News-Press' Janine Zeitlin continues her feature reporting on bike safety issues...today's article looks at the 3-foot rule in-depth, whether it's being enforced and explores Billy Hattaway's idea of extending the "move over" law to bicycles.
Last year in Florida, law enforcers doled out about 500 tickets to drivers who passed bicyclists illegally.
Only eight of those drivers were found guilty.
One ticket came out of Southwest Florida in 2014, according to the state's database, though Lee County sheriff's data recorded at least three.
In 2006, Florida became the sixth state in the nation to adopt a 3-foot rule after a string of crashes but like other states the rule is often used for education rather than enforcement, according to a Rutgers University study. Enforcement has jumped from the 114 tickets given in Florida in 2011.
There's a slew of questions about the law that states: a driver must pass a bicycle at "not less than 3 feet."
Where does three feet start? How do law enforcers measure it? And if a driver hits a bicyclist, which would clearly be a violation, law enforcement is more likely to dole out a more familiar citation.
"It does present a challenge," said Lt. Greg Bueno, of Florida Highway Patrol. "When we work traffic crashes involving a vehicle versus a bicyclist, we typically go with a charge like violation of right-of-way or careless driving. It's hard to say, 'Yes it was 3 feet versus 2 feet, 9 inches.'"
That's why Billy Hattaway would like to see Florida's "move-over" law extend to bicyclists.
"I'm trying to eliminate laws that aren't enforceable," he said. "Certainly if you have a move-over law for emergency vehicles and vehicles with flashing lights and bicyclists, you're sending a consistent message."
He's in a position to make it happen. His job description includes being Florida Department of Transportation's "champion" for bicyclist and pedestrian safety and is a leader in the state's push to find ways to bring down the abysmal fatality rates.
"We're so far behind," Hattaway said. "We've got to get out front. That's the way we see it."
Last year, 121 bicyclists were killed in Florida. Lee tied for the third highest number of fatalities.
The idea rose out of brainstorming with DeWayne Carver, FDOT's bicycle/pedestrian coordinator, about Rep. Kathleen Passidomo's vulnerable road users' bill, said Hattaway. That proposal seeks to clarify three feet as starting from the widest part of anything attached to the vehicle, among other measures.
Hattaway would like to see staff analyze the move-over idea in the coming year, and, if feasible and approved, make it part of proposed legislative changes from FDOT. The three-foot rule would likely still apply in certain scenarios, he said, so that bicyclists don't get buzzed when they're in bike lanes. Hattaway, also FDOT secretary in Southwest Florida, has brought the idea to law enforcement with the state's bike and pedestrian safety initiative. Major Alan Hill, of the Hillsborough sheriff's office, represents the Florida Sheriffs Association on that group.
"If you look at the move-over law, we haven't had any issues with it," Hill said. "To me, personally, it's a little easier to enforce. Obviously, it's worth looking into."
Naples Police has embedded an officer with a cycling group to promote safety. The officer also calls in motorists breaking laws. Cape police started high-visibility operations on bike and pedestrian safety in March. As part of it, officers have pedaled in plainclothes to see if cars gave them three feet.
Sgt. Jon Kulko rode about 35 miles one day and encountered only a few violators, but noted that "as a rider, it's very scary being passed that close."
Kulko said there's also lacking knowledge on the move-over law. Law enforcers would still need to see the violation to ticket it.
At least two other states have move-over provisions in existing 3-foot laws, said Ken McLeod, a legal specialist with The League of American Bicyclists. A move-over rule should be safer for bicyclists and easier to enforce if crafted with law enforcement input, he wrote in an email. "The only concern I would have is that motorists may be familiar with the 3 foot law and there are costs associated with teaching a new standard, but that shouldn't prevent pursuing what could be a better rule."
Earlier this week, The News-Press posed the question to readers: Should cars have to move over for bikes? The responses ranged from "Yes! This county is so dangerous for bicyclists!" to "Hell no. I buzz bikers outside of the bike lane." The comments showed a hefty share of people resent sharing the road with bicyclists, though the law allows them to be there and many bicyclists ride at speeds unsafe for sidewalks.
It's an uphill climb to change the culture.
"The amount of work that we have to do to change the culture, it is just very, very challenging and unfortunately it's not going to change overnight," Hattaway said.
Still, bike safety advocates like Keri Caffrey, executive director of Florida-based American Bicycling Education Association, are optimistic. The move-over idea, which she has promoted, has a greater chance of moving forward because it's coming from a government leader. Hattaway is also an instructor for CyclingSavvy, a program of the bicycling education association.
"We've suffered for a long time and Billy is the leadership that is really making things happen," she said. "It's a totally different scenario having it come from the inside. I'm very hopeful."
Connect with this reporter: @Janinezeitlin (Twitter).
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Florida became the sixth state in the nation to pass a 3-foot law in 2006.
"The driver of a vehicle overtaking a bicycle or other nonmotorized vehicle must pass the bicycle or other nonmotorized vehicle at a safe distance of not less than 3 feet between the vehicle and the bicycle or other nonmotorized vehicle," it reads.
The first 3-foot law was passed in Wisconsin in 1973, and at least 26 states have such a law.
Most states have used the law for safety education rather than enforcement.
Source: Florida Statute, The League of American Bicyclists and Rutgers University.
Number of citations for the improper passing of a bicyclist
- 114 in 2011 across the state, 5 were found guilty.
- 496 in 2014 across the state, 8 were found guilty.
- 0 in Collier in 2014.*
- 1 in Lee in 2014.*
Source: Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles database.
*Much of Lee and Collier sheriff's offices improper passing data was unclear as to whether a bicyclist was involved. Lee showed at least three citations.