New state law mandates safe distance for motorists buzzing past bicyclists
By Chuck McGinness
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006
It's called getting buzzed.
In cycling slang, it's when a car passes so close that it forces a biker off the road or, even worse, clips the cyclist with the side mirror.
A new state law beginning Sunday will require drivers to maintain a minimum 3-foot safe distance when passing cyclists.
On Sunday, a new state law takes effect that requires motorists to maintain a minimum 3-foot safe distance when passing bicyclists. The fine is $118.50.
Longtime biker Don Braverman said he's never been hit, but he's had to veer off the road to avoid a collision. He's seen fellow riders suffer punctured lungs and other serious injuries when buzzed.
"I hope drivers realize that these mirrors stick out a good eight to ten inches and allow for that," said Braverman, president of the Boca Raton Bicycle Club. "A driver's responsibility is the same as passing a car."
On narrow roads, like State Road A1A, a popular road for cyclists which has 12-foot wide travel lanes, motorists likely will have to cross the center line to comply with the new law. If there is oncoming traffic, drivers will have to wait until it's safe to pass.
"If a car is going slower than you want to go, you can't just blow your horn, yell and cuss at them and expect them to move off the road so you can pass," said George Martin, executive director of the Safe Bicycling Coalition of Palm Beach County. "Why should someone expect that of a bicyclist?"
Area police departments aren't planning any special crackdowns to enforce the new law. In Boca Raton, officers will keep a close eye on roads used by cyclists to make sure there aren't any problems, Police Chief Dan Alexander said.
"Boca Raton is set up nicely for bikers, as opposed to other cities," Alexander said.
Designated as a "Bicycle Friendly Community" by the Washington-based League of American Bicyclists, the city has 40 miles of bike lanes and 28 miles of off-road bike pathways.
That makes a big difference in reducing "interactions" between cyclists and motorists, according to a recent University of Texas study. Having painted bike lanes on streets helps both drivers and bikers stay in safer, more-central positions in their respective lanes.
"Without a marked bike lane, there appears to be a lot of uncertainty about how much space each person needs — even when adequate road space is provided," said Randy Machemehl, director of the university's Center for Transportation Research.
Similarly, a New York City study released this month showed that of the 225 cyclists killed in crashes on city streets over the past 10 years, only one involved a cyclist who was in a marked bike lane. The most common factor contributing to the fatal accidents was bikers' ignoring signals and stop signs and 97 percent of the riders who died were not wearing helmets, according to the report.
The research shows bike lanes benefit motorists as much as they do bicyclists, said Raphael Clemente, a competitive cyclist and director of transportation, planning and public services for the West Palm Beach Downtown Development Authority. The Florida law should help improve safety, but only if it's enforced, he said.
"Police officers are too often unconcerned with the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians and are less likely to be attentive to laws that protect them," Clemente said, adding that police often are unfamiliar with the rights and responsibilities of cyclists.
Some motorists may argue that the law would not be needed if cyclists were more aware of their surroundings and pulled off the road if they are backing up traffic or preventing someone from passing safely.
State law says bikers should ride as far to the right as practical, but are not required to "hug the curb." That's dangerous and cyclists can take the entire lane to avoid unsafe conditions, Martin said.
"The burden of safe passing is, and always has been, on the driver," he said.
Florida is one of seven states with the passing law. Arizona, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin are among the others.