In May 2011, Boise resident Robert Stevahn was cycling southbound on the right side of Orchard Street--a street without bike lanes--before darkness fell.
Motorist Jeffrey Hanna was also traveling southbound on Orchard as he passed Stevahn closer than the 3-foot limit the City of Boise put in place in January 2010.
It's a story cyclists know well, but what happened next made it different.
Rather than blasting off into the sunset, Hanna made a right turn into a parking lot after several blocks, allowing Stevahn to catch up and confront him. They argued briefly, after which Stevahn contacted the Boise Police Department via Twitter and reported Hanna's license plate number.
Police came to Stevahn's house that night, where he explained the incident. The two officers, Oscar Canfield and Dave Burgard, said they were unaware of the law. They left briefly to look it up for confirmation, then returned, acknowledged it, went to see Hanna and issued him a citation.
In court, Hanna plead not guilty. He claimed he saw Stevahn, and though he was unaware of the law, only passed too close because traffic prevented him from getting over. Stevahn disputed that there was traffic, but in the end, it didn't matter. The judge told Hanna that traffic or not, the law stated that it was the motorist's responsibility to provide safe passing distance, even if that meant not passing until there was room to do so.
Hanna was found guilty and fined $80.
This incident was the first cited violation of Boise's 3 Feet to Pass law, and is the only citation BPD spokesperson Lynn Hightower is aware of. It took place more than a year after the law was instituted in the wake of the deaths of three Boise cyclists in a single month in 2009.
For cyclists who face the issue of safe passing distance daily, the incident raises a few questions: why did it take so long to cite a driver for a law that, according to cyclists, is violated frequently, and why were neither Hanna nor the responding police officers aware of the law?
The answer to both questions is essentially the same: According to Hightower, enforcement of the law isn't a priority. It's something that both the City of Boise and the BPD see as an educational measure intended to establish safe passing distance rather than a potential penalty intended to enforce it.
"The goal here was less to come up with a new law to cite motorists for than it was to provide a standard for what is safe driving," said Michael Zuzel, project manager for the Cycling Safety Task Force, which was responsible for the law.
Before the law, Zuzel said it wasn't even an infraction to clip a cyclist, so long as they weren't injured. So Boise followed the cue from 19 states and gave law enforcement something quantifiable to point to.
"From a police department standpoint, it's a good educational tool," said Zuzel. "If you have enough evidence to take it to court, then obviously, you do that. But the fact that we've had only one prosecution in two years shows that the law has had its intended effect."
"It raises awareness to motorists that it's dangerous if you drive too close to cyclists," said Hightower.
Adam Park, spokesperson for Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, thinks the law is working.
"I don't have hard data on it, but anecdotally, yes, I do think people's behavior has changed," said Park, citing his own increased awareness.
"We think it's a very successful program," he said.
Remi McManus, the owner and general manager at Team Exergy, a road-cycling team, respectfully disagrees.
"Approximately 25 percent of people don't give you 3 feet," he said. "It hasn't changed at all since the law has passed."
No quantitative studies have been performed to back up McManus' claim, but he and his team of 15 riders spend approximately 20-30 hours a week training on local roads.
"Yesterday, I was riding with my friend on Hill Road and a motorcycle came within 3 feet of me. You'd think a motorcycle would give enough space but apparently not."
McManus and his team aren't outliers in the issue of safe-passing distance.
John Yarnell, the man behind bicycle safety organization Look! Save a Life, rides Hill Road once a week.
"I get passed at least once a ride in an unsafe manner," said Yarnell.
He said some people will give cyclists 12 feet to pass, but others will get as close as possible "just to be an asshole."
"I had a super-duty crew cab slow down to crowd me, then gun it to blast me with diesel exhaust," he said. "I chased them to try to get their license number but gave up after a half-mile."
McManus said the problem is especially pervasive on roads that lack a good shoulder, as well as in the winter months when the sand poured on roads for traction piles up in bike lanes, forcing cyclists into the road.
Both Yarnell and McManus believe 3 Feet to Pass is a good start. In theory, it forces conversations that will make people understand that they share the road. But they also say just having it on the books isn't enough.
"I'm all for education," McManus said. "But until it's actually an enforced law, it isn't going to change anyone's driving habits."
However, the issue of enforcement brings the issue back around to the responding officers' unawareness of the law. Officers who are unaware of laws are as unlikely to enforce them as citizens who are unaware of them are unlikely to comply.
