11 May 2017

Is This California Law A Lemon In Orange County?

Back in October,  a North Carolina law went into effect that, among other things, requires drivers in the Tar Heel State to give cyclists at least four feet of space while passing them.  At the time, both cyclists and motorists praised that provision of the law (House Bill 959), as well as another that allows drivers to cross the center line to pass a cyclist as long as there's "an assured clear distance" ahead and no oncoming traffic.

I have not seen any reports as to the effect the law is, or isn't, having on cyclists' safety.  To be fair, it may be too early to gauge because a change over the course of a few months in either direction could be just a statistical "blip".

Perhaps one could also say it's too early to tell whether a similar law the California Legislature passed in 2014 is having its desired effect.  That law, however, mandates only three feet when a motorist passes a cyclist.  Before the North Carolina's policy went into effect last fall, drivers were only required to give two feet.

I would like to hear what the folks in North Carolina say about their law next year.  If nothing else, it will be interesting whether they recount different experiences from what David Whiting, an Orange County Register columnist, reported after reviewing the coroner's records in his county.

A group of cyclists ride south along Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach on Tuesday morning, May 9, 2017. Orange County continues to kill an average of one cyclist a month despite a new California law that requires vehicles to stay 3 feet from bicycles when passing. Newport Beach has the most deaths. (Photo by Mark Rightmire,Orange County Register/SCNG)
Cyclists in the bike lane of the Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach, CA on 9 May.  From the Orange County Register.

Whiting, who says he has cycled roads in his area "for decades", writes that the past decade has averaged one cyclist killed by a motorist every month in Orange County.  That rate has been pretty consistent; so far this year, three cyclists have met their fates at the hands of motorists on Orange County roads.

For the purposes of his report, Whiting counted only those cyclists who were killed in encounters with motorized vehicles and not the ones (smaller in number) who were killed on trails, from falls or when they crashed into parked cars or other vehicles or objects--or the one who was run over by a train.  That makes sense:  Such deaths could not have been prevented by a two-, three- or four-foot, or any other distance, rule.

However, it also makes sense (or seems to) that such rules, whatever the correct or optimal distance may be, might prevent a few motorists from running down cyclists.  It is also fair to ask whether such rules actually work.

If Whiting's conclusion that the law is having little or no effect in Orange County is valid--which, I believe, may be the case--then I think it's necessary to ask why.  

Cyclist and advocate Bill Sellin, who has worked with the Orange County Transportation Authority, says the law has been good for "raising bicycling awareness" but otherwise "ineffective".  One problem, as he sees it, is that the penalties for passing cyclists close enough to scrape off their jerseys are lighter than those for littering.  Another problem, he says, is drunk and otherwise impaired driving.  But even more important, he says, is "addiction to cellphones".  Too many people, he explains, "are no longer paying attention to driving, but paying attention to a device".  

Sellin makes a lot of sense.  Perhaps a three- or four-foot rule, by itself, will not make cyclists safer.  However, if other laws are passed and, more important, enforced in tandem with it, we could see safer roads for both cyclists and motorists.  

Here in New York, we have a law against talking on cellphones while driving that is simply not enforced.  Some, especially among law enforcement in this city, argue that it's unenforceable or that there are "other priorities".  That, I don't understand:  A distracted driver is just as much of a danger, not only to cyclists, but to public safety in general, whether on city streets or rural highways.  

So is one who is intoxicated or under the influence, or with abilities impaired (which, by the way, are not the same thing). While local law enforcement officials and newspapers like to trumpet how many arrests they make, or summonses they give, for such violations, offenders too often get off with light penalties or, if they lose their licenses after repeat offenses, get back their driving privileges in relatively short order.

Whiting, for his part, makes points that make a lot of sense. One of them is that rules requiring motorists to maintain a certain distance won't, by themselves, make cyclists or motorists safer.  Only, as he points out,  more courteous behavior between cyclists and, as Sellin maintains, enforcement of rules against impaired and distracted driving, will make a three-, four- or x number-feet rule meaningful.


  1. Distracted driving laws are all well and good ONLY IF ENFORCED.
    Statistics for distracted driving citations in Chicago:
    2014: 45,594
    2015: 25,884
    2016: 186
    Through 4/16/17: 24

    (source: Chicago Tribune.)


  2. Fewer and fewer drivers have experienced cycling on roads prior to being given their licence to kill...

    he most comfortable and isolated place most now have is their mobile tin isolation unit with comfortable seats, climate control and infinite number of distractions to isolate them from the realisation that they are notionally in charge of a deadly weapon.

    In the UK officially designated cycleways are usually a strip of less than three feet in the roughest part of the road in the gutter with badly sited and installed drainage grids and unrepaired potholes. Passing another cyclist within the zone is impossible and worse than that the designated roadway remaining for motorists is too narrow to allow sufficient safe room to pass cyclists with a small car let alone a large truck or bus!

    I have lived here and been cycling on roads which have only changed imperceptibly in that time whilst the number of vehicles has increased exponentially, speeds have increased, speed "bumps" proliferated and driving skills fallen.

    It is clear to see why so many buy and use off road bikes and give the roads themselves a miss. doctors implore us to get out and exercise but cycling can increase stress levels and too often involve encounters with "entitled" motorists with their right to never consider others.

    Ride safe!

  3. Mike--Exactly. So, from what you've said, non-enforcement of such laws is not particular to NYC.

    Coline--It's been a while since I've been to the UK. I recall more pleasant cycling there than in most of the US, though not as nice as France or the Benelux countries. From what you're saying, though, cycling there sounds more and more like cycling here.

  4. Actually, "enforcement of rules against impaired and distracted driving" would make any specific distance requirement irrelevant. The "OLD" rule of passing at a safe distance is perfectly fine - if you HIT something, you OBVIOUSLY were not a safe distance away. Prosecutions of specific distance laws are so rare as to make them irrelevant anyway.

  5. Steve--Thank you for pointing that out. From what I can see, enforcing laws against DUI, DWI and distracted driving would do more than anything else (save, perhaps, for allowing the "Idaho Stop") to make cycling safer on streets.

  6. Ohio just passed a 3-foot rule after several years of debate and opposition from motorist-oriented groups. We also have (supposedly) a no-texting-while-driving law that is virtually unenforceable. They made texting/driving a "secondary" offence, which means that even if an officer witnesses someone texting while driving, there is nothing they can do to stop them. It is only if the person commits another violation simultaneously -- for example runs a light, or (god forbid) hits a cyclist, pedestrian, or another car while texting that anything can be done -- and then only if the officer bothers to ask "were you texting when you struck that person" and if the offending driver is dumb enough to answer "yes." They probably have the right to inspect a driver's phone to see call/text usage (they might be able, but I'm not certain) but I doubt many police bother to make such a request/demand. Needless to say, but when I'm riding to or from work, I'd estimate that about 1/3 of the drivers I see at any given moment are using a cell phone in some fashion. From a cyclist's vantage point, I can see right into their cars very well, and if my vision were still as good as it was 20 years ago, I'd probably be able to read their texts!

  7. Brooks--I love what you say in your last sentence. It is indeed that drivers can so blatantly break a law and get away with it, even if their actions result in cyclists or pedestrians getting killed or maimed.