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Three-feet rule debate hits national press

Road.cc: Three-feet rule debate hits national press

By Simon_MacMichael - Posted on 04 November 2009

The Guardian Bike Blog has added its voice to the debate over a petition seeking to bring about a three-foot minimum overtaking rule for motor vehicles passing cyclists, highlighted here on road.cc in recent weeks.

Since road.cc first reported on Tom Amos’s petition on Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s official site, the number of signatories has almost doubled from 785 to more than 1,500, but the petition has also sparked a lively debate within the cycling community about whether three feet is actually enough.

News of the petition prompted Guardian blogger Ben Thomas to recount a near miss he witnessed at London’s Marble Arch, when a cyclist he was travelling behind came close to being sucked under a double-decker coach that left minimal passing room as it overtook him. Thomas says that when the cyclist remonstrated with the coach driver further up the road, he was asked, “how wide are your handlebars?”

Thomas points out that while most motorists will give cyclists more room than that coach driver did, part of the problem is that the Highway Code fails to lay down a minimum passing distance, saying only that they should give "at least as much room as [they] would when overtaking a car."

He also argues that bike lanes exacerbate the problem, since many drivers may feel that as long as they are not encroaching on the lane as they overtake, then they are giving the cyclist sufficient space – something that anyone with experience of cycling in an urban setting could tell you simply isn’t true.

CTC, the cyclists’ organisation, believes that setting a three-foot passing rule isn’t sufficient. Campaigns Director Debra Rolfe told road.cc, “three feet is just not enough in this situation, and the Highway Code says to give as much space as you would do when overtaking a car. Of course, it’s very important that drivers give sufficient space when overtaking cyclists, but as to how much space, that depends on how fast the driver and the cyclist are going, and what the road conditions are more generally.”

It’s clear that the Highway Code lacks precision when it comes to how much space drivers should leave cyclists. A spokesperson for the Department for Transport told road.cc, “our advice to motorists in the Highway Code is clear that drivers should leave plenty of room when overtaking a cyclist, especially if they are towing a trailer or are driving a large vehicle. ”

Although the specific distance isn’t defined, when asked what constituted “plenty of room,” the spokesperson said that “Rule 163 of the Highway Code adds that a driver should give cyclists ‘at least as much room’ as you would a car,” and that there is a picture illustrating this in the Highway Code.”

This all suggests that three feet or not, there is a burning need in the UK to have a minimum passing distance clarified so that all road users know where they stand.

Amos was inspired to start his campaign through the example of a US-based pressure group that has already succeeded in having a three-foot rule introduced in 11 US states and in France, and which has sparked a global movement working towards having similar laws introduced elsewhere.

And many cyclists worldwide are showing their support for the initiative by wearing yellow jerseys with the words ‘3 Feet Please’ printed in black letters on the back. Designer Joe Mizereck from Tallahassee, Florida, started a campaign earlier this year to get as many cyclists as possible wearing them.

If you are a British citizen or resident and haven’t already signed the petition, you can do so here.