of Glendora, CA—and then returned to copsplain why the cyclists were in the wrong (see the video here).

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5 Ways to Improve 3 Foot Passing Laws

By Rick Bernardi

“3 feet to pass” is the law in California now. “3 foot laws” are a good idea—but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be improved. Here are 5 ways that 3 foot laws can be improved:

1. Eliminate exceptions to the laws that make them weaker: Under minimum safe passing distance laws (often called “3 foot laws”), drivers are supposed to leave a minimum distance (usually specified as 3 feet) between their vehicle and a cyclist when passing. But exceptions to the requirement to leave a minimum safe distance often make the laws less protective of cyclist safety than they should be. For example, California’s law allows drivers to make a pass closer than 3 feet if there isn’t enough room in the lane to leave at least 3 feet. And California isn’t alone in weakening safe passing laws. Eliminating these exceptions that weaken the safety laws will increase cyclist protection.

2. Link passing distance to passing speed: Under minimum safe passing distance laws, drivers are required to leave at least the minimum distance when passing a cyclist, but are still required to leave more than the minimum distance if safety requires a greater distance. One example of where greater passing distance is necessary is at higher passing speeds. New Hampshire has addressed this by requiring drivers to allow 1 foot more passing distance with each 10 MPH increase in passing speed. At 30 MPH, drivers are required to leave a minimum of 3 feet passing distance, at 40 MPH, drivers are required to leave a minimum of 4 feet passing distance, and at 50 MPH, drivers are required to leave a minimum of 5 feet passing distance. Linking passing distance to passing speed is a great idea, and should be the law in every state.

3. Change lanes to pass: One sure way to pass at a safe distance is to change lanes when passing. This is always legal, except on two lane roads divided by a double yellow line. But some state laws explicitly allow drivers to cross over the double yellow line (when it can be safely crossed) to pass a cyclist. When a lane is too narrow, it is safer to pass by changing lanes than to attempt to squeeze past while in the same lane. Safe passing laws can be strengthened by requiring drivers to change lanes to pass a cyclist when there is an available lane, and by allowing drivers to cross over the double yellow line to pass when it is safe to do so.

4. Make passing collisions prima facie evidence of an illegal pass: When drivers collide with a cyclist while passing, they will often attempt to shift the blame to the cyclist: “The cyclist came out of nowhere” is one common explanation for a crash. “The cyclist suddenly swerved into my path” is another commonly heard explanation. If the cyclist is seriously injured or killed, the driver’s explanation may be the only explanation we hear. More often than not, when a driver says that the pass was “safe” but the cyclist did something that doesn’t make any sense, it really means that the driver wasn’t paying attention, or was passing too close. But under the law, injured cyclists must prove that the driver’s pass was unsafe. 3 foot laws can be strengthened by making collisions prima facie evidence of an illegal pass. This means that when a driver is passing a cyclist and a collision results, the law would presume that the pass was too close. The driver could still rebut this presumption with evidence to show that the pass was not too close, but now the burden of proof would be where it properly belongs—on the driver who has the responsibility to pass at a safe distance.

5. Criminalize buzzing: Some close passes are the result of carelessness—the driver wasn’t paying attention and didn’t notice the cyclist, or the driver miscalculated passing distance. These errors are easily corrected: Drivers should be paying attention while driving, and when passing a cyclist, it is better to err on the side of safety, rather than trying to shave it to the minimum. When a driver makes a simple mistake, the result should be a ticket. But some drivers use their vehicles as weapons, and intentionally shave it as close as they can to intimidate the cyclist. When this happens, the driver is committing assault, and should be prosecuted. Safe passing laws can be improved by making intentional close passes a crime.


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5 Reasons Why 3 Foot Passing Laws Are A Great Idea

By Rick Bernardi

Today, California’s new “3 Foot Passing law” takes effect, and is finally the law in the state. It’s been a long time coming—two previous attempts to pass the law met a fateful end at the tip of Governor Brown’s veto pen. The basic idea behind the 3 Foot Passing law is to explicitly spell out to drivers the minimum requirements for a safe pass. For a great summary of how California’s law will work, see California's "Three Feet for Safety Act": What you need to know.