Though officers Canfield and Burgard were unaware of the law at the time of the incident, that should not be seen as representation of the police population as a whole. BPD even held a general training for officers about the law on May 12, 2010--though Hightower was unable to confirm if either of the officers in question attended--and every police officer BW encountered while working on this story was also aware of the law.
"The law was created knowing that it would be tricky to enforce. You either need somebody like Mr. Stevahn to witness it or an officer to witness it," said Hightower.
She said that since officers are busy and cyclists don't carry flags jutting 3 feet off their shoulders to mark distance, it's on cyclists to report violations.
"If you catch a license plate and report it, [police] will issue a ticket and let the courts sort it out," Hightower said.
However, she acknowledged the difficulty of gathering such information when being buzzed at 40 mph. Stevahn was able to only because Hanna pulled over after passing too close. According to Hightower, a second reported violation after the Stevahn-Hanna incident went uncited since the cyclist was only able to report that it was a blue car.
"The only way it's going to be enforced is when you're able to catch up to the perpetrator," said Stevahn. "But ultimately, it's my word against theirs."
This raises a whole different set of questions. Like, if it's not going to be enforced, what is the point of passing the law in the first place?
Kurt Holzer, an avid cyclist and past president of the Idaho Trial Lawyers Association, doesn't see the law's unenforcement as that unusual, offering the prohibition on leaving your door open in traffic and a pedestrian's right of way in a crosswalk as other examples of infraction that police generally leave to civilians to report for citation.
"The onus is going to be on me as a pedestrian to say that the guy in a truck nearly ran me over," said Holzer.
"There's lots of reasons for statutes. Mandatory and repeated police enforcement is only one part of it," he said. "Part is training and teaching. It's to teach drivers this is the safe thing."
To test the law's abilities as a teaching tool, Boise Weekly conducted an unscientific poll of six random drivers at the Boise Towne Square mall on Jan. 10.
None were able to identify the legally required passing distance from memory, and four of the six were unaware there was a legal limit. Asked to estimate what they thought what a safe passing distance would be, answers ranged from 3 feet to 20 feet.
Two of the questioned drivers remembered something they'd seen on TV about the law during the course of the poll. Conversely, all but one were able to accurately identify the legal speed limit in a school zone--20 mph.
BPD produced a series of YouTube videos about bike laws to aid in its education goals. As of press time, the two-minute video that covers 3 Feet to Pass has been viewed 135 times. For some context, a video report Boise Weekly produced covering 3 Feet to Pass has been viewed 1,140 times, and statistics available on the Idaho Department of Motor Vehicle's website state there were 274,164 licensed drivers in Ada County in 2010.
Robert Fenn, the owner of the Idaho Driving School, said he now includes the law in classes, but it's not yet a part of tests.
"We test on motorcycles and trucks, but not on bikes," he said. He also makes sure to remind students when they are passing a cyclist in practical lessons.
Of course, this is another problem education efforts face. Much of drivers' education is taught to the drivers' test. The DMV, which administers the test, is a state agency; 3 Feet to Pass is a city law. Instead of concrete knowledge about rules of the road, 3 Feet to Pass remains more of an abstract concept.
"I imagined there would be [a legal distance]," said Sean Magnusson, a driver who was unaware of the law during BW's poll. "There's always a law about everything, but the average person wouldn't know what it is. I mean, you can't fish from the back of a giraffe, but no one's ever going to get arrested for it."
Actually, according to the Boise City Clerk's Office, there is not now, nor has there ever been a regulation against fishing from the back of a giraffe. But try googling it and you'll find no shortage of websites that say otherwise, which speaks to the difficulty of properly educating the public about obscure and rarely enforced laws. But even if there were a giraffe fishing law that one was unlikely to be punished for violating, the difference between it and 3 Feet to Pass is that cyclists are passed in an unsafe manner routinely, whereas Boise's giraffe population remains unfished from.
Though this may seem like the sort of niche issue that exists primarily as fodder for alt-weeklies and conversations at coffee shops, it isn't. Cultural shifts and spiking gas prices have seen huge increases in the number of people who cycle or walk instead of driving. The 2010 American Community Survey found a 40 percent increase in cycle commuting since 2000. And those numbers are expected to rise.
And though, according to the 2010 benchmarking report from the Alliance for Biking and Walking, only 9.6 percent of trips are by bike or foot, they account for 13.1 percent of fatalities. According to the National Safety Council, those accidents cost more than $4 billion a year combined.
