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Tweaking our too-snug car-bike interface

ROBERT PRICE: Tweaking our too-snug car-bike interface
The Bakersfield Californian | Saturday, Aug 27 2011 05:30 PM

Last Updated Tuesday, Aug 30 2011

A Bakersfield man was killed on his bicycle Friday afternoon when he abruptly turned in front of a BPD patrol car in a sad but not uncommon reminder that 30-pound bikes and 2-ton automobiles are, under most circumstances, ill-matched road companions.

Bicycles have as much right to the asphalt as any other mode of transportation -- sudden, ill-advised swerves notwithstanding -- and they have the weight of the state Vehicle Code on their side to prove it. Which makes for a rather unsatisfying tombstone inscription. No set of laws, no educational campaign, no physical safety barrier can offset the consequences of a self-propelled rider meeting the grille of a Ford Crown Victoria at 40 mph.

That doesn't mean we can't take steps to make the streets substantially safer for both four- and two-wheeled traffic. Exhibit A: SB 910, which would require a motorist overtaking a cyclist to give a minimum three feet of clearance when passing. The bill, which has passed in the Senate and is awaiting the Assembly's approval, probably wouldn't have made the slightest difference in Friday's tragedy on H Street, a street too narrow for four traffic lanes plus bike lanes. But anyone who has commuted for any length of time on a bicycle can tell you an extra three feet -- scant as it may seem -- would matter plenty to them.

The bill would amend the law to allow a vehicle to cross over a double-yellow line, as long as it's safe to do so, to give a bicycle that extra three-foot buffer. If it's not safe to cross over the double-yellow, and the lane is a substandard width, and the driver opts to pass anyway, he'll have to slow down to 15 mph while going around.

Ask any cyclist who has had to contend with a car door swinging open unexpectedly as he negotiates the tight squeezes between moving and parked cars how he would feel about an extra three feet. Ask any driver if he'd worry about the legality of crossing over a double-yellow in order to give a bicyclist enough space for everyone's comfort. The bill, introduced last February by Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, would remove a lot of the ambiguity and uncertainty on both sides.

Failure to give that three-foot buffer would result in a $35 fine, or $220 if the cyclist crashes and sustains an injury that results from a driver's unsafe pass.

It has nothing to do with Lowenthal's bill, but I think police ought to be a little more willing to issue tickets to cyclists who break traffic laws as well. I'm referring especially to wrong-way riders -- a common sight -- but also to unhelmeted minors, to the extent that's practical, and general idiocy. I know -- some cyclists won't be carrying IDs. Stop 'em anyway. Cops have better things to do? They don't have trouble finding the time to pull over motorists, and revenue is revenue. Once the word gets out, scofflaw cyclists are likely to clean up their act. Some, I suspect, simply don't know the laws because they've never been called on them.

I suspect many motorists don't know how traffic laws apply to cyclists, either -- yes, that cyclist in the yellow Spandex is permitted to take up that entire lane, sir -- so it works both ways.

SB 910 will be of great service in communities where bicycle ridership is big, but it will be of even greater service in cities that barely give cyclists the time of day in terms of dedicated infrastructure and overall sense of partnership.

By that, I mean cities like Bakersfield, which has a great amenity in the Kern River Parkway's bike path but otherwise seems to be fighting the trend toward bike-friendly streets and bike commute routes every step of the way. Over time, motorists must surely pick up on that subtle hostility-by-omission: If the city doesn't seem especially willing to accommodate bikes, why should they?