Cambrian: Slice of Life

Cyclists on narrow roads create difficult decisions

Cars line up on Highway 1 near the Highway 46 intersection at 8:10 p.m. June 14 as Caltrans installs rumble strips.
Cars line up on Highway 1 near the Highway 46 intersection at 8:10 p.m. June 14 as Caltrans installs rumble strips. Special to The Cambrian

At the North Coast Advisory Council’s nighttime meeting June 15, Sheriff’s Cmdr. Jim Taylor looked out the window toward Highway 1, and pointed at backed-up traffic and very bright lights.

He shrugged, as if to ask what was happening.

I whispered, “I’ll bet it’s the rumble strips.”

Souza Construction is installing a $1.6 million rumble-strip project along 42 miles of Highway 1, from San Luis Obispo to just past the driveway to the Hearst Castle Visitor Center.

When a vehicle’s tires ride over a rumble strip on the far right or center line area of the highway, there’s a loud “rumble, rumble, rumble” noise, alerting the driver to “move over, dummy!”

Sure enough, work on that project was what had snarled Cambria traffic. (I drove home via Main Street!)

3-feet puzzle

But while I had Jim captive, I asked a law-enforcement question that had been puzzling me.

Two years ago, California’s “3 Feet for Safety Act” began requiring drivers to provide a 3-foot safety buffer zone between vehicles and bicyclists going the same way on a roadway.

Got it. We have many cyclist friends, so I understand the safety reasoning behind it.

But in practice, the law doesn’t always work.

I gave Jim a sample scenario: I’m driving on a two-lane, curvy roadway with fairly narrow driving lanes separated by double yellow lines (sound familiar, North Coasters?).

There’s a lot of oncoming traffic, and numerous cars behind me in my lane, back around the curve from me. We’re all going at the legal speed of about 55 mph (although some undoubtedly are going faster — they always do).

Three bicyclists are riding side-by-side in the designated bike lane to my right.

We can’t force somebody to break one law to obey another one.

Pat Seebart, CHP public information officer in Templeton

Now, if I can’t provide a 3-foot clearance between cyclists and my vehicle, I must slow down to their speed and stay behind them until there’s room to give them proper clearance so I can pass safely. (On Highway 1, that could be miles away.)

But … but …. drivers around the curve behind me haven’t seen the cyclists yet. They don’t know there’s such an abrupt slowdown in the normal flow of traffic. If one of them is the least bit distracted, he could easily run his vehicle into the back of mine before he can slow down to match my speed. Yeah, he’d be legally at fault, but I’d be the one being hit.

So, I asked Jim: Which law am I supposed to break, and/or which danger is the least likely to injure me and others?

A head-on crash or hitting the cyclists could be tragic and deadly. Being clobbered from behind can be just as bad, especially since that impact could push me into exactly what I’m trying so hard to avoid, the oncoming traffic or the bicycle lane.

Should I risk getting a ticket and keep going at the posted speed to get past the bicycle group safely?

Jim had definite personal opinions about the scenario, but legal opinions were fuzzier. The bottom line? It’s a case-specific situation.

CHP

So, I called CHP, whose turf the highway really is, after all.

Officer Pat Seebart, public information officer in Templeton, told me this conundrum has been the topic of many, many discussions at headquarters.

He said that so far, consensus opinion is there is no good answer.

The strongest determining factor is that double yellow line. “We can’t force somebody to break one law to obey another one,” Pat said, and crossing over a double yellow line is illegal, period.

He also said that cyclists are supposed to ride single file on the road, as far to the right of the bicycle lane as possible. So those three-across riders? Illegal, according to Pat’s interpretation.

But still, it happens.

Pat and Jim both suggested that drivers could give a quick horn beep to alert cyclists about the spatial problem … as long as the driver is far enough back from the riders so he doesn’t scare them to death.

If the cyclists see there’s not enough room, he said, wise ones will adjust their location and riding arrangement.

But still.

Neither Pat nor Jim said flat out that I should break the “Three Feet for Safety” law by driving carefully past the cyclists, as close to the double yellow line as I can safely, at a reduced speed that still won’t impede the traffic behind me (thereby increasing the chance that the nearest vehicle could climb up the back of my trunk lid).

But that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. The key is to plan ahead, give the cyclists respect and space, and keep everybody safe.

Rumble strip project

The project is scheduled to be complete by midsummer, Caltrans public information officer Jim Shivers said Friday, June 17. By now, according to his estimates then, the strips should all be in place. The rest of the work schedule includes:

▪  Installing a concrete weed barrier in Cayucos.

▪  Replacing five survey monuments.

▪  Placing shoulder-backing material in areas that were repaired.

▪  Adding permanent striping and and reflective markers (Bots Dots).

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