The disproportionate number of accidents isn't just due to the weight, velocity and armor differences between motorists and non-motorists. The benchmarking report also says that only 1.2 percent of federal transportation funding is allocated to infrastructure for non-motorists. And even that is at risk.
The House Transportation Committee is set to vote on the American Energy and Infrastructure and Jobs Act this spring, a bill that, in its current form, eliminates Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School, the two largest programs to fund infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians.
"State investment choices can be a life-or-death issue for people who walk and bike," said Jeff Miller, president of the alliance. "Creating safe streets for everyone will save lives and improve health and quality of life in communities."
By cutting down on those accident costs, bike lanes and sidewalks can improve economies as well.
A study published in Injury Prevention found a 28 percent decrease in accidents when cyclists had a dedicated lane. Other studies have also found that dedicated lanes improve cyclist behavior. One study from Cambridge, Mass.'s Department of Community Development found that 81 percent of cyclists obeyed stop signs on streets with bike lanes compared to 55 percent on those without.
These are problems that must be addressed and 3 feet may not even be enough to do so.
"Anecdotally, 3 feet is not safe enough," said Gerik Kransky, the advocacy director for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, Ore. "When you get buzzed at 3 feet by a car going 35 mph, it's pretty terrifying."
Kransky said an actual safe distance is what it would take for a cyclist to fall over laterally, and 3 feet may just be the perfect distance for a cyclist's torso to be severed.
Josh Travis, manager at George's Cycles, put it well in an earlier BW story (BW, Rec, "Future-Bike," May 12, 2012): "Bike laws may say 3 feet to pass, but it could end up being 6 inches. There is just no way to enforce it. If you want people to load up the kids and their groceries, we need more than just a few bike lanes. We need to start thinking about segregated roadways."
And while opponents are quick to cry "no special rights" for cyclists when such topics are broached--especially when it comes to the cost--the statistics of 9.6 percent of trips by bike or foot receiving only 1.5 percent of transportation funding speak otherwise.
The cost of bicycle infrastructure can be far less than vehicle infrastructure.
According to Portland Mayor Sam Adams in a video for streetfilms.org, Portland's extensive bike system was built for what it would have cost the city to build a single mile of highway.
Among avid cyclists, the inequities of how transportation dollars are allocated is exacerbated by the fact that legal consequences for a motorist who kills a cyclist are less than for a typical manslaughter charge.
In Idaho, the maximum sentence for manslaughter is 15 years. For vehicular manslaughter, it drops to 10. Of the three cyclists killed in a month that began the story of 3 Feet to Pass, only one driver, Michael A. Perkins, was charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, which carried a maximum sentence of one year.
The morning commute wasn't always a vicious culture war over funding, space and safety. A historical picture of old Boise hangs on the wall of the Sonna Building in downtown Boise. It depicts a common turn-of-the-20th century street scene: pedestrians, horse-drawn carts, streetcars and more, all sharing the road.
That building houses Idaho Smart Growth, the planning and advocacy group where Deanna Smith works on Complete Streets projects--transportation networks that provide for pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, wheelchairs, skateboarders and more, in addition to cars--in five Idaho communities: Idaho Falls, Lewiston, Moscow, Nampa and the Wood River Valley.
To Smith, that picture represents the future just as much as it represents history.
"We used to use our roads in multiple ways," said Smith. "They were public spaces. ... Part of the reasons [multiple modes of transportation] was working in that picture is that we had a culture of understanding that we had to share the road."
Smith said that culture is something we've lost and can only regain by the sort of education that 3 Feet to Pass is intended to provide.
But the biggest obstacle is that we've literally built ourselves into this situation.
"We've been designing our streets for the last 50 or 60 years primarily with [motor] vehicles in mind. And at the time, that was a good idea," said Smith.
More and more, people are trying to ditch their cars but are themselves trapped in them by lack of sidewalks, shade trees, bike lanes and bus stops.
"We're in a unique situation because the City of Boise doesn't have control over design of its roadways," said Smith. "Enforcement is something that's within their realm. Given that limitation, I think that [3 Feet to Pass] is an effective tool for them to use. But the really effective tools are mostly design and education. The places where they have the highest use, you'll see that they've done the most with design."
In short: If you build it, they will bike. If you don't, they'll bike anyway, but 3 Feet to Pass may not be enough to keep them safe.[ Video is no longer available. ]