Friday, October 29, 2010

Op-Ed: Is a 3-foot Passing Law the best solution for NJ? - Part Two

Part two of two. Part one can be read here.

So what could be wrong with language requiring a minimum of three feet of clearance when motorists pass cyclists? Many of you might be thinking that it’s better than nothing, which is what we have now. It could be better but it could also make things worse.

First and foremost, three feet is just not enough room to safely pass a cyclist. Think of three feet this way. On my 5’7’ frame, three feet of clearance from my left shoulder while in a riding position is just 12 inches beyond my extended left arm. Another way to visualize three feet is that it’s two inches more than the distance from the center of my chest to my extended arm. That’s very close!

A pass at such close range instinctively elicits a visceral negative reaction not only by myself but also most people whom I ride with. If the pass was done by a vehicle at high speed or by a large vehicle like a bus or a truck, the experience can be downright traumatic. The only way I believe a pass at three feet can be “safe and prudent” as current law dictates, is if it is done while the passing vehicle is traveling at 25mph or less. Besides this one limited circumstance I am not convinced, and doubt that I ever will be, that a meager three feet is a satisfactory distance by which to measure a “safe pass” even if three feet has been standard distance used in laws by a dozen or more states around the country. And with the condition of New Jersey roads being as bad as they are, that three feet of shy distance can quickly disappear as a cyclist swerves to maneuver around a damaged roadway and debris.

Fortunately most drivers have much more common sense when they pass cyclists. The vast majority of the drivers I encounter pass me at a distance that is at least half the width of the travel lane in which I’m traveling. In other words, they move over halfway into the oncoming lane a straddle the centerline. Many others will move over into the other lane entirely. Many will also slow down in addition to moving over.

So why would we want to send out a message to drivers that anything less than half the width of a lane is a safe passing distance? I fear that once the 3-foot message got out that some drivers, who once gave cyclists half a lane width or more, will change their behaviors and pass at closer range. I can’t prove or give documented evidence that this could happen but why even risk the possibility?

I am also not convinced that just pursuing any minimal pass distance law is even a wise political move without first addressing the other oversights in Title 39 that I discussed in Part One of this opinion. As it currently reads, the current bill only addresses a minimum three-foot passing distance. (I understand that bills go through a number of revisions before they are put to a final vote and often initial versions are a primitive, bare bones idea). If only a minimum passing distance is addressed at this time, there might not be another chance to readdress the issue of safely passing cyclists for quite a while. If the cycling community comes back a year or two later saying, “Yeah the three-foot bill was nice but we need to have some other details clarified as well,” it is quite likely that legislators in Trenton might say that you had your ONE chance. Legislators are very busy people and are likely to not have the time to readdress cycling safety issues for some time. Even worse, they might feel that their previous effort in passing the first bill was wasted and might dismiss future concerns entirely!

Fortunately, most of the shortcomings in Title 39 regarding the legal rights and responsibilities of cyclists as they operate on the roadway have already been reviewed by leading New Jersey experts, not once but twice by Bicycle and Pedestrian Office in the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University. First in a 2002 review of Title 39 by Charles Carmalt who is now leading the development of bicycle amenities for the City of Philadelphia, and second with a multi-year effort by New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC). Included in that second review by the BPAC was innovative language calling for overtaking motorists to give cyclists a minimum of half a lane width as they pass. Not only does such language match the everyday best practice already seen by a majority of drivers on New Jersey’s roads but it also is a visually measurable distance that a law enforcement officer, with nothing more than the naked eye, can use to issue summonses to violators.

One of the major issues with a three-foot law is that it is unenforceable unless a driver actually crashes into a cyclist. Since current law already dictates that overtaking must be done “safe and prudent” there is already a law by which offending drivers could be charged with in a crash with a cyclist. The only thing that prevents the current law from being enforced in such crashes is an unfortunate “driver’s bias” sometimes called “the windshield perspective” that exists in our legal system. Also, the only living witnesses in such crashes are the offending drivers themselves who often say, “the cyclist just swerved in front of me.” In light of this, I wonder if even the best crafted law could overcome this inherent bias as it exists today. Just read about the Camile Savoy case if you don’t believe this bias exists.

In closing I would like it to be known that I support the New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalitions efforts to put a legislative agenda together to better the legal protections of cyclists on New Jersey’s roadways. I am also not privy to their latest ideas beyond what is publicly available on the Internet and in their emailings. Still, I have my concerns about the directions they are taking on this matter. I simply write this opinion to express those concerns and to make the general New Jersey cycling public aware of those concerns so that you can make up your own mind.

Be safe, be legal and keep on walking and riding.


BobP said...

I agree that enforcing a 3 foot law is almost impossible. the value in trying to pass one is that it would be so controversial, that it would shine a light on the issues surrounding our common roads, and the legal rights people have to use them, regardless of their mode of transportation.

Robert said...

Good points about the need to clarify the law regarding passing cyclists. And while I strongly support something along the lines of a half lane width of clearance (not the measly three feet), I'm also of the opinion that if such a law is passed, not only will it be ignored, but it will not be enforced -- witness all of the other laws on the books regarding speed limits, cell-phone usage, etc. I believe resources would be better spent on awareness campaigns and infrastructure ehnhancements.

Bob E.