As many Slowtwitchers know, there's a bill sitting on California governor Jerry Brown's desk. This bill obliges motorists to maintain a minimum 3-foot margin when passing a cyclist, and allows motorists to cross a double yellow, when safe, to achieve that margin. As of this writing, the governor has 5 days left in the legislative calendar in which to sign or veto this bill.
This bill, SB910, has been championed by the CEOs of Oakley, Competitor Group, Shimano American, Active.com, Specialized, and others as not simply a bicycle safety issue, but a bill that helps industry, by offsetting California's sometimes business-restrictive posture with a legislative behavior that grants 21st century companies a lifestyle arrow in their quivers when attracting companies and their key employees.
Why would Jerry Brown veto this bill? Because Brown's own California Highway Patrol opposes it. What do they oppose? Not a 3-foot margin, per se, according to Captain Avery Browne, of the CHP's Office of Special Representatives. Browne has been the CHP's point man on its response to SB910.
Browne also has no problem with crossing the double yellow, when safe, to allow a motorist to gain the necessary buffer between his vehicle and a cyclist. Indeed, this language was added to the bill at the CHP's recommendation.
So, what's the problem? These two provisions are the guts of SB910. The sticking point with Browne—if I understood him correctly when we spoke—is that the CHP likes the existing "Move Over, Slow Down" text that it uses when expressing to a motorist his correct response to stationary emergency vehicles, tow trucks, road workers, and the like. "The law [SB159] is designed to reduce the deaths of police officers, tow truck drivers, paramedics, CalTrans employees, and other emergency personnel who are aiding stranded or injured motorists or involved in road work," according to the CHP's website.
There are two problems with this. First, a cyclist is not a stationary vehicle or object. A bicycle is treated as a "vehicle" or, at least, a moving—not stationary—object in virtually every other part of the California vehicle code.
The second, and main, problem is what flows from the fact that a cyclist is moving. Stationary objects or persons move in ways of considerable predictability. Not so cyclists. Because cyclists are moving, they will react to road hazards, debris, wind gusts, equipment failures, and occasional lacks of balance, in ways motorists and cyclists themselves cannot predict. In a rural area such as that in which I live, I react to a cyclist like I'll react to a horse. A man sitting on a fence on the side of the road I can predict. A man sitting on a horse I cannot. Cyclists and horses can be unpredictable in their motions, regardless how "well trained" either is. Accordingly, a buffer of a discreet, mandated, distance is preferred.
A motorist's uncertainty when contemplating a cyclist's trajectory is, I believe, the blind spot in the CHP's opinion. However, let me assume that the blind spot is my own. I'll assume Captain Browne is wiser than I, and that the "3-foot margin" text is best replaced by Move Over, Slow Down."
I would still advocate for this bill if "3-feet" was replaced by "Move over, Slow down." This, because I don't think the perfect should be the enemy of the very, very good.
Captain Browne is a good man. Google him and read about his involvement, described in the Angwin Reporter, in the CHP's policing of the Amgen Tour of California.
It would be wrong to think that Captain Browne is ignorant of the dangers facing cyclists. Nor is he naïve of the risks his fellow CHP officers, when on the right-hand side of the road performing their duties.
I became aware of one man who inhabits both worlds. He eloquently expressed his view of SB910 in a letter to the governor, from which I will quote. I hope both Captain Browne, and Governor Brown, read and consider his view:
"I have the unique position of being a former CHP officer for 12 years and an avid cyclist for the last 20+ years. On December 19, 2007, while working as a CHP officer on a traffic stop, I was struck by a passing vehicle. The collision nearly killed me and has left me a quadriplegic, completely paralyzed from my upper chest down. Prior to the accident, I raced at the highest level of amateur cycling and also competed as an elite level triathlete with 10 Ironman finishes. Now as a quadriplegic, I continue to compete at the highest level of cycling as a member of the US National Paralympic Cycling team, with the goal of making it to the 2012 Olympics in London. In order to reach that goal, I continue to ride nearly 20 hours a week on the same roads and routes that I used to patrol as an officer.
"With regard to SB910, I feel the main purpose and reason to pass the law is to create more awareness when motorists encounter cyclists. I feel SB910 closely resembles SB159, the "Move over, slow down" law when approaching stationary emergency vehicles on the highway. In my opinion, enforcement and penalties associated with either bill are not the purpose, but rather making motorists aware of their requirements when encountering either situation. I understand there are laws that require motorists to safely pass, but adding a specific law regarding cyclists would definitely help. As a former CHP Officer I applauded the passing of SB159, and I hope to have the same appreciation as a cyclist when SB910 is passed.
"I hope the governor passes this bill with the idea of increased safety for cyclists. A delay of a few seconds while waiting to pass a cyclist is an extremely transient amount of time compared to a lifetime of tragedy dealing with the aftermath of a motorist striking a bicycle. My daughters want to "be like dad" and ride their bikes on the road, but I don't let them at their current age. The passing of this law wouldn't magically make riding a bicycle completely safe, but it is a necessary step in creating a safer environment on the roads."
Retired CHP Officer #14507