New California law requires drivers to change lanes for bicyclists, creates ‘safety buffer’

Previous state law required drivers to stay at least 3 feet from bicyclists when passing them on the road. The new law adds that drivers will now also need to change lanes when possible.|

For nearly a decade, California motorists have been required to maintain a distance of 3 feet when passing bicyclists. A new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, will require drivers to change lanes, when possible, to provide more space to bicyclists as they pass.

Assembly Bill 1909 was approved in September by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

It requires drivers to create extra space between their vehicles and any surrounding bicycles on the roadway, reducing “conflict points and risk of near misses or crashes,” said Timothy Weisberg, a spokesperson for the California Office of Traffic Safety.

“When a road user does make a mistake, there is a wider safety buffer that could reduce the chance of a serious injury,” he told The Press Democrat.

Penalties may vary by county, but anyone who violates the law faces at least $238 in fines and fees, Weisberg added. If a bicyclist is injured, the total amount could be at least $982.

Kim Badenfort, chairperson of Santa Rosa’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, said the new law will help to encourage area residents to rely more on bikes as a safe and protected mode of transportation.

“The main effect we can hopefully get from this is to get an increase in the sense of safety on the road for bicyclists,” he said. “Because that’s one of the big things holding people back from going out and using their bikes.”

According to the most recent data collected by the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center in Berkeley, 129 bicyclists died across the state in 2020. Another 925 bicyclists suffered serious injuries.

In 2020, in Sonoma County, one bicyclist was killed and 24 others were seriously injured.

As Windsor resident Paul Summers bicycled through Santa Rosa on Thursday, he explained that he prioritizes roadside safety and the new law emphasizes bicyclists and motorists need to share the road.

“Not everyone knows it’s legal to ride bikes on the road,” the 56-year-old said while standing along Range Avenue near Bicentennial Way. “But (AB 1909) isn’t saying bicyclists need to move; it says drivers need to move. That’s a good thing.”

Weisberg compared the new law to existing statutes that require drivers to change lanes for law enforcement, emergency crews or highway workers on the side of a road.

It adds a measure of safety for bicyclists on top of the 3-foot rule, which went into effect in 2014.

The new law reiterates that motorists are required to maintain a 3-foot buffer between themselves and bicyclists when passing cyclists traveling in the same direction. However, if not enough space is available, drivers are now required to slow down and pass without endangering the bicyclist.

Drivers have to consider other factors, such as road conditions and weather, when identifying appropriate times to pass if not enough space is available for the 3-foot gap.

“It may be challenging to judge from the driver’s perspective how far three feet is on the road,” Weisberg said.

Badenfort concurred.

“It’s very hard to enforce,” he said. “Most situations, its not a problem. Cars give room and that’s fine. But we do have situations on the road where bicyclists are being harassed by certain drivers passing very closely and yelling at them as they pass, which can be very terrifying.”

Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, said she rides her bike almost daily and is passed closely by vehicles at least once a week, even with the 3-foot rule in effect.

She said the new law is a “theoretical improvement” but its success will rely heavily on whether it’s properly enforced.

“Otherwise, how likely is it to change driver behavior?” Weaver asked. “Just (Thursday) morning on my way to work, I was passed too closely on Mendocino Avenue even though there was an existing empty lane which the driver could have used.”

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at On Twitter @colin_atagi

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