By BOB NORBERG

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Legislation that would require motorists to give cyclists a three-foot cushion when passing is neither a radical new idea nor a panacea for cycling safety.

What it would be, if it makes it into California law, is a comfort for cyclists and a big-time safety message for drivers.

Maybe the passing distance will even become a question on the DMV written driving test, said John Casey, an aide to Democratic Sen. Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach, who authored the bill.

“From my perspective, allowing this to be part of code, it could be part of driving test, something that students would need to know,” Casey said. “We start over time to enshrine in people’s heads that three feet is the distance you need to give.”

Lowenthal’s bill, SB910, has passed the Legislature and is on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Three feet is already a widely accepted standard, set into law in 18 states. For four others, including California, it is a DMV rules-of-the-road recommendation.

It still may not seem like much room when being passed by a car or truck, and every cyclist has stories about the fright of being buzzed by vehicles passing at high speed.

Even if you aren’t clipped, being startled can cause you to weave and fall, said Gary Helfrich, the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition’s executive director.

Luckily, collisions where cyclists are hit by passing vehicles, while among the most severe in terms of injury, are also the most rare.

Cyclists are more at risk of being “doored,” running into car doors opened in your path, or “right hooked,” where a vehicle passes you and then suddenly turns right and into your path.

California law now requires a vehicle to pass safely, without specifying exactly what a safe pass is, leaving it open to officers to issue a citation using whatever subjective criteria they want.

The bill would remove some of that subjectivity.

On roads too narrow to allow three feet of separation, the bill would also require drivers to pass at no more than 15 mph faster than the speed of the cyclist. It also would allow motorists to cross a double-yellow line to pass when the road is clear.

The bill sets a $35 fine for violations and a $220 fine for violations resulting in an injury to a cyclist.

The California Bicycle Coalition is coordinating a letter-writing campaign in support of the bill, http://givemethree.squarespace.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com