Three foot passing laws aim to give cyclists space on the road- but do they work?
By Bob Mionske
One of the most contentious issues cyclists have with motorists is what many call the buzz—a close, high-speed pass of a cyclist by a driver. The buzz triggers alarm, fear and anger as the cyclist realizes just how close to tragedy the driver has pushed it. Although buzzes may sometimes be the unintentional result of a driver’s lack of awareness, they are also sometimes deliberate attempts by the driver to frighten the cyclist. In fact, I am convinced that some accidents are really the result of a buzz gone wrong.
Regardless of whether a buzz is intentional or not, it’s extremely dangerous. To address the close passing problem, state legislatures have been adopting “3 foot laws.” These laws specify a minimum safe distance that drivers must leave between their vehicles and a cyclist when passing. Eighteen states have a minimum passing law on the books, with 3 feet the typical distance, though it varies. In Virginia, for example, drivers are required to pass at a reasonable speed and leave a minimum of 2 feet, while in New Mexico, the minimum safe distance is 5 feet (the 5 foot standard is being adopted by an increasing number of European countries as well). In New Hampshire, the law also takes vehicle speed into account; the basic minimum distance is 3 feet, but for every 10 miles per hour above 30 miles per hour, the driver must leave an additional foot of passing distance.
Note that regardless of state, these laws are establishing a minimum safe passing distance—depending on conditions, the legal safe passing distance may actually be more than the minimum specified in the law. In states that have not adopted a minimum safe distance, drivers are still required to pass with a safe distance, and that distance will vary depending on conditions. What is different with the 3 foot laws is the state is creating a bright line that tells everybody—drivers, law enforcement and the courts—the minimum size of the buffer that drivers must allow cyclists when they pass.
Despite this bright line, 3-foot laws go unenforced too often. For one, police can only enforce a violation if they have witnessed it. But even when a cyclist is hit from behind by a driver traveling in the same direction—a clear indication of a 3-foot-law violation—police have been known to refuse to cite the driver. Last spring, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, there were two cases three weeks apart in which cyclists were struck from behind, one fatally; in neither case were the drivers brought to justice.
These days, more people are riding for exercise and commuting. But the fear of being hit prevents many others from getting on a bike. Three-foot laws help apprise motorists that cyclists have a right to space on the roadway. But they require more strict enforcement if they’re going to help create a safer cycling environment.
Research and drafting by Rick Bernardi, J.D.