1. Eliminate exceptions to the laws that make them weaker:Under minimum safe passing distance laws (often called “3 foot laws”), drivers are supposed to leave a minimum distance (usually specified as 3 feet) between their vehicle and a cyclist when passing. But exceptions to the requirement to leave a minimum safe distance often make the laws less protective of cyclist safety than they should be. For example, California’s law allows drivers to make a pass closer than 3 feet if there isn’t enough room in the lane to leave at least 3 feet. And California isn’t alone in weakening safe passing laws. Eliminating these exceptions that weaken the safety laws will increase cyclist protection.
2. Link passing distance to passing speed: Under minimum safe passing distance laws, drivers are required to leave at least the minimum distance when passing a cyclist, but are still required to leave more than the minimum distance if safety requires a greater distance. One example of where greater passing distance is necessary is at higher passing speeds. New Hampshire has addressed this by requiring drivers to allow 1 foot more passing distance with each 10 MPH increase in passing speed. At 30 MPH, drivers are required to leave a minimum of 3 feet passing distance, at 40 MPH, drivers are required to leave a minimum of 4 feet passing distance, and at 50 MPH, drivers are required to leave a minimum of 5 feet passing distance. Linking passing distance to passing speed is a great idea, and should be the law in every state.
3. Change lanes to pass: One sure way to pass at a safe distance is to change lanes when passing. This is always legal, except on two lane roads divided by a double yellow line. But some state laws explicitly allow drivers to cross over the double yellow line (when it can be safely crossed) to pass a cyclist. When a lane is too narrow, it is safer to pass by changing lanes than to attempt to squeeze past while in the same lane. Safe passing laws can be strengthened by requiring drivers to change lanes to pass a cyclist when there is an available lane, and by allowing drivers to cross over the double yellow line to pass when it is safe to do so.
4. Make passing collisions prima facie evidence of an illegal pass: When drivers collide with a cyclist while passing, they will often attempt to shift the blame to the cyclist: “The cyclist came out of nowhere” is one common explanation for a crash. “The cyclist suddenly swerved into my path” is another commonly heard explanation. If the cyclist is seriously injured or killed, the driver’s explanation may be the only explanation we hear. More often than not, when a driver says that the pass was “safe” but the cyclist did something that doesn’t make any sense, it really means that the driver wasn’t paying attention, or was passing too close. But under the law, injured cyclists must prove that the driver’s pass was unsafe. 3 foot laws can be strengthened by making collisions prima facie evidence of an illegal pass. This means that when a driver is passing a cyclist and a collision results, the law would presume that the pass was too close. The driver could still rebut this presumption with evidence to show that the pass was not too close, but now the burden of proof would be where it properly belongs—on the driver who has the responsibility to pass at a safe distance.
5. Criminalize buzzing: Some close passes are the result of carelessness—the driver wasn’t paying attention and didn’t notice the cyclist, or the driver miscalculated passing distance. These errors are easily corrected: Drivers should be paying attention while driving, and when passing a cyclist, it is better to err on the side of safety, rather than trying to shave it to the minimum. When a driver makes a simple mistake, the result should be a ticket. But some drivers use their vehicles as weapons, and intentionally shave it as close as they can to intimidate the cyclist. When this happens, the driver is committing assault, and should be prosecuted. Safe passing laws can be improved by making intentional close passes a crime.