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What happened to three feet?
The path from bright idea to law is not often short or direct – it’s more likely to be long, circuitous, and not exactly pretty, much like a business route that takes you around the city rather than going to the heart of the matter.
The Three Feet Safe Passing bill sponsored by Georgia Representative Wendell Willard (R-HD 49) and helped along by the Georgia Bikes Alliance (recently-formed lobbying sister to Georgia Bikes!), is no different.
A little background
Georgia law requires that drivers leave a “safe” distance when passing other vehicles. Since bicycles are vehicles under Georgia law, the “safe” distance applies to us as well, but many states around the U.S. have adopted more specific legislation regulating motor vehicles passing bicyclists. At most recent count, sixteen states had laws defining a safe passing distance as three feet (or more), and another seven including Georgia had bills introduced during the last legislative session.
House Bill 988 was drafted at the initiative of Bike Roswell members, and helped along by grassroots support and a lobbyist hired by the Alliance. The bill initially received strong support, leaving subcommittee nearly unscathed, but as the session stretched on and other transportation issues including funding reform came to the fore, lawmakers began raising questions. “What if there are two cyclists riding side by side?” was the stickiest of these. The answer, that most cyclists will drop to single file to allow cars to pass, led to a Sophie’s Choice: give up the right to ride two abreast, or give up on three feet.
The board of the Alliance deliberated long and hard, and while there were a range of opinions, we ultimately decided that a) we have too few protections as cyclists in Georgia to be giving any away and b) the ability to ride two abreast does confer a safety benefit (especially on roads with more than one lane in each direction) as it tends to force drivers to change lanes to pass, thus accomplishing the same goal as the three feet bill.
Now at this point, some of you are wondering why the Georgia Bikes Alliance decided to pursue the definition of three feet as the safe passing distance in the first place. In seeking consensus around a legislative agenda, defining three feet as the safe passing distance kept popping up on every list. It may not have been everyone’s top priority, but it made everyone’s cut – it aimed to improve safety, raise awareness, and ultimately was intended to encourage more people to ride bicycles in Georgia.
We did have other items on our agenda, including what became our “Better Biking” bill – a cleanup bill that would define bike facilities, make it illegal to park in a bike lane, explicitly legalize bicycling on paved shoulders, allow variants on hand signals, and legalize recumbents, among other things. That bill did not make it out of committee before crossover day, but we have high hopes for next year.
Speaking of high hopes, we need your help. If you visit the Georgia General Assembly’s website and click on Representatives by Name, you may notice a big blue F next to their names. That’s not a grade, it’s a way for us to forge new connections with our elected officials!
I believe social networking is key to advancing our cause, and I invite you to join Facebook and “friend” your representatives and senators. Once you’ve made friends, invite them to speak (briefly) at the start of your next ride! By giving them a chance to air their views and get friendly face time, we create opportunities to hear and be heard when the next session rolls around. Unfortunately our Georgia Senators aren’t as networked yet, but you can still reach out to them the old-fashioned way, and some of you may even prefer that!
Whatever works for you is great, just as long as you reach out.
It might sound intimidating at first, but I can tell you from our experience in Atlanta that at the end of the day, it’s all about relationships, and they might as well be good ones!
If you’d like to learn more about the Georgia Bikes Alliance or view the bills introduced in 2010, please visit our website at gban.org, or join the conversation on the web through the google message board.
We welcome your input on goals and strategies as we prepare for the next session at the Gold Dome, where Georgia’s bicycle advocates will continue to work to protect the rights of bicyclists in our state!
Stay tuned for information about the Georgia Bike Summit this fall - we're planning this summit as a way for bicycle users across the state to share their ideas for improving conditions for cycling, as well as to network and learn about the many possibilities and challenges. Hope you'll join us!