Bill would set three-foot limit for drivers passing cyclists
by Tim Lockette
Oct 08, 2013 | 4901 views |  0 comments | 54 54 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Terry Grizzard and Patrick Wigley ride on 13th Street in downtown Anniston near parked cars to show the approximate distance cars would have to leave for bikes as they pass, according to a bill proposed by a state senator from Tuscaloosa. (Photo illustration by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Terry Grizzard and Patrick Wigley ride on 13th Street in downtown Anniston near parked cars to show the approximate distance cars would have to leave for bikes as they pass, according to a bill proposed by a state senator from Tuscaloosa. (Photo illustration by Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)
Gerald Allen loves to ride his bike, but drivers often go out of their way to make him feel unwelcome on the street. Passing motorists have shout at him to get off the road. Some throw Coke bottles at him as they speed past.

He’s even been “brushed” — passed by a car so close he could reach out and touch it.

"One of the last things my wife tells me every time I get on my bike is, 'Please be careful,’" he said.

Allen's complaints are common to bicyclists on Alabama roads, but Allen isn't just any biker. The Tuscaloosa Republican represents District 21 in the Alabama Senate, and he's proposed a bill that, if passed, could give bicyclists wider berth.

Allen has pre-filed a bill for the 2014 legislative session that would require drivers to stay at least three feet away from bicyclists when passing them on roads anywhere in Alabama.

At least 23 states already have three-foot passing laws, including every state bordering Alabama. Advocates of the three-foot rule say it would make bike riders feel safer, and would encourage more people to ride.

In Anniston, where bike races and mountain biking trails often attract out-of-town bikers, local bicyclists seemed to welcome the effort.

"I was not aware of the bill, but it seems like something that should be done," said Mike Poe, a member of the board of the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association.

Allen's bill would change only 20 words in Alabama's laws regarding traffic. State law already mandates that bicyclists "shall be granted all of the rights" of drivers of other vehicles on state roads.

Allen and other bikers say most drivers don't seem to realize that.

"I have people hollering at me all the time, saying 'Get off the road,'" Allen said. "They don't know I have a right to be there."

Anniston's bikers came forward with similar stories last year in the wake of the death of Derek Jensen, a Center for Domestic Preparedness employee who died after being struck by a truck while biking to work.

Supporters of three-foot laws acknowledge one drawback: they're extremely difficult to enforce. According to a study by researchers at Rutgers University, Minnesota's three-foot law has resulted in only about three citations per year statewide. Police in Florida have conducted sting operations to catch those who violate the three-foot rule, the study said. Still, the study found, most citations are issued after car-and-bike collisions.

The Rutgers study also found that there's not yet conclusive data to show that the three-foot law reduces bicyclists injuries.

"There's no data that proves that," said Charles Brown, a researcher at the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers. "But it's a valuable tool for educating drivers about how to share the road."

Brown said the three-foot law encourages more people to bike, increasing awareness that bikers are part of everyday traffic. With proper publicity for the three-foot law, he said, drivers come to understand that bikers belong on the road.

Supporters of the Alabama bill, too, said the main benefit could be in simply asserting a biker's right to be on the street.

"It will help legitimize cycling," said Stan Palla, executive director of AlaBike, a statewide advocacy group for bicyclists. "We have a legal right to be on the road. When somebody does get hurt, this gives them the opportunity to say, 'You can't just say you didn't see me.'"

Asserting that right is sometimes a challenge even for bike riders in states where there is a three-foot law. When Tallahassee resident Joe Mizereck realize that drivers weren't observing Florida's three-foot law, he started biking in a yellow shirt with "Three Feet Please" blazoned on the back. He now sells the shirts to customers across the country.

Mizereck said a three-foot law needs to be publicized in order to work. He said the law does encourage biking because it addresses the most widespread misgiving about the sport: fear that it's just not safe to bike in traffic.

"When you ask people what they fear most, people fear being hit from behind," he said.

Anniston bike shop owner Patrick Wigley said he'd like to see the bill pass, though he's not sure it meets bicyclists' biggest safety need.

"For me, a bigger fix would be a requirement that whenever a state or federal road gets re-paved or rebuilt, it gets a bike lane," he said.

Wigley said most would-be bikers are afraid to ride "in the paint," but would be more comfortable on a bike lane or a shoulder wide enought to accommodate bikes.

Last year, the Anniston City Council adopted a policy that would require the city to consider bikes and pedestrians when new roads are planned or old roads are resurfaces, but it's non-binding and only affects areas inside city limits.

Wigley said bike riders had high hopes for Choccolocco Road when it was recently repaved, seemingly wide enough for a bike-friendly shoulder.

"And damn if they didn't paint the lines right on the edge," he said.

Allen has filed his three-foot bill twice before in the Senate, but those earlier efforts went nowhere. Allen said they got "lost in gridlock" over budgets and other matters.

For the 2014 session, the three-foot measure is Senate Bill 9, among the first dozen pre-filed bills. Allen thinks its chances are good.

"The leadership in the House and the Senate have said they want to deal with bills that are non-controversial next year," he said.

The 2014 legislative session begins Jan. 14.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

Editor's note: This story has been modified to correct a reference to Mike Poe's role with the Northeast Alabama Bicycle Association. Poe is a member of the group's board of directors.

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