But although many cyclists welcome the news, every time a 3 foot passing law is mentioned in the news, one or more cyclists will invariably ask what good the laws are. A common observation is “I’ve never seen the law enforced.” With that in mind, here are 5 reasons why 3 foot passing laws are a great idea:

1. They raise awareness: You can’t turn on the news or pick up a newspaper in California without seeing an article about the new 3 foot passing law. Whether drivers like the law, or hate it, a very public conversation about safe passing distance is now taking place in California. There might be some hermit somewhere in California who hasn’t heard about the new law, but it’s safe to say that most drivers have at least heard that they have to leave 3 feet of distance when they pass a cyclist. And that is huge.

2. They are a minimum, not a maximum: Minimum passing distance laws explicitly tell drivers that when passing a cyclist, they must leave at least the minimum passing distance specified by the law. This is a change from the traditional safe passing laws, which only require that passes be made at a “safe distance.” But the minimum passing distance is only a floor, below which the driver cannot go. The law still requires drivers to pass safely, and if the minimum passing distance is still too close to be safe, drivers are required by law to leave more than the minimum safe passing distance.

3. They change driver behavior: When drivers know what the law is, they can understand what is expected of them. Will some drivers continue to make unsafe passes? Sure. But some drivers will adjust their passing to comply with the law, and that will mean safer passes every time they pass a cyclist. Of course, some drivers won’t change their behavior on their own, which brings us to…

4. They are enforceable: This is the big issue for cyclists. What good is the law if it isn’t (or can’t be) enforced? Well the good news is the laws can be enforced. Police departments in Austin, Texas and Naples, Florida have shown the rest of the nation how it’s done. If the law isn’t being enforced in your town, sit down with your local law enforcement department and help them learn how it’s done.

5. Dangerous drivers can no longer argue that a buzz was “legal”: “Enforcement” isn’t just about ticketing drivers who pass too close. It’s also about holding dangerous drivers accountable after they pas too close and injure or kill a cyclist. When a dangerous driver passes too close and hits a cyclist, the driver will often try to argue that the pass was “safe” (and thus, legal), but that the cyclist made a mistake and got hit. But with minimum safe passing distance laws, a dangerous driver might still try to argue that the cyclist made a mistake, but can no longer argue that a close pass was “safe”or “legal.”

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Utah Bicycle Laws

Bicycle Accident Attorney Jackie Carmichael explains the bike laws in Utah.

By Jackie Carmichael, Bike Law Utah

Utah has 16 bicycle safety laws that are codified at Utah Code Section 41-6a-10 et seq.

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Bicycling Law could be included in Michigan Drivers Ed

Bike Law Bryan reports on getting one step closer to including bicycling rights in Drivers' Education.

By Bryan Waldman, Bike Law Michigan

As a bicycle accident lawyer in Michigan, I am thrilled to report that HB 5438, passed unanimously by the House, seeks to include information about bicycle and motorcycle laws in Michigan drivers’ education courses.

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Missouri Bike Crash Lawyer Speaks to Kansas City Womens Bike Summit

By Vance Preman

On May 10, 2014, BikeWalkKC sponsored its Women’s Bike Summit at the Ewing and Muriel Kaufman Foundation Center in Kansas City. Over 100 Women from different cycling tribes participated in the all-day event. Commuters, racers, tourers, and general enthusiasts created a diverse group. Bike Law Vance was a guest speaker and participated in a panel discussion on the topic of bicycle crashes. Flanked by a retired Kansas City police officer and an actual cycling accident victim (who bravely shared her story), Vance covered topics of prevention, preparation, avoidance, traffic court, claims procedure, and litigation. A lively question and answer period ensued.

