In an effort to make bicyclists safer on California roads, Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1909 into law in September 2022 and it went into effect on January 1, 2023. This law requires motor vehicles to give bicyclists a larger safety buffer when passing them on the street, which in turn will ostensibly reduce the number of collisions between motor vehicles and bicyclists. Let’s take a deeper look at this law.
For almost 10 years, the bike safety law in California stated that motorists were required to give at least three feet of distance between them and a bicyclist when passing them. This is the standard in many states and has been considered “safe enough” for bicyclists in most situations. In fact, this three-feet law or safe passing law as it is sometimes called, was first enacted in Wisconsin in 1973. Since then, 35 states have instituted the three-feet buffer zone for passing cyclists.
Some states, such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota have laws that expand this buffer to four feet or six feet in some cases in South Dakota. Six states, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Washington, require motorists to completely change lanes to pass a cyclist if there is more than one lane going in the same direction and if road conditions are safe enough for the motorist to change lanes.
As of January 1, 2023, California has joined ranks with the six states that require motorists to change lanes when passing a cyclist, becoming the seventh state to expand bike safety on its roads. The reason behind this change is to give both the motor vehicle and the cyclist more room in case one of them makes a mistake to reduce the chance of a collision and a serious injury. Drivers of motor vehicles only need to change lanes if there is a second lane in which to change to and if the road conditions allow a safe lane change.
Each county in California can set a fine for an infraction of this law, but at a minimum, a driver will incur a $238 fine for violating the bike safety law. If a collision between a motor vehicle and a cyclist occurs because the driver failed to change lanes and was able to safely do so, and the cyclist is injured, the driver faces at least $982 in fines. Additionally, the cyclist may pursue a personal injury claim against the driver as well.
Reasons for the Change
Primarily, the law was changed to give bicyclists more room on the roads because three feet didn’t allow for mistakes. Additionally, it was difficult for drivers to estimate a three-foot distance between them and the cyclists. Now, there is no guesswork involved. If there is a lane available to move over into and the road conditions are safe, the motorist doesn’t have to worry about how many feet are between them and the cyclist. They simply change lanes and pass them safely.
According to Attorney George Karpouzis, an injury lawyer in Fullerton California, “Most drivers have trouble estimating the distance of three feet. Hopefully, now more drivers will make a simple lane change, helping keep more cyclists safe.”
Overall, the new bike safety buffer law is designed to make the roads more accessible for everyone. The government hopes this will give more people incentive to ride their bikes instead of drive their cars since they know they will be safer now than they were before.