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January 5, 2011 at 12:00 PM

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Bill would give bicyclists three feet of space -- or five

Posted by Mike Lindblom

It might seem like common sense, but Washington state Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, has introduced House Bill 1018 to govern how cars should pass bicycles, explain where bicycles belong in the roadway and tell cyclists to avoid pedestrians on a trail.

Pedersen says he's had close calls while bike commuting on busy Madison Street to and from downtown.

It's unclear whether passage would lead to police crackdowns. Pedersen said that's not really the goal.

"The big point of a law like this is to raise public awareness of the problem," he said.

Some highlights:
* Motor vehicle drivers must give three feet of clearance while passing a bicycle at 35 mph or slower.
* Drivers must give five feet clearance to bikes when faster than 35 mph "to the extent that it is reasonably feasible and safe."
* Bicyclists must "yield the right of way" to pedestrians in crosswalks, sidewalks and trails. Last spring, an 83-year-old woman died on a Renton trail after stepping in front of two bicyclists, who were not charged.
* Bicycles are allowed on the left side of one-way streets. Such routes exist on Blanchard Street, Fourth Avenue and Roosevelt Way Northeast in Seattle.
* Cyclists have the right to travel a few feet away from a line of parked cars, avoiding what's known as the "door zone."

The bill is promoted by the Bicycle Alliance of Washington, and borrows ideas from a law in Colorado, said Dave Janis, the alliance's policy director.

Fourteen states have a 3-foot law, Janis said.

Some provisions might lead to on-street bickering. Cyclists are told to stay on the shoulder, in a marked bike lane or as far to the right as possible, if such use is "reasonably judged safe by the bicyclist." Local commentator Hubert Locke recently fumed in Crosscut about a cyclist who ventured away from the Second Avenue bike lane, among the most dangerous places in the city to ride.

A similar bill two years ago passed the House but didn't make it through the Senate. A Teamsters' lobbyist then said some streets lack enough room to allow 3-foot clearance. A failed House amendment by Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, would have made the three-foot rule apply only in Seattle.

Janis said the new bill deals with past objections. In part, it seeks to prevent situations where a slow cyclist fills an arterial lane unnecessarily, instead of moving right so cars can pass.

Asked when it's ever safe to drive past bicycles at only 3 feet going 40 mph, Janis said in some cases, "there's not that much space" to give 5 feet, but the rule could be strengthened in future laws.

So far, Pedersen's attempt to legislate common sense has 10 co-sponsors.

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.