As you may know, Vehicle Code Section 21760, aka the Three Feet for Safety Act, took effect last month. The new law requires motorists to give at least three feet when passing cyclists. Sounds simple enough.
But when the road narrows and giving three feet means crossing a double-yellow line, which is illegal, or when other traffic or road conditions make it difficult to comply with the rule, the motorist must “slow to a speed that is ‘reasonable and prudent, and may pass only when doing so would not endanger the safety of the operator of the bicycle’.” This is where things get murky.
This to-pass-or-not-to-pass grey area adds an interesting new element to car-bike cases. As CHP explained to San Jose Mercury News, “the new three-foot rule doesn't mean a driver has to remain stuck behind a cyclist until the road widens. A driver can get closer than three feet and pass but only at a ‘safe and reasonable’ speed.”
Cyclists must also be aware that when five more cars are following then and can’t pass, the cyclists must stop or move to the right to let the cars pass (much like a slow-moving vehicle).
The three feet rule is intended to promote safe cycling. Will it help? We sure hope so. As more people become aware of the law, they will ideally become more mindful when approaching bikes on the road.
In the unfortunate event that a motorist does collide with a bike, discovering whether the motorist violated the law adds another challenge to a personal injury action. The driver must overcome evidence that he or she clearly invaded that three-feet buffer.
The width of bike and auto lanes, as well as the width of the vehicles themselves, will become more important during discovery. Lawyers should be more precise in depositions regarding the distance between the car and the bike. More questions should be asked to establish whether a defendant knew or did not know about the three-foot rule. Plaintiffs’ lawyers should also educate their cyclist clients about the issue before deposition.
If a case goes to trial, we may even see a new jury instruction based on the language of the statute.