New California law requires 3 feet between cars, bicycles

A new law aimed at making it safer to ride a bicycle went into effect in California on Tuesday, requiring motorists to keep a 3-foot buffer when passing cyclists.

A long-standing law required drivers passing cyclists to maintain a safe distance, but it failed to define how large that space had to be. California now joins 24 other states that have similar laws.

The law doesn’t require motorists to stay behind cyclists until a narrow road ends or widens; it allows a driver to pass within 3 feet if he or she slows to a safe speed.

Bike advocates say they hope the law will reduce accidents and ease tension between cyclists and drivers who share urban and rural roads.

“More and more Californians are discovering that bikes are an easy, healthy and fun way to get around, but it’s unnecessarily dangerous when a motorist passes too closely,” said Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition.

Moises Onsurez, California Highway Patrol public information officer for Merced, said quite a number of bicyclists are using G Grade, also known as Snelling Road, and Highway 59 to travel to Snelling, especially on the weekends. Cyclists, many of them middle-aged or senior citizens, are riding on those narrow two-lane roads on Friday nights, as well as Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Bear Creek Drive from Merced to Planada also is a favored route for many cyclists, according to Onsurez.

Fortunately, there have been few accidents involving autos and bicyclists, Onsurez said. But the risks have risen since mid-August with the return of children to the schools.

Local reaction to the new law was mixed.

Rosella Nelson thought maintaining a safe distance should be a matter of general practice, with or without a new law. “Shouldn’t or wouldn’t that have been the ‘common sense’ law already?” she wrote in a response to a post on the Merced Sun-Star’s Facebook page.

Nicole Simons doesn’t see much change ahead because, she wrote, some bicyclists already disregard traffic laws with impunity. “I always see bicyclists going the wrong way, young kids with no helmets; some bicyclists never follow the rules,” she wrote. “They think they can do whatever they want because cops never give them tickets.”

In 2012, 153 bicyclists died in accidents, both solo and in collisions with autos, statewide, a 7 percent increase from the previous year, state data shows. Those deaths accounted for 5 percent of the total collision fatalities in California in 2012.

Bike crashes are especially risky for youngsters 5 to 14, who are more likely to be seen in hospital emergency rooms for injures related to cycling than for any other sport, according to

The fine for violating the 3-foot rule is $35, plus court costs, which can amount to about $200. If a bicyclist is injured, however, the basic fine rises to $233, plus court costs that can be as high as $780.

The CHP says it’s prepared to enforce the law but is not gearing up for any big crackdown or ticket-writing campaign to catch motorists a few inches inside the 3-foot space.

CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow said in a news release that motorists should exercise caution when they see bicyclists on the road, making sure to move over or slow down to pass.

Farrow also cautioned bicyclists to exercise safe practices and ride smart. The CHP urges bicyclists to wear a helmet, ride on the side of the road with traffic, not against it, and stay as far right as possible.

Bicyclists are urged to wear bright, reflective clothing; use lights when riding at dusk, dawn or in the evening; and make sure the bike has reflectors. Bicycle helmets are required by law for children under 18 years of age in California.

The Contra Costa Times contributed to this report.