Bike and Pedestrian Safety Bills Pass First Hearing; Legislative Decorum Cracks

Assembly Transportation Committee Chair Laura Friedman
Assembly Transportation Committee Chair Laura Friedman
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Note: This post has been updated with a link to a recording of the hearing.

Yesterday the Assembly Transportation Committee hosted a four-plus-hours long hearing to discuss a range of bills on bike and safety issues. Discussions around those bills were a repeat of hearings over the last few years, with opposition coming from the same quarters and using the same arguments that defeated the bills in various ways then.

Meanwhile, the real Oscar-worthy drama at the hearing was around a bill that would have suspended the gas tax, and a hostile gut-and-amend that left Republicans furious and probably did little to educate anyone about why suspending the gas tax is a bad idea – if that was the purpose.

Oh, you want to hear about that? First, the bike bills:

Stop as Yield: A.B. 1713 from Tasha Boerner Horvath (D-Encinitas), passed 7-3

This bill is a reprise of last year’s A.B. 122, and would create a six-year pilot to allow bicyclists statewide to treat stop signs as yield signs. “This is not a bill to authorize a rolling stop or blowing a stop sign,” said the author. “A rolling stop is not yielding. My purpose is to make bicyclist behavior predictable” to drivers and thus increase safety, which similar laws in other states have succeeded in doing.

The bill has a lot of support – last year’s version reached the governor’s desk before it was defeated by advocates for children’s safety, who don’t seem to realize that children are capable of grasping the concept of “yield.” A group called the CA Coalition for Children’s Health and Safety ignored the data from other states showing decreased risk of crashes, and a representative of the American Association of Highway Patrolmen complained that distinguishing between an eighteen-year-old rider, who would be covered by the new law, and a sixteen-year-old rider would be too burdensome for law enforcement officers. “You’re putting them in a difficult position,” he said. In other words, last year’s slightly off-topic objections are on repeat, and the people making them refuse to pay attention to actual safety data.

(A voice somehow leaked into the background when the Highway Patrolmen’s representative was speaking, and you could clearly hear someone say, “How about you just stop people and don’t try to shoot them?”)

Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), who would go on to regretfully, with a sad shake of his head, vote against several other safety bills, said the idea was just too confusing.

Boerner Horvath closed by pointing out that “we’re currently doing nothing to make cycling and intersections safer. The ‘Delaware Yield’ is currently using this [concept] to increase safety – that state has experienced a 23 percent reduction in bike/car collisions since they passed it.”

And “there has been no significant increase in bike/car collisions in the states that have this law,” she said. “I would not run this bill if I thought it would put anyone in danger,” she added. “My primary goal, as a cyclist, is not to die.”

The pilot would apply only on two-lane roads with four-way stops, and to people eighteen and over. It would last for six years to provide enough time for “robust data collection.”

Freedom to Walk Act: A.B. 2147 from Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), passed 10-3

Another try at decriminalizing jaywalking – last year’s bill also made it to the Governor’s desk before being vetoed.

The Freedom to Walk Act acknowledges that in many areas – and particularly in low-income areas and where people of color live – basic pedestrian infrastructure like crosswalks are simply missing. This makes it difficult to follow the letter of the law, which defines jaywalking arbitrarily as crossing outside of them.

Angie Schmitt, author of the book on pedestrian safety “Right of Way,” told the committee that “pedestrian deaths are related to structural problems related to infrastructure,” something that is not addressed by citing people trying to cross the street.

Jason Soros, a homeless resident of Novato, told the committee that he has been targeted for citations when he has crossed a street where he knew it was safe and there were no cars nearby. “The police blocked traffic to give me a ticket, and a lot of people watched,” he said. It was humiliating and clearly an attempt to send a message that he was not welcome, rather than an attempt to increase anyone’s safety.

“And the consequences are not trivial. A single ticket can cost up to $500,” putting people into a downward spiral of debt that can be hard to rise out of.

Pedestrian Lead Intervals: A.B. 2264 from Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), passed 14-0

Bloom’s bill would require the addition of a “pedestrian lead interval” when a traffic signal is added or replaced at busy intersections where a lot of people are trying to cross. These lead intervals, or LPIs, give pedestrians a head start on crossing an intersection. They’ve been shown to reduce crash risk.

Assembly Transportation Chair Laura Friedman called it “a common sense bill that will save lives.”

Speed Safety System: A.B. 2336 from Friedman (D-Glendale), passed 11-0; it will now proceed to the privacy and consumer protection committee

This bill would create a pilot system to deploy speed cameras in certain places. This new version includes restrictions on where (a few cities who join the pilot program; only on high-injury corridors or where there are high volumes of vulnerable pedestrians or cyclists); how (a car must be going at least 11 mph over the posted speed limit); and where the money goes (back to the local community to make roads safer via traffic calming). The programs would start with warnings; the citations would be only for $50 – nowhere near what a speeding ticket costs – and go to the car owner, not the driver; and cities have to warn drivers about where the cameras are.

