The Practical Nomad blog

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Flawed California bill (SB 1464) would endanger bicyclists

An open letter to the sponsors of SB 1464 in the California legislature:

* Members of the California Senate Transportation and Housing Committee
* John Casey, office of Sen. Alan Lowenthal
* California Bicycle Coalition
* Chris Morfas, chair, California Bike Coalition Board of Directors
* Andy Thornley, Policy Director, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition

Dear fellow bicyclists and bicycling advocates:

As a lifelong bicyclist and longtime California resident, I write to call to your attention my concerns some unintended consequences of one of the provisions of California Senate Bill 1464, recently introduced by Sen. Lowenthal on behalf of the California Bicycle Coalition and others, which would do more harm than any good done by the other provisions of the bill.

I welcome the good intentions of the sponsors of SB1464. But I strongly urge you to reconsider the portion of the bill related to crossing double yellow lines to pass bicycles, to work to amend the bill to remove these provisions, and to oppose this bill if it is not amended.

I had planned to come to Sacramento to explain these objections to you in person at the first Senate Transportation Committee hearing on this bill scheduled for 17 April 2012. Unfortunately, I won't be able to be in Sacramento that morning, so I request that this letter be entered into the hearing record and forwarded to the Legislative Analyst. I've also posted this open letter in my blog, to make others aware of these overlooked issues with SB 1464.

Most of what I had read about this bill and its predecessor, SB 910 (which was vetoed last year by the Governor), including alerts from the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, had described these as "Three Foot Passing" bills. I was therefore surprised to find, when I read the complete text of SB 1464, that in addition to amending the requirement for motorists to overtake bicycles "at a safe distance" to require motorists overtaking bicycles to do so with a minimum horizontal separation of 3 feet, the bill also contains what appears to be an entirely independent provision which would make it legal, for the first time in California (or anywhere in the US?), for a motor vehicle to cross a double yellow line in order to pass a bicycle where there is insufficient space for a motor vehicle to operate alongside a bicycle within the same lane.

I would not have inferred, from the title of the bill or the summaries provided by bicycle advocates, that it would have contained such a provision. Certainly this bill was never represented to bicyclists as a bill to legalize motorists' crossing double yellow lines to attempt to pass bicyclists in places where there is impaired visibility of oncoming traffic -- the standard meaning of the double yellow lines indicating a "no passing zone" -- and no room for the motor vehicle attempting to overtake the bicycle to pull back onto its side of the road, should oncoming traffic approach, without having to sideswipe the bicycle off the road.

I find it particularly problematic that the circumstances in which this bill would legalize crossing the center of the road into an oncoming traffic lane -- where there are both double yellow lines and substandard lane widths -- are precisely those circumstances in which unanticipated oncoming traffic is most likely and where any misjudgment by the motorist of the required passing time or distance, or of the likelihood or proximity of oncoming traffic, is likely to result in the type of collision with the bicyclist that is among those most likely to cause serious injury or death.

If there isn't sufficient space to pass a bicycle -- or any other vehicle -- safely without crossing the center of the roadway, and there isn't sufficient visibility ahead to see approaching vehicles in time (which is the meaning of, and reason for, double yellow lines), the safe and proper action by motorists -- which is, and should continue to be, required by California law -- is to wait for a safe place to pass. This could be where the road widens, where oncoming traffic becomes visible for a greater distance (and therefore the double yellow lines end), or the bicycle or other slower vehicle pulls out -- whichever comes first. And the safe and proper action by a bicyclist moving slower than other traffic (or any other such slower vehicle) -- which already is, and should continue to be, required by law -- is to pull out to allow following vehicles to pass.

Because California motorists routinely ignore the law and cross double yellow lines to pass bicyclists, rather than waiting for a safe place to pass or for the bicyclist to pull out, many motorists mistakenly assume that waiting for a safe place to pass, or a pullout, would cause long delays.

But in some other states, both the illegality and dangerousness of crossing double yellow lines into the path of potentially unseen oncoming traffic to try to pass bicyclists, and the obligation of bicyclists to pull out wherever they can do so safety if following vehicles are being delayed, are more widely recognized.

Motorists and bicyclists in those states have learned from experience that places where bicycles can safely pull out to allow motorists to pass are vastly more numerous, and typically much more closely spaced, than pullouts large enough for a slow-moving car, much less a larger vehicle such as a farm truck or agricultural implement. As a result, waiting for a bicyclist to pull out, unlike waiting for a large vehicle to pull out, typically occasions only minimal delay.

Places where bicyclists safely can pull out of traffic lanes, and are required by current California law to do so to permit faster following vehicles to pass, are not limited to designated motor vehicle pullouts. Provided that they can be seen from a sufficient distance, even relatively minor widenings of the pavement can provide sufficient space for a bicycle to pull out of the way and faster vehicles to pass.

Rather than amending California law to legalize crossing double yellow lines to try to pass bicycles on those stretches of road where doing so is most dangerous, I encourage you to promote greater awareness of the reciprocal duties under current law of motorists to wait for safe places to pass, and for bicyclists to pull out where they can do so safely to permit faster following vehicles to pass.

