Tag Archive for safe passing distance

The rules of the peloton won’t pass on the street

Let’s take one more quick look at common bike courtesy. Which seems to be pretty uncommon these days.

A few weeks back, I was riding on the bike path above Santa Monica when I came up behind an older woman riding slowly on an old beach cruiser.

Normally, I would have just passed her and been on my way, but there were a couple of joggers coming in the opposite direction. And there wasn’t enough room to complete my pass without posing a risk to her or the runners.

So I settled in behind her, matching her speed until I could safely go around her.

Meanwhile, a couple of riders entered the bike path behind me. One I recognized as a local amateur racer; judging by his jersey, the other appeared to be a member of a mid-level pro team.

As they rode up behind me, I positioned myself just behind and slightly to the left of the woman rider, making it clear that I was waiting to pass. But once the runners passed and I began to make my move, the two riders behind cut me off, without a word, passing so closely that our arms nearly brushed — something that could have easily taken out all four riders at once.

I had no choice but to squeeze my brakes and drop back, then offer my apologies to the woman I’d been trying to pass, who was nearly caught up in a dangerous collision through no fault of her own.

And once I caught up to the other riders, I was mad as hell.

I’m the first to admit that I handled it badly. Instead of calmly discussing the matter, I gave them both a piece of my mind. Not that I have that many pieces left.

But here’s the thing. There are different rules for racing and riding on the roadway. And what works in the peloton doesn’t work on the street. Or on the bike path.

From their perspective, they saw their opening and took it; it was up to me to respond more assertively. And in the peloton, passing closely is a sign of a rider’s skill — not the dangerous rudeness I perceived.

From a non-racer’s perspective, though, it’s just the opposite. The rules of the road dictate that you wait until it’s safe to pass, and allow the rider in the superior position to go first. And then, and only then, you give other riders the same clearance you’d expect a driver to give you.

In other words, three feet when possible. Or roughly the length of a grown man’s arm.

If the situation dictates that you have to pass closer than that, for whatever reason, you should always announce your presence by saying “on your left” or “passing left.” And always, always, always pass on the left.

The only exception is the rare instance when the rider is so far to the left that passing on that side just isn’t possible. In which case you may need to pass on the right, but only after announcing that you’re going to — and waiting a moment to make sure the other rider doesn’t respond by cutting back in front of you.

After all, some people seem to have trouble with advanced concepts like right and left.

And when the shoe is on the other foot — when a rider comes up behind you and announces “on your left” — remember that he’s not being rude, obnoxious or aggressive. He’s being polite and showing concern for your safety, as well as his own.

So just respond by continuing to ride straight, or if there’s room, move over to your right to let the other rider pass. And it couldn’t hurt to nod your head or say thanks as the rider passes.

It might encourage him or her to show the same courtesy to other riders down the road.

And who knows, this courtesy thing might just catch on.


L.A. prepares for its first ever bike count, there’s still time to sign up if you’d like to volunteer; Nashville just did it. Fellow cyclist Russell Crowe braves the traffic on Sunset Boulevard; note BOA and Chateau Marmot in the background. As usual, Joe Linton takes the high road and encourages Santa Monica to make positive changes to maintain its bike friendly city status. Another stolen bike alert in L.A. A new study suggests that bike lanes may encourage drivers to pass closer that they would otherwise. A man who dedicated his life to providing bikes to disadvantaged children passed away this week; most of us can only hope to do that much good in this world. A Colorado man is convicted of letting his dogs attack a cyclist during a race last year. Boise gets new bike lockers. Turns out the Vatican has long supported cycling, as well as other sports. An elite Aussie cyclist drives drunk, crashes into his former training partner and flees the scene. Budapest Critical Mass riders plan to encircle city hall in protest. A Middle-Eastern cyclist demonstrates the origin of the Camelback brand. Finally, two teams face off in a Gotham Iron Chef-style contest to raise New York cycling to Amsterdam-ish levels. Maybe we could use something like that here.

Three-foot passing zones — even a near miss can be deadly

If you’ve been reading this for awhile, you probably know that I’m a strong advocate of laws establishing a minimum three-foot distance for passing a cyclist.

It’s just common sense.

Just about anyone who has ever ridden a bike knows how dangerous it can be when a car passes too close. And just about anyone who has ever driven past a cyclist knows that it’s hard to judge just exactly how close is too close — and that riders often swerve to avoid obstacles a driver may not be aware of.

