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If you ride a bike, you had to cringe reading this morning's story of Levi Leipheimer's encounter with a car 10 days ago in Spain.

Leipheimer, the pro cyclist who has probably logged more miles on his bike in the past year than most of us have in our cars, described to staff writer Bob Padecky how he was on a solo training ride in the Spanish Basque country when suddenly he was flying off his bike.

"I didn't hear anything, I didn't see anything," he told Padecky.

The 82-year-old man who ran his car into Leipheimer told police he didn't see the cyclist. Leipheimer wonders how that could be.

It's every cyclist's nightmare, and you can tell from Leipheimer's quotes that the crash that broke a bone in his lower leg scared the hell out of him.

The reality is that it's rare for a cyclist to be hit from behind by a car. When it happens, though, it's usually catastrophic, and that makes it the leading cause of bicycle fatalities in California and the U.S. according to the California Bicycle Coalition. That's what makes it so scary.

What's far more common — and often just as frightening — is to be almost hit by a car passing too closely. The rush of air and noise and metal is enough to cause a full-body flinch in a rider, which is dangerous in itself when that body is moving at 20 or 30 mph with only a square inch of rubber in contact with the road.

But close encounters happen all the time, usually unintentionally but sometimes intentionally. It's not unusual for some drivers to use their vehicles to send a cyclist a message that he is not welcome on the road. It doesn't happen often, thankfully, but if you ride enough, you've been on the receiving end of such a message.

That's why it's good to hear that a law creating a 3-foot space between bikes and passing cars is again being considered by the California Legislature.

Senate Bill 1464, by Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, requires drivers to give bicyclists at least 3 feet of clearance when passing from behind. It also allows drivers on two-lane roads to cross the double yellow line — when it's safe to do so — in order to give a bicyclist those 3 feet of space.

Now, for most people, this is simple common sense. You might ask: Why do we need to legislate it?

Exhibit One is represented by Leipheimer's incident. He isn't sure what happened to that Spanish driver, but without evidence of intent or recklessness or impairment, someone who "accidentally" runs into a bicyclist from behind is not likely to be charged with any crime and often not even a driving violation. The 3-foot rule would at least ensure that slamming into an unprotected rider with a 3,000-pound vehicle would earn you a ticket.

Exhibit Two is my example of a driver sending a "message." Today, if a CHP officer witnesses a driver buzzing a cyclist, he has no way of knowing whether it's done intentionally (although he may determine it's not done safely). If SB 1464 becomes law, however, there's no need for a cop to divine a driver's motive. Less than 3 feet is against the law.

Exhibit Three is this: Often times, drivers honestly aren't sure what to do when they encounter bikes on a narrow road. By defining a minimum passing clearance, and allowing the crossing of the double yellow line, this bill gives everyone a better idea of their rights and responsibilities on the road.

And Exhibit Four: Many would-be cyclists simply refuse to ride their bikes on the road because they fear the nightmare experienced by Leipheimer. A 3-foot comfort zone — properly enforced and ingrained into the consciousness of drivers and riders alike — will make bicycling more acceptable to a broader range of riders.

SB 1464 is nearly identical to SB 910, a Lowenthal bill that was passed by the Legislature but vetoed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown. The governor cited the CHP's opposition to a provision in that bill that required drivers to slow to 15 mph when passing closer than 3 feet.

Backers of the new legislation recognize that a driver may not always have enough road to put 3 feet of space between his vehicle and a bike. They are proposing an amendment to SB 1464 that says, in that case, the driver must slow to a reasonable and prudent speed, and give the cyclist the maximum amount of space feasible when passing.

Is that too much to ask?

SB 1464 will have its first legislative hearing on Tuesday in Sacramento before the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.