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New law: Drivers must yield 3 feet to bicyclists

The Associated Press . In this Thursday, June 30. 2011 picture, a truck moves past a group of cyclists in Rock Spring, Ga. Riders with the Chattanooga Bicycle Club rode a loop from the Chickamauga Battlefield through Rock Spring and back Thursday afternoon. Friday, July 1, 2011 marks the start of a new Georgia state law requiring motorists to give cyclists a three-foot buffer when passing.

The Associated Press . In this Thursday, June 30. 2011 picture, a truck moves past a group of cyclists in Rock Spring, Ga. Riders with the Chattanooga Bicycle Club rode a loop from the Chickamauga Battlefield through Rock Spring and back Thursday afternoon. Friday, July 1, 2011 marks the start of a new Georgia state law requiring motorists to give cyclists a three-foot buffer when passing.

SAVANNAH -- A new traffic rule is aimed at reducing close calls and collisions between bikes and the cars and trucks whizzing past them, and cyclists say it's the biggest improvement to Georgia's bike safety laws in decades.

Bicycle clubs across the state celebrated the new law, which took effect Friday, by organizing group rides on city streets during the Fourth of July weekend. Their aim: to make sure drivers know the rules of the road have changed.

What's new? The law now requires motorists to maintain at least 3 feet of distance when passing bicyclists. Previously, Georgia traffic laws required only that drivers keep "a safe distance."

"The law didn't say what a safe distance was, and some of these big ol' trucks, you'd think they believed it was 1 inch when their mirrors go whisking by your head," said Frank McIntosh of Savannah, who's seen his share of near misses after commuting an estimated 50,000 miles on his bike since 1994.

McIntosh, director of the Savannah Bicycle Campaign, said the change comes as more Georgians are starting bike to work and the grocery store because of high gas prices.

Georgia Bikes, the nonprofit group that lobbied for the new law, succeeded in getting the Legislature to adopt the first major changes to the state's bike safety laws since the 1970s, said Brent Buice, the group's executive director. It makes Georgia the 18th U.S. state that's adopted a 3-feet rule for cars passing bicycles, he said.

"While crashes caused by passing from behind are not the most common, when they do happen it's almost always very bad for the cyclist," Buice said. "They're either going to have serious injuries or they're not going to walk away from it."

According to the latest figures from the Georgia Department of Community Health, bicyclists were involved in 795 road crashes statewide in 2007. Eleven of those crashes were fatal.

Georgia lawmakers made other changes to biking laws as well. One specifies that cars are required to yield the right of way to bicyclists using designated bike lanes. That may sound like a no-brainer, but Buice says he's heard of cars using bike lanes for passing -- and even for parking.

Bike clubs in Athens, Atlanta, LaGrange, Marietta, Milledgeville, Savannah and coastal Darien organized large group rides over the holiday weekend to draw awareness to the law.

And Georgia Bikes has recorded radio announcements in hopes of catching drivers tuned in during their commutes.

"Something like a 3-foot passing law is only going to be valuable if people get educated," Buice said.