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!

One comment

  1. LisaNewton says:

    Great post. It’s not rocket science. If any of these driver would for one minute put themselves in the place of the person riding the bike, they migh just get it.

    It’s a little scary riding on the road with traffic going 45mph. If you pass too close, it’s easy for the biker to lost control. Just like with driving, one false move and that’s it.

    BTW,thanks for the link to my blog post. I plan on writing more articles about bikes, Metro, and riding.

    What can I say, I love LA and bikes……….:)

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