A technical 'fix' to Florida's 3-foot law?
By Ron Cunningham, GLOB Correspondent
EDITOR's NOTE: Ron Cunningham is a Gainesville cyclist, journalist, and the Executive Director of Bike Florida. The GLOB's bicycle boy is ready to climb on his soapbox about giving bikers their 'allocated highway space.'
In Florida, motorists must give at least 3-feet of space when passing a cyclist on the road. It's the law.
And for a very good reason: Cars that pass too close to bicycles too often end up causing accidents.
So problem solved, right?
A recent account in the Ft. Meyers News-Press indicates that only about 500 citations were handed out in all of Florida last year to motorists violating the 3-foot law. And of those, only 8 ticketed motorists were found guilty.
The problem is that, for all practical purposes, the 3-foot law is unenforceable. "Where does three feet start?" the News-Press account poses. "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," Lt. Greg Bueno, of the Florida Highway Patrol, told the News-Press. "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.'"
Does that mean the 3-foot law is useless and should be scrapped? Not necessarily. Where there's a will there's a way. And as is so often the case these days, there may actually be a technical "fix" to Florida's 3-foot enforcement dilemma.
But only if more police officers are willing to get out of their patrol cars and put themselves in the position of cyclists.
Tennessee also has a 3-foot law. And of late the City of Chattanooga has been getting a lot of attention for its efforts to enforce the law. That's largely because one Chattanooga police officer, Rob Simmons, attached a mini-ultrasound device to his bicycle and began to stop cars for passing too close to him.
"Truthfully, no one LIKES enforcement. It is, by nature, a hard pill to swallow," Simmons, a bicycle patrol officer for several years, told Bicycling magazine recently. "What has surprised me is finding out that the majority of the motorists whom I have stopped for violations have been unfamiliar with the three-foot law. Many know there are laws regarding proximity to cyclists, but they don't know how far they need to be away from the cyclists."
The device, called C3FT, "uses ultrasound to record when drivers pass too closely, allowing the user to provide evidence of the infraction to a judge," reports NextCity.com. "The inventors, users and cycling advocates who herald its creation say that having an avenue for enforcement removes one of the biggest obstacles to passing so-called "vulnerable user" laws in states and cities across the country." Image courtesy of NextCity.com.
Cops on bikes is a growing trend in law enforcement and equipped with devices like C3FT, police officers on bicycles could go a long way toward educating motorists, enforcing a previously unenforceable law and - in the process - making the streets of Florida's cities safer for cycling.
And, yeah, Gainesville - with its large university population and one of the highest bicycle-commuting rates in the nation - really ought to have more bike patrol officers - and equipped with the latest technology.
One more thing: Putting cops on bikes also provide a giant incentive for cyclists as well as motorists to obey the traffic laws and ride responsibly.
As Simmons told Bicycling: "When dealing with other cyclists — yes, I stop cyclists for traffic laws, too — we immediately have something in common. The cyclist knows that I have been in their shoes and can see what it is like to be in traffic from their perspective. On the flip side, they also know they are not going to pull one over on me when it comes to cycling laws.
"I have worked many collisions involving cyclists and motorists and have seen the look of concern on cyclists' faces when they are unsure if law enforcement is going to know the rights they have in the roadway. When they realize it is a bike patrol officer working the crash, they tend to relax a little more."
Florida law enforcement agencies ought to take a lesson from Chattanooga: Combining an old form of personal transportation - the bicycle - with new technology - ultrasound - can make a life-saving law enforceable and, as a result, save lives.
Chattanooga has five cops on bikes... a two-wheeled force soon to be expanded to 10. Surely Gainesville can do better than that.