Help us change the law to make cycling safer in California!

There’s a new petition out to amend the California Vehicle Code to allow motorists to cross a double yellow center line to pass a bicyclist when safe to do so. Please sign the petition and help spread the word!

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By Greg Kline

Although the recent implementation of California’s 3 Feet for Safety Act has clearly informed motorists of the need to leave sufficient space when passing cyclists, it still does not fully address the needs of cyclists nor of motorists when it comes to narrow two-lane roads with long sections of double-yellow lines. Currently it is not legal for faster motorists to pass slower cyclists over a double yellow line, even when safe to do so. Drivers of motor vehicles are now forced to make the decision to either endanger a cyclist’s life and break the law (CVC 21760 three feet for safety act) by passing too closely or break another law (CVC 21460 double lines) by crossing a double yellow to pass safely.

The majority of roads in California, and almost all two-lane roads have lanes that are too narrow for cyclists to safely share with motor vehicles. Here’s why:

A bicycle is a two wheeled articulated vehicle that remains upright by balance.  A cyclist is approximately 2′ wide, and requires at minimum 12″ on either side for balance and minor obstacle avoidance. Assume a 4′ minimum operating space for a bicyclist, the operating width used by the AASHTO design manual and the guidelines set forth by the Federal Highway Administration.

If you add the 4′ operating space for a cyclist to the 3′ required for minimum legal safe passing clearance and 8.5′ (*excluding* mirrors) maximum vehicle width in California you come up with 15.5′. Most lanes in California are 10 to 12 feet wide and require moving into the next lane to safely pass a cyclist safely.

14' lane is too narrow to share
Graphic by Keri Caffrey

Most rural roads have lanes much narrower than 15.5′ and many miles of double yellow. It is unreasonable to assume that motor vehicle traffic will slow to the speed of cyclists until there is either a passing lane or a turnout. Faster vehicles will either pass unsafely and illegally (too closely) or just illegally (by crossing, at least partially, a double yellow).

Yet a previous version of California’s three foot law was specifically vetoed by Governor Brown for allowing for such passes when safe to do so:

California Senate Bill 1464

(f) The driver of a motor vehicle on a two-lane highway may drive to the left of either of the markings specified in subdivision (a) or (c) to pass a person operating a bicycle proceeding in the same direction if in compliance with Section 21751 and if both of the following conditions are met:

(1) The left side of the road is clearly visible and free of oncoming traffic for a sufficient distance ahead to permit overtaking and passing of the bicycle to be completely made without interfering with the safe operation of any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction.

(2) The driver operates the motor vehicle to the left of either of the markings specified in subdivision (a) or (c) only to the extent reasonably necessary to comply with Section 21750.1.

Governor Brown’s reasoning in his veto of Senate Bill 1464 in September of 2012:

“Crossing a double yellow line is an inherently dangerous act that increases the risk of head-on collisions. When a collision occurs, it will result in a lawsuit where the state is likely to be sued as a “deep pocket.” By making it legal to cross a double yellow line, the bill weakens the state’s defense to these lawsuits.”

By vetoing SB 1464, and subsequently passing the watered down version that became law, Governor Brown prioritized the safety, speed and convenience of motorists, protected by airbags and crumple zones, over the lives and safety of cyclists who have no protections.

Governor Brown’s veto of SB 1464 and passage of Assembly Bill No. 1371 was a decision to not afford cyclists the same protections that other road users enjoy. As such, it does not shield the state from “deep pocket” lawsuits from cyclists. That may be what is required to amend the law to give cyclists the protection the 3′ law was intended to confer.

Many states have sensible laws that allow motorists to cross double yellows when passing a slow moving vehicle such as a cyclist or slow moving farm equipment. For example, here is Ohio’s statute.

§4511.31.  Hazardous zones

(A) The department of transportation may determine those portions of any state highway where overtaking and passing other traffic or driving to the left of the center or center line of the roadway would be especially hazardous and may, by appropriate signs or markings on the highway, indicate the beginning and end of such zones. …

(B) Division (A) of this section does not apply when all of the following apply:

   (1) The slower vehicle is proceeding at less than half the speed of the speed limit applicable to that location.

   (2) The faster vehicle is capable of overtaking and passing the slower vehicle without exceeding the speed limit.

   (3) There is sufficient clear sight distance to the left of the center or center line of the roadway to meet the overtaking and passing provisions of section 4511.29 of the Revised Code, considering the speed of the slower vehicle.

Comment:  Section 4511.31(B) should help reduce tension between cyclists and faster drivers.  Now, they can pass in “no passing” zones IF passing is safe.

By allowing faster traffic to pass slower cyclists when safe to do so, drivers of motor vehicles would not be forced to make the decision they now need to make in California: either endanger a cyclist’s life and break a law, or merely break a different law. The choice, obvious as it is, isn’t as clear as it needs to be. The three foot law needs to be amended to meet the needs of all road users.