This is the course that was taken -- properly, I believe -- by the Massachusetts legislature in its most recent revision of the relevant portions of that state's traffic laws (Sections 8 and 9 of Chapter 525 of the Acts of 2008, amending 89 MGL section 2):

The Massachusetts legislature recognized -- correctly, and as the California legislature should also recognize, I believe -- that motorists' underestimating the time and distance along the road required to overtake bicyclists, and as a result pulling back into lane too soon and sideswiping or cutting off bicyclists, is at least as great a danger to bicyclists' safety as is motorists' failure to plan to allow enough width between their vehicles and bicycles they are trying to overtake.

Massachusetts did not change the provisions of its laws which already -- as in California -- prohibited failing to leave a safe distance alongside when passing, or crossing double lines to pass any vehicle, and required bicycles or slower-moving vehicles, including bicycles, to pull out where safely possible to permit faster following vehicles to pass.

Instead, Massachusetts focused on the problem of motorists who underestimate the time and/or distance required to overtake bicycles, pull back into lane too soon after or while overtaking bicycles, or fail to wait until it is safe to pass. The latest amendment to Massachusetts General Laws adds explicit provisions that an overtaking vehicle "shall not return to the right until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle" and that "If it is not possible to overtake a bicycle or other vehicle at a safe distance ... the overtaking vehicle shall ... wait for a safe opportunity to overtake."

While I have lived and relied primarily on a bicycle for transportation in California since 1985, I grew up and learned to ride and drive in Massachusetts, keep a bicycle there with family, and ride and drive in Massachusetts regularly. My own observation and experience has been that these provisions of Massachusetts law work well. While they are not always complied with, they are generally recognized as being the law, as being properly the law, and as appropriately balancing bicyclists' safety with motorists' desire not to be unduly delayed.

When motorists respect their duty to wait for a safe place to pass, and bicyclists respect their duty to pull out where safely possible to allow faster following vehicles to pass, actual delays are minimal -- even on Massachusetts' extensive network of high-traffic, winding, two-lane roads through wooded, rolling or hilly, and heavily built-up terrain where widening or straightening roads or improving sight lines is unfeasible and near-continuous double yellow lines are the norm for miles at a stretch between towns, in both suburban and rural parts of the state.

If SB 1464 in its present form were enacted, crossing double yellow lines to try to pass bicycles would be legal only if safe. But motorists who sideswipe or cut off and injure or kill bicyclists would be likely to claim that they believed that it was safe to try to pass. Crossing double yellow lines would no longer be per se illegal and thus sufficient to establish liability. Instead, bicyclists (or their heirs) seeking to recover damages from motorists would face the additional and unreasonable burden of establishing to a judge or jury that in the particular circumstances it had been unsafe fro the motorist to cross the double yellow lines to attempt to overtake the bicyclist. Contrary to its intent to help bicyclists, this bill will make it harder to hold motorists liable for injuring or killing bicyclists.

A motorist who underestimates the time and/or distance required to overtake a bicycle, and crosses double yellow lines to try to do so, is likely to face a choice between a head-on collision with unexpected and unforeseeable oncoming traffic, and pulling back onto their own side of the road even if that means sideswiping or cutting off the bicycle. Almost all motorists in that situation will choose to risk hitting a bicyclist over a head-on collision with an other motorist. That's one of the reasons it is, and should remain, illegal to cross double yellow lines to try to pass bicycles.

On a road with sub-standard lane widths and inadequate visibility of possible oncoming traffic, the decision of when and where it is safe for a motorist to overtake a bicyclist should be made by the bicyclist, as signalled by pulling out to allow the motor vehicle to pass. Unless and until such a bicyclist pulls out (as they should and as they are already required by law to do at the first safe opportunity), a motorist who cannot pass at an adequate distance without crossing double yellow lines should continue to be required by law to wait for a safe place to pass.

I urge you to reconsider and revise your proposal for changes to the law regarding crossing double yellow lines, in places with sub-standard lane widths, to try to pass bicycles.

In its present form, SB1464 would do far more harm to bicyclists than good. It would endanger bicyclists by encouraging motorists to try to pass bicycles in the most unsafe places, rather than waiting until it is safe to pass, and making it harder for bicyclists to recover damages.

Feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss these issues further.


Edward Hasbrouck
(member, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition)

[Update: Letter to the California State Assembly legislative analyst, 5 June 2012. A hearing on this bill by the Assembly Committee on Transportation is scheduled for Monday, 25 June 2012, 1:30 p.m. in Room 4202 of the State Capitol in Sacramento. Anyone may attend and testify at the hearing. Note that the hearing originally scheduled for June 18th has been put back to June 25th, although the Committee's Web site may not yet have been updated.]

[Further update: Despite my testimony at the Assembly hearing, both houses of the California legislature approved SB1464, although with some amendments. However, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, citing the concerns I had raised: "Crossing a double yellow line is an inherently dangerous cat that increases the risk of head-on collisions." I join Governor Brown in the hope that a better bill, which in my opinion would mean one requiring a minimum 3-foot passing clearance but without the provision legalizing crossing double yellow lines to try to pass bikes in no-passing zones, will be introduced and passed next year.]

[Further update: An amended successor to this bill was enacted in 2013.]

Link | Posted by Edward on Saturday, 14 April 2012, 15:32 ( 3:32 PM)
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