Starting Tuesday, cyclists on Los Angeles' busy streets will get a buffer zone.
Statewide regulations will require drivers to stay at least three feet away from cyclists while passing. If traffic is too heavy to change lanes, or if other conditions make a three-foot buffer impossible, drivers must slow to a "reasonable and prudent" speed and wait to pass until the cyclist is safe.
Until now, California drivers were required to pass bicycles at "a safe distance," but the law did not specify what that meant.
Drivers should already be sharing the road with cyclists, officials said, but the law — and the fines that come with breaking it — should improve awareness. A driver who veers too close to a bike could face a $35 fine. If a car is in the buffer zone and a collision occurs that injures the cyclist, the driver could face a $220 fee.
"This is not another fine or a way of penalizing drivers," said Assemblyman Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), a cyclist who wrote the law. The measure, he said, will educate drivers and cyclists alike about sharing the road.
The law follows several local initiatives intended to make cycling safer. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has plastered signs with the slogan "Every Lane Is a Bike Lane" on buses across Los Angeles County. More than 200 miles of bike lanes have been added to Los Angeles' streets in the last five years, city officials have said.
California is the 24th state to enact a three-foot passing law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Pennsylvania gives cyclists the biggest buffer, requiring at least four feet between cars and bikes at all times.
More than 150 cyclists were killed in car collisions in 2012 in California, according to the California Highway Patrol's most recent data. In Los Angeles County, nearly 5,000 cyclists were killed or hurt in traffic that year.
Colin Bogart, the programs director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, a cycling advocacy organization, said he hopes that the law will encourage drivers to take a deep breath and wait before speeding past a cyclist.
"Every cyclist can cite a really harrowing moment where someone came way too close and really spooked us in the process," Bogart said.
Cyclists can legally use a full lane on California roads. They are required to follow the same traffic laws as cars, including stopping at stop signs and red lights.
"A lot of people get impatient when they're in their car," CHP Officer Edgar Figueroa said. "We see a lot of road rage incidents."
Starting Tuesday, Figueroa said, patrol officers will be watching cars and other vehicles to ensure that they are giving cyclists the required space. Patrol officers are trained to gauge distances and speeds by sight during their training at the CHP academy, he said, and will be able to tell whether drivers are behaving safely.
"If we see something that's unsafe, we really will do whatever we can to enforce that," Figueroa said. He said officers will consider each case individually when deciding whether to issue a citation.
Drivers who aren't sure whether they are more than three feet away should err on the side of caution and give more space than they think is necessary, Bogart said.
LAPD Officer Sara Faden said police would take time to educate drivers about the new law and issue warnings in some circumstances. But an incident that endangers a cyclist will result in a citation, she said.
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