The participants then went en mass to a ribbon cutting for a new bikestation hub at the Foundation. The day ended at the rooftop lounge and pool of the new Hotel Sorella on the Country Club Plaza.


This article, Missouri Bike Crash Lawyer Speaks to Kansas City Women’s Bike Summit, was originally published on Bike Law on May 12, 2014.

Missouri Bicycle Accident Lawyer

Colorado Bike Law in the Classroom

By Brian Weiss, Bike Law Colorado

We got lots of complaints about the cycling "techniques" of students around college campuses. Here's a group of students wanting to learn to commute safely and to teach others how to do so.

Bike Law Colorado attorney Brian Weiss talked to college students at Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU) on the Auraria Campus in Denver, Colorado on March 21, 2014 about bicycle laws in Denver. The class is putting together a study to teach students and bicycle commuters how to navigate safely in Denver. Brian explained the laws that apply to cyclists, and gave the students insights on how to be a safe commuter.

Brian also gave the class examples of the right and wrong things to do as a bicycle commuter. The students also learned the reasons behind the rules of the road that apply to bicycles. There was about an hour of questions from the students about bicycle laws and how to improve them which was quite engaging.

MSU Professor Amy Findeiss coordinated the bicycle commuter study for her research into cyclist commuting behavior and cyclist habits in the Denver area. In addition to Brian Weiss, Ms. Findeiss also invited the Denver City Planner to discuss bicycle commuting with her students.

This article, Colorado Bike Law in the Classroom, was originally published on Bike Law on April 21, 2014.

Colorado Bicycle Accident Lawyer


Can a bicyclist pass on the right?

By Rick Bernardi. J.D.

Can a bicyclist pass on the right?

This is a question that we’ve come across more than once, most recently in a crash that happened in California. As the cyclist explained,

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Unbelievable. Inexcusable. And Unacceptable.

Three years ago, a popular and well-known member of Chattanooga’s cycling community was buzzed by a driver who claims he never saw the cyclist, even though the cyclist was, according to friends, “lit up like a Christmas tree,” and was riding with “an obnoxiously bright blinking red light on the back of his bike when he was hit.”

The cyclist, David Meek, was sideswiped by the passing truck and thrown under the rear wheels. He suffered severe injuries, and was taken to a local hospital. He did not survive, succumbing to his injuries.

Although the driver had sideswiped Meek, and although a 3 foot safe passing law had already been on the books in Tennessee for nearly two years, the driver was never charged with a traffic violation. In fact, as Bob detailed in False Protection, Chattanooga police seemed to be bending over backwards to invent new legal theories to exonerate the driver.

David Meek was denied justice by a police department that didn’t understand, or didn’t want to understand the law. But what’s done is done. Three years have passed. Since then, more states have adopted safe passing laws, and slowly, the laws are beginning to be enforced

Except, apparently, in Chattanooga, Tennnessee. Or more precisely, the enclave of Red Bank. Recently, a cyclist on a ride with the Chattanooga Bicycle Club was buzzed and run off the road, sustaining minor injuries. Another club member was able to get the license number of the fleeing vehicle, and the cyclist who had been run off the road called the Red Bank police to report the incident.

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Sending The Wrong Message

Three feet to pass. Increasingly, it’s becoming the standard for the minimum distance at which motorists should pass cyclists—and increasingly, it’s becoming the law. When a state passes a “3 foot law,” the existing legal requirement to pass at a “safe passing distance” is changed to a requirement to pass at a “minimum safe passing distance”—typically 3 feet, but sometimes more, some times less, depending on the state. When a state establishes what a minimum safe passing distance means, motorists, police, courts, and juries are all given guidance about the bare minimum requirement for making a safe pass. Even with a minimum safe passing distance, overtaking drivers are still required to pass cyclists at a “safe distance,” and depending on conditions, that “safe distance” may be greater than the minimum distance specified by the law. But no driver can pass closer than the minimum distance specified in the law and argue in court that the pass was legal.

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