Why 3 Foot Passing Laws Are Bad for Bicyclists

This morning, on the steps of Los Angeles’ City Hall, Mayor Villaraigosa announced the unveiling of the “Give Me 3” bus shelter posters and also announced that he would like to “make the 3 Foot Passing Rule a 3 Foot Passing Law” in California.

But why do we need a law in California requiring motorists to give bicyclists at least 3 feet of passing clearance? We already have a safe passing law, California Vehicle Code 21750:

21750.  The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle or a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle or bicycle, subject to the limitations and exceptions hereinafter stated.

Many cycling advocates argue that a specific distance is needed, noting that many other states have enacted “3 foot” or similar passing laws.  But the law against following too closely also does not have a specific distance, yet there’s no problem with motorists knowing how close is considered tailgating, and the police will enforce violations when they see them.  There’s no reason this couldn’t also be the situation with the current safe passing law.

Advocates for 3 foot laws are using a legislative approach to attempt to fix what is essentially an education and enforcement problem.  I’m sure that explains why there has been no tangible improvement in motorist passing behavior is those states that have enacted 3 foot laws.  On the Commute Orlando blog, Keri Caffrey talks about the ineffectiveness of Florida’s 3 foot law and how it is a distraction from solving the core problems at hand.

Furthermore, why would I as a cyclist want less passing distance than motorists give each other?  Trucks have a maximum allowable width of 8′-6″. If one of these trucks is passing another on the interstate, and each truck is centered in a 12 foot lane, then this worst case scenario passing distance is 3′-6″. The passing clearance will be a lot greater for the more normal situation of one car passing another.   Yet cyclists are begging for only 3 feet of passing clearance (which I agree with this writer that 3 feet is too close in almost every circumstance), and at higher speed differentials too!

Although I am more than happy to share a lane when it is wide enough for me to safely do so, the other point that gets lost in these discussions is that cyclist trying to share a narrow lane is inviting motorists to pass too closely, irrespective of whether or not there is a 3 foot law.  That’s the reason why the requirement for cyclists to ride as far right as practicable per CVC 21202(a) doesn’t apply to narrow lanes.  Keri talks more about the effect of cyclist lane position on motorist passing distance on the Commute Orlando blog, but here’s a video of her in Florida showing it in action:

UPDATE: A couple of days after writing this post, I was riding on a road with a single wide lane in my direction, which became two narrow lanes just before approaching a traffic light.  I was riding far enough right to share the single wide lane, which put me around the center of the right lane when it became two lanes. As I was slowing to make the right turn at the light, a motorist approached from behind and started passing with about 3 feet of clearance, straddling both through lanes in the process.  He then realized that we wasn’t going to finish passing me in time to make the right turn, so he slowed to my speed and made the right turn at the same time as me – good thing we were turning onto a street with two lanes.

In this instance, I wasn’t in any real danger, because I was alert enough to see the whole scene unfolding, and so I still would have turned right as an evasive maneuver even if I had wanted to go straight.  But would that motorist have done the same thing if I were riding a motorcycle and slowing down to make a right turn?  I doubt it.  This is a perfect example of why the “pass with at least 3 feet” message is flawed.  The message should be “when I’m controlling a lane, either wait behind or change lanes to pass.”