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A new state law requiring motorists to give three feet of clearance when passing a bicyclist was welcomed by cyclists Tuesday, although there are some misgivings about how it will play out on the North Coast's narrow backroads.

The law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown is intended to better protect cyclists from aggressive drivers and was approved after he rejected previous bills to create a three-foot buffer zone.

"This is extremely welcome news. This has been two years coming," said Aileen Carroll, Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition outreach director.

"It encourages people to use common sense," she said, adding that the law basically says "if there's not room to pass someone riding a bike, then don't squeeze past them. It encourages people to slow down and think about what they're doing."

The law doesn't go into effect until mid-September, 2014, but cyclists said it could help bring awareness to the issue sooner.

"It increases public knowledge," said Bill Harrison, 77, Windsor, who's been an avid bicyclist for 40 years. "It will help make people a little more aware of the fact that we need a little leeway."

"I have mixed feelings, but I think it's probably OK," said Ray Capone, a retired Sebastopol civil engineer who questions whether cyclists should even be allowed on some narrow county roads.

"I would like to say 'three feet — what do you do? Go out and measure it?' " he said. "Some of these roads I don't think you can give three feet."

The sharing of the road by bicycles and motor vehicles has been an increasingly hot topic in the Bay Area and Sonoma County, coinciding with a rise in the number of cyclists.

Bicycles have proliferated, whether they are used by everyday commuters or recreational riders out for the scenery, challenging distances or climbs.

There are also a number of organized rides on most weekends. The largest, this year's Oct. 5 Levi's Gran Fondo, draws more than 7,000 participants in a single day to pedal various distances —- up to 100 miles — on west county roads.

Some drivers get especially frustrated with groups of cyclists riding abreast, making it difficult to overtake.

But the conflicts also occur in urban areas.

The new law was authored by Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, and sponsored by the City of Los Angeles, where former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa broke his elbow while cycling, as a result of a brush with a taxi.

Proponents of AB 1371, the law that mandates the three-foot distance, said cyclists continue to be subject to harassment by aggressive motorists who drive too close to them.

When that happens, even the slightest movement by either the driver or cyclist can result in injury or death for the bicyclist, Bradford noted.

"The author notes that this driving behavior leads to thousands of accidents annually in Los Angeles alone despite the fact that the City of Los Angeles sponsored numerous public awareness campaigns to curb this behavior," stated a legislative analysis of the bill.

Proponents of the bill said it will help remove ambiguity in current law, which requires to keep a safe distance when passing a bicyclist, but doesn't specify how far that is.

At least 22 states and the District of Columbia define s safe passing distance as a buffer of at least three feet, according to the legislative analysis.

A violation of the new requirement would be punishable by fines starting at $35. If unsafe passing results in a crash that injures the bicyclist, the driver could face a $220 fine.

But even those who are receptive to the three-foot buffer question whether the new law is too inflexible, particularly since motorists can't cross over a double yellow line to give cyclists more space.

Brown vetoed previous versions of the bill including one that would have allowed drivers to cross a double yellow line to make room for a cyclist.

The governor cited concerns that it could prompt more crashes, or make the state liable for collisions caused by a driver crossing into the oncoming lane.

"To me that doesn't make sense," said Bill Oetinger, the Santa Rosa Cycling Club's ride director. "It sets up a Pandora's Box."

He said drivers can get even more frustrated and angry getting boxed in behind a cyclist and they should be given latitude to briefly pass over the double yellow line if they can safely pass.

"If law enforcement takes a laissez-faire attitude about people passing the center line, it makes it more practicable I think," Oetinger said.

The new law does allow some wiggle room for motorists, essentially stating that if drivers can't leave a cushion of three feet, they can slow to "a reasonable and prudent speed" and pass if it does not endanger the cyclist.

Cyclists moving more slowly than the normal speed of traffic are required now to ride as close as practicable to the right hand curb, or edge of the roadway, according to the legislative analysis. There are exceptions, such as passing another cyclist, preparing to turn left, or if the cyclist is trying to avoid hazards such as parked cars, or obstructions in the road.

But narrow roads can sometimes make it tricky for cars to overtake even a solo cyclist.

Cyclists in general on Tuesday were receptive to the new law.

"It certainly can't hurt," said Gordon Stewart of Sebastopol, a cyclist for more than 15 years.

"The three-foot rule has been in the California driver's manual for a long time," said avid cyclist Chris Lyman.

"What the new rule does is elevate that rule from a suggestion to a requirement," he said. "Most motorists already give us more than three feet anyway, and we cyclists appreciate that."

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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