Three Foot Law Hurrah


California's newly minted Three Foot Law means motorists must now give cyclists 36 inches of space when passing.

by Diane Terry

Sept. 17, 2014—City leaders and local bicyclists gathered at Santa Cruz City Hall yesterday to celebrate the new Three Feet for Safety Law, which they hope will make the streets a safe place for two-wheeled commuters and encourage more people to feel comfortable ditching their cars and riding a bike instead.

Safety has long been a concern for bicyclists in Santa Cruz. Not all streets are equipped with bike lanes, forcing cyclists to occasionally ride in the same lane as motorists. The new rule, dubbed the Three Foot Law, requires cars to give cyclists 3 feet of berth when passing—even if that means driving slowly until the road widens.

The environmentally friendly nature of cycling makes it a commuting option that city leaders want to encourage. According to Climate Action Coordinator Ross Clark, 50 percent of Santa Cruz’s carbon footprint can be attributed to motor vehicle transportation, which he said is pretty high compared to most cities.

People Power Executive Director Amelia Conlen says the new law can help educate motorists. “In Santa Cruz County, the law is a way to talk to drivers about how to safely pass cyclists. The more we can spread the word on the new law, the more we raise awareness on the dangers of unsafe passing.

“I experience this most on the rural mountain roads of Santa Cruz County, where there is no shoulder and drivers sometimes pass very closely.”

In abandoning the vague law of the past, California joins 23 other states in enforcing a strict distance between bicyclists and passing motorists. Previously, California law required motorists to observe a “safe” passing distance but didn’t define that distance. The result was danger on the roads and legal confusion in court cases.

All police officers are being trained in enforcement of the new law, according to Scotts Valley Police Chief John Weiss, and will be focusing on areas with heavy motorist and cyclist traffic (such as routes commonly used by students biking to schools). For violators of the new law, there are two penalties, both of which are pricey. If the bicyclist isn’t injured, the base fine is $35 but ends up being $233 after fees; if the bicyclist is injured, the base fine is $220, which becomes $959.

Questions at the press conference underscored the difficulty of sharing limited road space. One bicyclist proposed that the law should extend to road interactions between bicyclists, citing the number of times she’s almost been hit by another cyclist on the road.

Another questioner asked, “Does this law allow motorists to cross a double yellow line in order to provide the necessary 3 feet of space for bicyclists?” (Apparently, this was an element of debate in the initial stages of creating the bill, but the answer is no. Since it’s still illegal to cross a double yellow, the only option is to slow down and pass when it’s legal and safe to do so.)

“The key takeaway here is to slow down when you see a cyclist and think about how to pass safely,” says Conlen.

Three Foot Law in A Nutshell

Here are the implications of the law, sweet and simple:

Drivers—Give bicyclists a 3-foot bubble of safety. Not sure how much space that is? Your car door is about 3 feet long, so use that as a guide. If you are unable to provide enough space, then slow down and let the cyclist do his or her thing until you can safely pass. If common decency isn’t enough of a reason to convince you to do this, then the heavy fines (ranging from $233 to $959) will keep you in check.

Bikers—Follow traffic laws! This way, motorists can predict your next move. Wear brightly colored clothing and make sure your bike has lights and reflectors so cars can see you. Most importantly, protect your melon and wear a helmet.


Read the Three Foot Law in its entirety.