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The Problem with 3-Foot Pass Laws

A number of states, including Rhode Island, have 3-ft. pass laws. Under a 3-ft. pass law, drivers overtaking a bicyclist must give at least 3 ft. of room to the left of the bicyclist.

I agree to some degree with the basic premise behind 3-ft. pass laws--passing closer than 3 ft. is obviously really a jerk move. But overall, I think these laws are more harm than good, because they codify the idea that drivers should pass bicyclists in the first place--in fact, if you listen to the enthusiasm in the tones of voice of many bike advocates  when they talk about 3-ft. pass laws, one of the best things that's ever hoped for is good "driver education". We're apparently supposed to encourage drivers to pass people on bikes! In the vast majority of cases, bicyclists are on roads where this should not happen. The rural weekend-warrior notwithstanding, much of bicycling happens in the cores of towns and cities, and many bicyclists are already going at or close to the speed limit.

The rule should be:

*Do not go above the speed limit to pass a bicyclist.
*Do not pass a bicyclist within the same lane (this is already the law for any vehicle).

Rule #1 precludes passing a cyclist on any 25 mph road, unless the cyclist is going unusually slowly. I can push 15 mph if I'm towing a fully-loaded bike cart with heavy supplies, and 20-25 mph is easy to hit on flat or downhill grades. There are certainly people who bike more slowly. But even if the cyclist is in the 15-20 mph range, it's going to be hard to pass him/her without breaking rule #1, because at 25 mph it'll take too long to overtake the cyclist. Drivers routinely go above the speed limit just for ordinary driving, and what a 3-ft. pass law says is that these drivers can go even faster for a few seconds, so long as they keep their distance.

Rule #2 covers places where bicyclists may be riding but which are not designed with them in mind. A prime example would be N. Main Street, because it's a four-lane stroad. Bicyclists should be understood to be able to take the full lane on stroads like this--although I'm doubtful of how many would take up the offer--and drivers should be required to pass them in the lane to their left.

Most drivers who pass me on the street are being poor drivers, in that they're speeding. But even so, the vast majority are not trying to be aggressive--they are actually, I'm sure, trying to be considerate. The design speeds of our streets are set to lull many people into higher speeds without thinking about it. I've observed drivers going 40 mph in cars where I am the passenger and bike safety is the topic of discussion! So we should try our best when we encounter these lost souls to remember that many of them are not trying to do any harm. When we teach these well-intentioned drivers to pass bicyclists, they will certainly oblige, and what they will be doing is still going to be wrong, even if it's legal.

But 3-ft. pass laws also seem problematic because of how they effect the truly aggressive drivers: by making passing a bicyclist the norm, we leave the factors that make an aggressive pass in the realm of the subjective. Today a driver passed me very fast on Rochambeau. I know I was going at least 25 mph, because I was booking it hard down a moderate hill. The driver beeped at me, revved his engine, and then picked up speed to a burst of 45 mph or so to overtake me. I know that what the driver was doing was telling me I was not welcome and to get off the road, but under the law, who's to say? The driver did pass with less than 3-ft., but let's try proving that in court.

The real change that needs to happen is infrastructural, and rules like these can only go so far. What concerns me most is that we're creating new problems as we go instead of dealing with the roots of the problem.



  1. Hey - I think you're missing some important pieces. 3 foot laws don't generally authorize speeding, so that's irrelevant, but they may authorize going over the double yellow to pass safely. in that sense they would satisfy #2, and #1 is a different problem altogether. To me, the issue is whether it's better to have a numeric standard or a more general "pass safely" standard; in practice, either should be enforceable in the case of a collision, but neither is likely to be enforced without, so I have trouble getting excited about this issue.

    also - trying to get in touch w/ you but linkedin and twitter don't allow cold messaging. i'd love to talk with you about the 10. this is me: @readporter or http://www.eli.org/bios/read-porter. Give a holler if you have a few minutes.

  2. You're definitely right that 3-ft. pass laws don't specifically authorize speeding, and I think getting rid of 3-ft. pass laws probably would not ever rise to top priority level for me. But I think that the strong tendency for drivers to speed without realizing they are doing so is a really important factor to consider here. If we do driver education, it should be to encourage drivers in non-rural situations to simply slow down and cruise behind bicyclists. In the long-run, we should only have streets in our towns and cities that are either fully separated for bikes and cars, or which have 15 mph speed limits, so there should be less confusion in general if we get the right infrastructure. But I truly believe that most drivers who are speeding are not actively trying to do something bad, so setting an expectation that people should not pass in most cases would be best.

