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Road Wars: The Bike vs. Car Question Continues

Does 3 Feet to Pass pass muster?


In May 2011, Boise resident Robert Stevahn was cycling southbound on the right side of Orchard Street--a street without bike lanes--before darkness fell.

Motorist Jeffrey Hanna was also traveling southbound on Orchard as he passed Stevahn closer than the 3-foot limit the City of Boise put in place in January 2010.

It's a story cyclists know well, but what happened next made it different.

Rather than blasting off into the sunset, Hanna made a right turn into a parking lot after several blocks, allowing Stevahn to catch up and confront him. They argued briefly, after which Stevahn contacted the Boise Police Department via Twitter and reported Hanna's license plate number.

Police came to Stevahn's house that night, where he explained the incident. The two officers, Oscar Canfield and Dave Burgard, said they were unaware of the law. They left briefly to look it up for confirmation, then returned, acknowledged it, went to see Hanna and issued him a citation.

In court, Hanna plead not guilty. He claimed he saw Stevahn, and though he was unaware of the law, only passed too close because traffic prevented him from getting over. Stevahn disputed that there was traffic, but in the end, it didn't matter. The judge told Hanna that traffic or not, the law stated that it was the motorist's responsibility to provide safe passing distance, even if that meant not passing until there was room to do so.

Hanna was found guilty and fined $80.

This incident was the first cited violation of Boise's 3 Feet to Pass law, and is the only citation BPD spokesperson Lynn Hightower is aware of. It took place more than a year after the law was instituted in the wake of the deaths of three Boise cyclists in a single month in 2009.

For cyclists who face the issue of safe passing distance daily, the incident raises a few questions: why did it take so long to cite a driver for a law that, according to cyclists, is violated frequently, and why were neither Hanna nor the responding police officers aware of the law?

The answer to both questions is essentially the same: According to Hightower, enforcement of the law isn't a priority. It's something that both the City of Boise and the BPD see as an educational measure intended to establish safe passing distance rather than a potential penalty intended to enforce it.

"The goal here was less to come up with a new law to cite motorists for than it was to provide a standard for what is safe driving," said Michael Zuzel, project manager for the Cycling Safety Task Force, which was responsible for the law.

Before the law, Zuzel said it wasn't even an infraction to clip a cyclist, so long as they weren't injured. So Boise followed the cue from 19 states and gave law enforcement something quantifiable to point to.

"From a police department standpoint, it's a good educational tool," said Zuzel. "If you have enough evidence to take it to court, then obviously, you do that. But the fact that we've had only one prosecution in two years shows that the law has had its intended effect."

"It raises awareness to motorists that it's dangerous if you drive too close to cyclists," said Hightower.

Adam Park, spokesperson for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, thinks the law is working.

"I don't have hard data on it, but anecdotally, yes, I do think people's behavior has changed," said Park, citing his own increased awareness.

"We think it's a very successful program," he said.

Remi McManus, the owner and general manager at Team Exergy, a road-cycling team, respectfully disagrees.

"Approximately 25 percent of people don't give you 3 feet," he said. "It hasn't changed at all since the law has passed."

No quantitative studies have been performed to back up McManus' claim, but he and his team of 15 riders spend approximately 20-30 hours a week training on local roads.

"Yesterday, I was riding with my friend on Hill Road and a motorcycle came within 3 feet of me. You'd think a motorcycle would give enough space but apparently not."

McManus and his team aren't outliers in the issue of safe-passing distance.

John Yarnell, the man behind bicycle safety organization Look! Save a Life, rides Hill Road once a week.

"I get passed at least once a ride in an unsafe manner," said Yarnell.

He said some people will give cyclists 12 feet to pass, but others will get as close as possible "just to be an asshole."

"I had a super-duty crew cab slow down to crowd me, then gun it to blast me with diesel exhaust," he said. "I chased them to try to get their license number but gave up after a half-mile."

McManus said the problem is especially pervasive on roads that lack a good shoulder, as well as in the winter months when the sand poured on roads for traction piles up in bike lanes, forcing cyclists into the road.

Both Yarnell and McManus believe 3 Feet to Pass is a good start. In theory, it forces conversations that will make people understand that they share the road. But they also say just having it on the books isn't enough.

"I'm all for education," McManus said. "But until it's actually an enforced law, it isn't going to change anyone's driving habits."