If they pedal on 2 wheels, steer clear 3 feet

The Legislature says drivers can cross lanes, but must avoid bikes.

Published October 3, 2006

Ross Williams commutes by bicycle from Lakeland to Tampa at least once a week, which makes him an expert on being "buzzed" by passing vehicles.

"Every ride, somebody goes by a foot from me," said Williams, 41, a wheel builder for the American Classic bicycle components factory near Tampa International Airport.

"Initially, you feel this whoosh, almost a negative air pressure, like you're getting sucked out into the roadway if it's a big truck. Then there's a little bit of an adrenaline rush like, 'Man, I almost got hit!' "

That rush could be less frequent, if motorists obey a new state law that went into effect Sunday.

The latest road rule requires drivers to give bicyclists at least 3 feet of clearance as they pass, and failing to do that will be punished like other moving violations, with a $60 fine, court costs and three points added to the driver's license.

Cyclists and traffic experts said the law would be a welcome buffer in one of the country's most dangerous metropolitan areas to ride a bicycle - if it is followed and enforced.

Drivers worried that the law might add to the danger of passing packs of cyclists, already a major hazard in some parts of the Tampa Bay area.

Dean Kuhne of Dunedin said groups of cyclists often ride two or three abreast on nearby roads, including clogged, narrow stretches of Alt. U.S. 19. Giving them a 3-foot buffer would be nearly impossible, he said.

"With as much congestion as we have around here, especially starting about two months from now, that's a hard thing to do," said Kuhne, 51, a real estate appraiser.

"It's a nice feel-good measure, but is it practical? I don't know."

Williams wondered the same thing. "I think those who are buzzing close will continue to buzz close," he said.

Florida led the country in bicycle fatalities last year with 124, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and its per-capita rate of cycling deaths was nearly three times the national average.

Hillsborough County tied Orange County for the most cycling deaths in the state last year, with 10, said Steven Fielder, legislative affairs director for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. In 2004, 13 cyclists died in Pinellas, the most in the state, followed by Hillsborough, which had 10 cycling deaths.

Many more cyclists are injured in the Tampa Bay area, including 14 riders in a highly publicized 2003 collision, when a car plowed into a group of 20 cyclists on 30th Avenue N in St. Petersburg.

State Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, acknowledged the new law might be tough to enforce. Law enforcement officers can write tickets only when they see the infraction.

But the law will allow agencies to set up checkpoints in areas where they hear of frequent close calls between drivers and cyclists, said Russell, who supported the measure as chairman of the House of Representatives' State Infrastructure Council.

He said the law also is important because it establishes a legal minimum distance for safely passing riders.

The wide berth is necessary, Russell said, because of the large mirrors that protrude from trucks and SUVs. The draft from these large vehicles also can draw riders into traffic lanes.

The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, and included in a larger highway safety bill during this year's legislative session.

Bullard could not be reached for comment Monday.

"It's good legislation and it's going to remind motorists they are sharing the road," said Trooper Larry Coggins, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol. The new law also may be used to determine blame in serious accidents, he said.

One reason for the dangerous riding conditions in Florida is the way the state has developed, said Dennis Scott, pedestrian/bicycle coordinator for the state Department of Transportation.

Its cities are spread over large areas and connected by wide, busy roads.

"One thing we find is that areas built primarily after World War II were built more for cars and not as much for people," Scott said. "That environment is found more in the Sunbelt states."

Because of this, the solution to the state's cycling safety problem is not a law, but changing this development pattern and building bike lanes to adjust to it, said Bill Shook, president of American Classic.

He recently returned from a bicycle show in Germany, he said, where cycling paths are common and so are cyclists.

"We have much better weather for bicycles, yet we have the worst infrastructure for bicycles," said Shook, an avid cyclist.

"It's frustrating to me because Tampa could be a cycling paradise."

Dan DeWitt can be reached at dewitt@sptimes.com or 352 754-6116.