    I should say, I was in a carpool last night after I wrote this article, and at one point during the night a mechanical bike was in front of us. All of the people in the car were frequent bikers, the driver was following the speed limit and acting responsibly. But I noted that when we felt obstructed by the bike in front of us, that we were still in between the 15-20 mph range. I noticeably felt like this was incredibly slow, which goes to show that even for a non-driver who is not accustomed to higher speeds, the visual cues sent the message that we needed to pass. But was there really any need to? I'm not sure. In this situation, like I said, the driver was excellent--well above the norms I expect of "Rhode Island drivers". So it gave me an opportunity to observe and see what the situation looks like. I think most drivers would have blasted past the biker a lot faster than we did.


  3. Personally, I think these laws are more or less irrelevant. Far too much campaigning effort is being expended on something which has no proven record of success when that effort could be going on things which have the potential to transform cycling for everyone.

    The Netherlands has the safest cycling in the world without a passing law so clearly this is not a prerequisite for safe cycling. A passing law certainly can't improve the lot of cyclists to the same extent as those things which have been proven to work so well in the Netherlands.

  4. Instead of "Do not go above the speed limit to pass a bicyclist." how about just -Do not go above the speed limit? Speed limits are there for a reason and it's not for the local PD to raise revenues. At least, I like to think they aren't. I will agree that the thought of slowing down to wait for a safer moment to pass does not occur for many people. However, I feel things like a 3-ft pass law are a better vehicle to educate people on the vulnerabilities of other road users (including pedestrians) and how to safely pass them vs. just making it outright illegal.

    With regards to your argument for #1, You seem to imply that it is safer to pass someone traveling at 30mph going 40mph than it is to pass someone going 15mph at 25mph. Since the difference is 10mph in both cases it takes the same amount of time to pass. All other things being equal, I would argue the lower speed pass is safer. That said, I don't think either one is dangerous if they give the cyclist a little room and respect their right to be there.

  5. The diagram I made on Twitter w/ comments about the physics of passing was meant to emphasize that I think it would take 4-5 seconds to overtake a bike at the speed limit, and that at that length of time, the chances of some other thing blocking the pass--a red light, a stop sign, another opposing car, etc.--are very high. So I would just argue that outside of very rural areas, there are next to zero safe passing opportunities. And since the vast majority of biking is happening in those situations, the onus on education should be to tell people not to pass at all, and for enforcement to follow up on that. But I agree with David above that infrastructure is the key, above even that. One thing that I also hate about 3-ft. pass laws is their orientation within American standards of engineering--you essentially necessitate wide roads for this kind of passing.

    I agree that passing at 25 is much safer than at 45. I'm not implying otherwise. The exercise bike at the gym says I can hit bursts of 30 mph on a bike if I kill myself to do it, but I think it's extremely hard. Most people are not going that fast, and in practice I certainly don't. So when people pass me like I'm not moving--almost all drivers in Providence--it's a reflection that they're going way too fast. I think I do 15 mph at least on flat terrain like Blackstone Blvd., and the cars pass me that way. This is also confirmed by my speed-gunning of Blackstone, Westminster, and other streets, and anecdotally confirmed by the many passenger trips I've taken in cars (where I'm always craning my neck around and looking at the speedometer).

    The rule should be "don't pass".


  6. I'm a fan of knobby tires because sooner or later I'm going to be run off the road and I want to be able to climb the curb. Also fat tires don't fit down certain gratings.

    We live in a world where a number of traffic laws haven't been enforced in years. I like piano key crosswalks but that doesn't necessarily mean that Providence drivers will stop. Some of them are perpetually "in a hurry" and as a matter of fact they do own the road.

    The 25 mph speed limit laws are enforced at 35 mph except I've heard complaints that in Pawtucket they write in 35 mph no matter how slow you're actually going. Ticket quotas at least used to be an important part of city revenues. Also, running two or three cars through a red light used to be standard procedure until automatic camera ticketing came into vogue.

    So, when I hear what the rule should be, I might say "um-hum" but I'm thinking twice. How is it going to be either modeled or enforced?

    On grumpier days I wished that I had a sharp-looking silver-painted rubber eraser on a flexible stick hanging two feet sideways to the left and mounted beneath my bicycle seat. Drivers would see that if they passed too close to my bike, they'd get a big ugly scratch on the side of their car as they drove by.

    Truth in advertising: I used to bike everywhere before it was popular. Then I became uninsured for many years and got off my bike as a personal safety measure.

    --Paul Klinkman