Bicyclists and Highway One – an editorial

Today, a new law goes into effect that mandates a minimum distance of 3 feet between a vehicle and a bicycle when passing. How that will play out on Highway One will be a nightmare. Law makers have once again passed a law with no foresight, creating the usual unintended consequences of their failure to think things through. There must be an exception built into this law for narrow, winding mountain roads, like Highway One, which cannot support a highway wide enough to “share.”

This law states:

(a) This section shall be known and may be cited as the Three Feet for Safety Act.

(b) The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking and passing a bicycle that is proceeding in the same direction on a highway shall pass in compliance with the requirements of this article applicable to overtaking and passing a vehicle, and shall do so at a safe distance that does not interfere with the safe operation of the overtaken bicycle, having due regard for the size and speed of the motor vehicle and the bicycle, traffic conditions, weather, visibility, and the surface and width of the highway.

(c) A driver of a motor vehicle shall not overtake or pass a bicycle proceeding in the same direction on a highway at a distance of less than three feet between any part of the motor vehicle and any part of the bicycle or its operator.

(d) If the driver of a motor vehicle is unable to comply with subdivision (c), due to traffic or roadway conditions, the driver shall slow to a speed that is reasonable and prudent, and may pass only when doing so would not endanger the safety of the operator of the bicycle, taking into account the size and speed of the motor vehicle and bicycle, traffic conditions, weather, visibility, and surface and width of the highway.

(e) (1) A violation of subdivision (b), (c), or (d) is an infraction punishable by a fine of thirty-five dollars ($35). (Note: the Herald reports that the fine is $220, but that is only the fine if the motorist causes an accident.)

As the road is currently configured, there are only a dozen or so legal passing lanes that will allow for that law to be obeyed along the entire 90 mile stretch of Highway One. Thus, motorists will be placed firmly on the horns of a dilemma, facing three possible choices, all of which are illegal. First, one can pass leaving less than three feet distance, now illegal. Two, one can go over or onto the double yellow line to create the mandated three foot distance, also illegal. Three, one can plod along behind the bicyclist at 5-30 mph, depending on the grade, building up a long line of cars behind, also illegal. This is a prescription for road rage and accidents.

The ball is now firmly in Cal Trans yard for it to figure out how we can “share this road” that is not nearly wide enough to do so. It can add 3′ out over the ocean and blast into the mountains to create another 3′ on the inland side. While this is clearly an expensive proposition, I suggest we all write to our State Senators and Assemblypersons (contact info to right under links) to demand financing so that Cal Trans can create a road sufficiently wide enough to be shared, particularly now that it is giving permits for more and more bicycling events. Or, the less expensive alternative is to provide an exception for roads like Highway One. While the “width of the roadway” is one of the considerations to be made when judging passing a vehicle, it is written with the muddy clarity legislators are famous for. Either solution will require action on our part. Write, email, call. Make their incompetence known and your objection heard.

15 thoughts on “Bicyclists and Highway One – an editorial

  1. Hmm maybe they should also consider all of the productive things that could come from fracking as well. Lets see, thousands of jobs, cheaper energy, tapping into one of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world…

  2. Thanks, Kate! I would stress the importance of taking action by adding:

    1. The fine does not include the court and other administrative costs that are added to it, so that a $35 fine will likely be in the $250-300 range.

    2. I read paragraph (b) of the statute as prohibiting any passing or overtaking of a bicycle at any time where conditions may make it unsafe – even if you overtake and pass with three feet to spare. Paragraph (c) then says that the conditions will always be considered unsafe unless you leave at least three feet of space. (IMO, one could argue under the statute that passing a bicycle at any time on Highway One is unsafe unless you are using the passing lanes….)


  3. As I said, the statute has the requisite muddy clarity of typical California laws, and could be, and will be read with a variety of interpretations. With admin costs, it should run between $50-$100, I would guess.

  4. I guess the fine will depend on the county. That always trusty S.F. Chronicle reports $237. Whatever it is, Kate is surely is right that folks should complain – this is another piece of very shortsighted legislation! (I also note that there is nothing in the statute that prohibits bicyclers from passing in a dangerous manner….)

  5. It positions the biker as hapless victim, driver as vengeful moron. How will it ever be enforced…like the hammer in disability laws, new law suits, citizens set against each other, our feckless govt in action. Biker (good) vs car owner (bad). Let’s fire the lawmaker.

  6. You are, of course, right, Janice. It will depend on the county. There is also nothing IN THIS STATUTE, although there are others, that mandate bicyclist must keep to the right, unless dangerous to do so. Here, many experienced bicyclists interpret that to mean that when going downhill on curves, they should be in the MIDDLE of the road, to prevent motorists from passing. I don’t think anyone questions that this road through Big Sur is frustrating to both motorists AND bicyclists, ESPECIALLY when trying to “share the road.”


  7. Under the law, motorists also have a forth, entirely legal choice: subsection (d) let you pass with less than three feet of room so long as three conditions are met: (1) you cannot comply “due to traffic or roadway conditions,” (2) you slow down to a speed that is “reasonable and prudent” and (3) you pass only when it “would not endanger the safety of the operator of the bicycle.”

    The first situation–you cannot pass with three feet of room–is likely to occur on Highway One in many circumstances. So then a motorist only has to slow down and make sure they can pass safely, which I think (hope?) we can all agree is what a driver should do even without a law to tell them.

    That said, I’d love to see wider shoulders for many reasons!

  8. While I agree that most of us always try to pass in a safe manner, not going over the double yellow, I am not sure I agree with your “fourth” option interpretation. That is one of the problems with this law. As usual, it is not clearly written, which is what keeps us vilified lawyers in business. I made a living for 15 years attacking laws that were not clearly written, often enough getting the courts to agree.


  9. Let’s put this in front of the BSMAAC team, Kate. At the very least, we can raise Bill Monning and Luis Alejo’s consciousness on the issue and get an updated cost estimate (per mile) from Cal-Trans to install bike lanes.

  10. Horrible law. Does the ‘violation’ need to be observed by a law enforcement officer? Sadly someone is going to die because of this. Occasional head on collisions as a result of this is a given.

  11. Section D. I think this is analogous to the crosswalk law that went into effect a couple of years ago, putting common sense and courtesy in writing. As both a bicyclist (never say never, but I shudder when I see riders on Hwy 1) and a motorist, I see idiots on both sides.

  12. One consequence to look forward to is that whenever there is a collision between an auto and a bike the auto will be found legally at fault unless the driver somehow managed to do the impossible.

  13. I used to be an avid bicyclist, but in general it became just too dangerous–man against car. I know it’s draconian, but bicyclists on Highway One through Big Sur is danger on steroids and it should be forbidden. Bicyclists are not allowed to ride on the freeway–why? because it’s too dangerous.

  14. Thanks for sharing your concerns, Kate, which make sense, of course.

    California Highway Patrol states that if there is a bicycle within the lane and a vehicle cannot safely pass giving three feet of clearance, then they cannot pass. Naturally, this brought up a lot of questions from the public (e.g., If a bicycle is going uphill, do I have to stay behind it, all the way up, which could take up to 45 mins?). The answer from CHP is yes and no. If you cannot pass the bike safely, then you will have to wait. On the other hand, section 21656 of the vehicle code states when five or more vehicles are behind a slow moving vehicle (e.g., a bicycle), the slow moving vehicle shall turn off the roadway to let traffic pass.

    For more about Three Feet for Safety, see and a CHP press release, which is accompanied by Bicycling Monterey’s related tips:

    Thanks for being such an asset to our county, Kate.

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