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Judge and Gavel
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  • Richard L. Duquette

The Three Feet for Safety Act: "Proving a Violation"

In an effort to increase Safety on California roadways, Governor Brown recently signed into law AB1371, effective September 16, 2014. The new law requires a three-foot buffer by motorists passing a bicyclist. It will be codified in California Vehicle Code Section 21760(b).

If a motorist cannot pass with three feet clearance, he must slow down to a reasonable and prudent speed before passing. In other words, no tailgating or reckless passing is allowed. This is critical as 40% of all fatal crashes between a bicyclist and a motorist are caused by collisions from behind.

So what does this mean when riding the streets? Let's walk through a few scenarios that allow you to enforce the law.

Assuming you're riding single file and no bicycle lane exists. In theory, any bus or vehicle that "buzzes" you or fails to decelerate before safely passing can be cited. This clarification in the law is helpful because motorists often misjudge distance between their vehicle mirrors or a bicyclist's speed when passing the bicyclist. Instead of allowing to pass at a "safe distance without interfering with the over taken bicyclist" under CVC 21750, the new statute adds objectivity, a yard stick if you will, to the distance.

Bicyclists know how frightening it can be to be nearly side-swiped (or buzzed) by a passing bus or a large vehicle. Bus violations can be proven by recording the license plate, bus number, route and time. Newer busses have windshield and side-mounted digital cameras as well as Zonar GPS data systems and black box electronics that record driving patterns. If you are "buzzed" by a bus or if you witness a clear violation and have a witness to corroborate your story, write North County Transit or First Transit and demand the violation be placed in the driver's personnel file. Ultimately, these entities become liable for negligent retention of bad drivers.

A reasonable interpretation of the new statute is that the three-foot law may be applied when a motor vehicle unsafely passes a bicyclist, as well as when the motorist repositions himself into a lane. A common situation arises when the motorist begins a pass, then prematurely moves back into the lane but fails to correctly judge the vehicle's right rear quarter panel in relation to the bicyclist.

A three-foot violation may also occur when the motorist fails to correctly estimate the speed of the bicyclist he passes, and then makes an illegal "right-hook" turn in front of a bicyclist.

In each of these cases, the new three-foot law is triggered in conjunction with other Vehicle Code violations, including unsafe turning movements and violating the right of way of the bicyclist. Remember, bicyclists have the same rights and duties as a motorist, so it helps if the bicyclist is law-abiding when asserting his rights. This includes lawfully riding as far to the right as practicable and not unreasonably impeding traffic behind you.

The legal effect of such Vehicle Code violations is to create a presumption of negligence when alleged in a negligence lawsuit. This is a powerful tool in litigation because fault becomes easier to prove.

Another way to prove a three-foot violation, (besides using a Go-Pro or Contour helmet video camera or credible witnesses), is documenting physical evidence such as a scratch, dent, or a paint transfer on a motor vehicle to establish the vehicle's unsafe position. This proves a violation when the motorist is in denial.

Many expert Accident Reconstructionists also look for gouge marks in the roadway that correspond to scrapes on bicycle parts. Again, this shows the location of initial impact, thereby proving a violation of unsafe passing statutes.

This law has further ramifications. Violators can suffer DMV points which implicate the negligent operator suspension laws. Too many points means the loss of license. If caught driving on a suspended license, the result is a misdemeanor with large fines and the potential for jail time.

Should the crash be serious enough, the violator may also be required to undergo a license re-exam, initiated by a reporting bicyclist or officer. (See my article "DMV Justice – Motor Vehicle Re-Examination Process" explaining that procedure.)

In the end, this new three-foot law helps limit the defenses that insurance companies and violators can use to escape responsibility. I hope the above analysis will assist you in obtaining justice and ensure that motor vehicles safely share the road with us.

Mr. Duquette has over 40 years of Experience serving the Bicycling Community and has successfully settled and tried to Jury Verdict numerous cases. for informative articles on Bicyclist Rights or give him a call at 760-390-5234, as he's always happy to discuss your case free of charge.


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