Wednesday, January 25, 2012

3 Foot Rule is Not Cool

Louisiana signage. Photo credit: Biking Bis
Last summer Vermont added a "Safe Passing" law which stipulates (among other things) that "motorists are required to pass cyclists and pedestrians with due care, increasing clearance to pass the vulnerable road users safely". In the past few years 19 other states enacted a law called the "3-Foot Rule" which requires drivers of vehicles allocate at least 3 feet in passing a cyclist.

While these rules sound well and good, intending to protect the cyclist, they've bothered me to a large extent because what seems like common sense had to become a legality for people to suddenly pay attention. Will a driver now pass a cyclist with more care than before just because it's a law? I think not.

Since the law took effect, I haven't noticed any increase in the space allotted from passing motorists. Most do go by with ample room—by ample room I mean 6 feet—but I'm concerned when a motorist is too close. In that frightened moment I am forced to hold the bike as steady as possible or escape onto the shoulder (or heaven forbid into a ditch) until the vehicle goes by. Many times we are unaware that a vehicle is even behind us until it's too late.

Only 3 feet? What if cyclists want more? Photo credit: Velo Village
And for those who think 3 feet is enough room to safely pass a biker, think again. I sit on a bike seat that is nearly 3 feet high with the top of my helmet at about 5.5 feet. If I fall to the left for whatever reason (a pothole, debris, fright from a motorist) just as a vehicle zooms by, clearly three feet is not enough of a buffer. Because of this when I get behind the wheel of a car I allow a pedestrian or cyclist at least 8 feet of breathing room or slow until I can safely get around.

I think drivers come from the mindset that motorized vehicles have the right-of-way. And to be fair these same operators (mostly) are also not regular cyclists. Case in point: I occasionally catch a lift with my boss who exceeds the speed limit by at least 10 m.p.h. This is the same road that I bike commute on. One day we were cresting a hill with a cyclist slowly climbing ahead of us. My boss intended to pass the bicyclist so I spoke up, "What if you meet a vehicle coming over the hill? Your only recourse is to swerve to the right, forcing the cyclist off the road". Or, I thought, hit them. Fortunately he listened and waited. Yes, my boss is not a bike rider and was clearly not thinking from that viewpoint. I encounter similar situations while a passenger in my family's cars.

Yikes, too close! Photo credit: League of American Bicyclists
originally from
So, I believe, therein lies the problem. If you are not attuned to how a cyclist rides how can you know what constitutes safe passage? Think about it. We can't have separate bike lanes everywhere. It's not practical here in Vermont, nor can we afford it, period.

I think the ultimate solution has to come from a more basic level: education. Teach the youngsters to ride. Teach safety skills. Teach children that cycling can be transportation. As our kids grow, teach awareness, respect, and share-the-road skills even in Drivers Education at the high school level. And teach that driving is not an entitlement but a privilege. While some of us regular cyclists already instill these skills in our youngsters it needs to be addressed in a broader scope, so all children receive this education. After all, children are the caretakers of our future—as drivers and as cyclists.

Education in the schools. Kids must educate their parents and ask to ride to school.
Photo credit: Local Motion
While Vermont's "Safe Passing" law does raise awareness—and I applaud their efforts—it's still a band aid approach to the overall problem. Let's think outside the box of creating rules that are futile to enforce and get to the heart of the situation.

I'd love to hear others' thoughts on this subject.

Click here to see a PDF of the new law.


  1. Mainly from the perspective of possibly raising motorist awareness a bit, I like the three foot law. However, the only time it seems to be enforced is occasionally when a motorist actually hits a cyclist under provably 3-foot law violating circumstances, in which case in Arizona they are slapped with up to a $500 fine. In terms of physics, I don't think 3 feet is enough spatial separation from my elbow to a motor vehicle going 45 mph, no. In terms of lane-taking, it is up to the cyclist to signal overtaking motorists by lane position what the cyclist considers safe, though. Riding in the gutter pan in a narrow lane is not typically going to be the safe position, but I go there sometimes myself.

  2. This is my point exactly...and if it's only enforced after someone gets hit then it is not addressing the real problem.

    A cyclist's perception is quite different from a driver who has never cycled on the same roadways, as you very well can understand. I'm raising this issue in defense of the driver too.

  3. Yeah, when a car is doing 60 m.p.h., three feet is hardly enough.
    When I biked through Eastern Oregon two years ago on US26, there was no shoulder. But there also was no traffic. And when a car did pass me (usually at speeds of about 60), they used the whole other lane. Which I think is what cars should do in that situation, but some drivers somehow feel there's enough room in the lane for a bike and a car going 60.

  4. It is the enforceability of a rule like this that is its real problem. Unless there is a cop watching closely and willing to take action, or a cyclist is hit, how do you prove it? I was recently closely passed by a bus, but was too busy shuddering to notice how close it actually was, it was too close for my comfort and seemed to be going fast (the limit was 50kph), but the size and speed of it seemed to magnify the closeness of it too. I was quite surprised as usually drivers do leave plenty of space and are courteous, but there was no way the bus driver could be charged in that case as I had no proof.

  5. I like the 3-foot rule and wish it had been passed instead of the "safe pass" rule because I think a 3-foot rule is more enforceable, and more importantly, easier to communicate to motorists. Are there times it isn't enough? Sure. But its something quantifiable, and if a cop with a dashcam videotaped a car passing me with less than 3 feet, it might be easier to show to a jury and prove than it would be to prove an "unsafe pass." I'd be happier with a 4,5, or 6 foot law- or a law that simply stated that cyclists have the whole lane and that they are not required to share that lane with a passing vehicle. But I'd take "3 feet" over "safe pass" any day because it is easier to put on a T-shirt or jersey, easier to yell into a driver's window, easier to prove in court.


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