“This is because our intent is to slow people down and improve safety,” said Friedman. “We know that in other places speed cameras have significantly decreased speeding.” She said she wants to take a sensible, non-punitive approach to getting people to slow down.

The bill has a lot of support – the Mayor of San Jose called in to ask for “yes” votes, as did a trauma surgeon at SF General Hospital who said, “I don’t want to care for victims of traffic violence. We should all be able to go about without fear of being hit by a speeding car.” Others called in with statistics on dead and injured pedestrians, and Alameda County and Bakersfield both wanted to be included in the pilot.

The ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation both opposed the bill because it does not do enough to protect privacy, and may expose “vulnerable Californians” to a “dramatic increase in citations.”

OmniBike Bill: A.B. 1909 from Friedman, passed 11-2

This bill includes several changes to existing law “to make cycling safer,” including requiring drivers to move to a different lane when overtaking bike riders, if possible.

Witnesses who spoke in support included Damian Kevitt, founder of Streets Are for Everyone, who described the horrific crash that claimed his leg.

His crash, and others he spoke of, “could have been prevented if A.B. 1909 had been the law,” he said.

Offer Grembek, Co-Director of UC Berkeley’s SafeTREC, applauded the ways in which A.B. 1909 aligns with the Safe Systems Approach, which is basically Vision Zero and has been adopted by Caltrans.

“When road users do make a mistake, A.B. 1909 would allow more room and time to recover and to avoid dangerous crashes,” he said.

Align Regional Plans with Climate Goals: A.B. 2237, from Friedman. Passed 8-4

This bill is a first response to the report resulting from A.B. 285, a deep dive into how transportation funding and planning interact and whether they are helping reach important state goals.

The report, said Friedman, says that “a midcourse correction is warranted,” and A.B. 2337 aims to “reallocate funds from projects that are inconsistent with our goals to ones that are consistent.”

Bill Magavern of the Coalition for Clean Air  pointed out that “our transportation spending is often at cross purposes with efforts to reduce emissions. But pollution from traffic kills more people than traffic accidents do.”

He also reminded everyone that California’s failure to achieve national air quality standards puts federal transportation funding at risk as well.

Bill Higgins of California Association of Councils of Government tried his valiant best to explain why the A.B. 285 report was flawed – that the money comes from different pockets and with different rules, and planning can’t be made consistent because different levels of planning make different assumptions.

If anything, however, he made a case in favor of the report, which spent quite a bit of time describing the complexity and dysfunction of a planning/investing process in which different people can’t see what others are doing, and continue to forge ahead doing their work the way they’ve always done it, despite the rapidly growing urgency of climate change.

Align Transportation Investments with Climate Goals: A.B. 2438, from Friedman; passed 8-4

“ClimatePlan has spent the last few years engaging with the bold and ambitious plans that California has put forth,” said Nailah Pope-Harden, Executive Director of the coalition of environmental groups. “This bill is an opportunity to ground all those aspirational plans in reality.”

The bill would, according to its author, “prioritize good transportation projects that protect people and align with state goals and greenhouse gas reduction standards.”

“It is necessary to align our goals,” said Friedman. “These are funding formulas that go back in some cases to the 1950s; it’s time to update them.”

Graduated Drivers License: A.B. 2388 from Carlos Villapudua (D-Stockton), passed 10-0.

This bill would create a graduated license system and require new drivers between 18 and 20 years old to undergo driver training – which they currently are not required to do.

The consequences of more young people waiting until they are 18 to get a license, and more of them doing so without any training, is severe; according to Villapudua, 18-20-year-old novice drivers are forty to sixty percent more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than 16 to 17-year-old drivers.

A graduated license program “would save hundreds of lives every year,” he said.

Oh, yes. Gas Tax Suspension.

Republican Kevin Kiley introduced A.B. 1638, calling to suspend the gas tax – a bill that was going nowhere in the Democratic Assembly. The Transportation Committee agreed to hear it yesterday, so a good chunk of the too-long hearing was dedicated to letting callers insist that suspending the gas tax would provide “immediate” relief for Californians (it would do very little).

Then Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-San Jose) proposed to amend the bill, first by “striking out all the current language” (at which Kiley strenuously objected) and amending it to add a “vehicle fuel windfall price tax” on oil companies who raise the price of gas just because they can.

Republicans on the committee were apoplectic; Vice Chair Vince Fong (R-Bakersfield) tried several ways to block the amendments, but in the end could do nothing, and the amended bill passed, 9-4.

It now languishes without an author. This may have been an effective if brutal way to kill the bill, as well as to send the message that the Democrats are not buying the “gas tax holiday will help everyone” line. But it was not an effective way to communicate why it is a bad idea.

The Republicans present played it for all it was worth, insisting that the committee was trying to prevent them from helping struggling Californians. Insults flew; Kiley insinuated that Lee is being used by committee members, and he in turn was roundly scorched by Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park). Janet Nguyen (R-Huntington Beach) was so apoplectic that she couldn’t finish her sentences.

Here’s a link to a recording of the hearing.

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