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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.