A three foot — or arm’s length — distance simply provides a reasonable margin of error to protect everyone’s safety.

It makes so much sense, in fact, that it is slowly becoming law across the nation. As of last year, eleven states had passed three-foot laws, while a number of states have either passed or are considering such laws this year.

What brings this up is today’s news.

A newspaper in New Jersey and a letter writer in Colorado go to great lengths to argue against three-foot laws under consideration in their states.

The New Jersey editorial questions why not have a two-foot distance for passing skinnier people, or whether someone will get a ticket for passing with just a 2’11” margin. And notes that drivers have enough to worry about without having to judge how closely they pass a cyclist.

Meanwhile, the Durango writer posits that some roads are just too narrow and curving to permit a three-foot margin without causing accidents — and that cyclists should be banned from some roads entirely.


Virtually every state in the union already requires passing cyclists at a safe distance; all this law does in specify what a safe distance is.

Despite what the New Jersey paper says, no one will get a ticket for passing 1” closer than three feet, or two inches, or even three. No officer has the ability to judge distance that closely.

But they can tell when you’re too close. When that margin is far less than three feet, and close enough to interfere with the cyclist’s ability to ride safely.

Simply put, if you can’t safely pass a rider with a margin roughly of three feet, you can’t safely pass. So just slow down for a moment, and wait until you can.

In other words, drive safely. Just like common sense, and the law, requires.

Then there’s this, one day earlier, from the same newspaper.

A cyclist was killed when riding along a New Jersey street. Witnesses say he was struck by a passing school bus in a hit-and-run accident; yet all the evidence — including security camera footage and an examination of the bus — indicate that no collision occurred.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened.

If the bus passed so closely that witnesses on the scene swear it hit the cyclist, it was clearly too close — well within the proposed three-foot limit — causing the cyclist to lose control of his bike. Yet no charges will be filed.

To quote one of comments that followed the editorial:

How many drivers can gauge whether or not they are 3 feet away – all that really matters is that you do not hit the cyclist.

The death of an experienced cyclist — a 5,000 mile a year rider — clearly demonstrates the fallacy of that attitude.

But they still don’t get it. 

How many more cyclists have to die until they do?

Dave Zabriskie’s Yield to Life Foundation offers great tips for cyclists and motorists on how to share the road safely. Laguna Beach says it’s not safe to ride in their city, but bike lanes aren’t the answer. Stephen Box recently wrote about bus drivers who think they have the right to cut off cyclists; a 15-year old Oregon cyclist was killed in a similar incident — which might have been avoided if he’d stopped for the red light. One in five cyclists killed in New York had alcohol in their systems; only 3% were wearing helmets. The Hammer Museum is Westwood is sponsoring a bike night next week, complete with bike valet courtesy of the LACBC; the LA Weekly suggests that you wear a helmet and be careful on your way there. Finally, L.A.’s own hometown cycling travel writer gets political. You go, girl!

Bike law change #4: Clarify the law allowing drivers to leave their lane to pass a bike

As a driver, I was taught to give riders plenty of clearance when passing, even if that meant briefly going into the other lane or crossing the yellow line. And I’ve always understood that the law not only allowed that, but actually encouraged it.

But I’ve noticed that while many L.A. drivers do just that, others are reluctant to pass a cyclist if it means even putting their left wheels on the divider line, let alone actually crossing it. Instead, they wait behind the rider, becoming angrier and more impatient with every passing moment. Or they zoom past at the first opportunity, whether or not there’s room — let alone if it’s actually safe.

So let’s clarify the law, so that every driver knows it’s okay to cross into the other lane or briefly cross the center line in order to pass a cyclist, as long as it can be done safely and there are no other vehicles in the way.

Bike law change #1: Require drivers to maintain a minimum passing distance of three feet

As it now stand, the law only requires that drivers pass a bicycle on the left, and maintain a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the bicycle.

But what does that mean in the real world? To some drivers, that means giving a cyclist as wide a berth as possible — for which we are eternally grateful.

Other drivers interpret that as any distance which allows them to pass a bike without actually hitting it. But they may not realize that getting caught in the slipstream of their vehicle can make us lose balance and possibly fall. Or that coming too close makes us instinctively swerve to the right, even if that means running off the roadway or into parked cars. And it’s always possible for a driver to misjudge the distance and actually sideswipe a rider.

So let’s take the guessing out it, and require a minimum of three feet distance when passing a bicycle. And make it clear that drivers are allowed to briefly cross lane or center dividers to pass safely.

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