Monday, February 22, 2010

Op-Ed: Why a "3-foot Passing Law" could be bad for cyclists

There has been much debate here in New Jersey and across the nation about the merits of the "3-foot Passing Law." First of all, as a cyclist, being passed by an automobile by just 3 feet is simply too close and downright dangerous in nearly every circumstance (3 feet of clearance from one's shoulder is just beyond the tips of your fingers if you fully extend your left arm). However, what people might not think of is that a 3-foot law may tell drivers it's okay to pass cyclists by less then they do already.

That's right! A "3-foot Passing Law" has the potential to backfire and cause drivers that already give cyclists, 5, 8 or even 12 feet of clearance, the message that it is okay to pass cyclists with less room.

I read recently on the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals list serve of a survey done in a Florida that asked drivers how much room is considered minimally acceptable to pass a cyclist. About 13 percent replied “3 feet.” By comparison, nearly 56 percent replied from 5 to 10 feet. So the socially accepted norm is well more than 3 feet. Passing a law that says 3 feet is acceptable would seem to work against the interests of cyclists, as it would tell those people who already believe 5 to 10 feet is appropriate that 3 feet is OK.

I have also read that Joe Mizereck, the creator of the website, no longer favors 3 feet as the standard for minimum passing distance laws when he heard that 1.5 meters or 5 feet is the standard in much of Europe.

New Jersey's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Council has already been working on language for a bill that requires a greater passing margin and is more enforceable by using the lane itself to give law enforcement visual cues as to when a driver is passing a cyclists by less then the acceptable distance.

Knowing all this, it would seem almost counterproductive at this time for anyone to lobby for a law in New Jersey that advocates for inadequate and dangerous passing distance when motorists overtake cyclists.


JoeTally said...

Sorry Andy...Still a big champion of motorists giving cyclists at least 3 feet clearance when passing from the rear. Next time just ask me. And I am all for getting as much space as possible from motorists when passing cyclists from the rear. In fact most motorists are pretty good about giving cyclists more than 3 feet of space. My campaign is focused on those motorists who need help in knowing what is and what isn't a minimum safe passing distance. To give them a concrete frame of reference as opposed to a vague reference like "safe distance" or "reasonable distance"...3 feet, plain and understood by most people.

In Europe when an initiative took place to get 1.5 metres (5 feet) I gave it my support because they know what they need in Europe far better than I do here in the states. Plus, I did caution them that they might be asking for too much, politically. But, they wanted the 1.5, and their first attempt failed. They will give it another go.

I am also supporting Iowa's attempt to get 5 feet, again because this is where they have landed in their decision on what they feel is good for their state.

Andy, it's really simple, getting states to pass specific concrete distances for passing cyclists from the rear is in the best interest of cyclists and motorists. What I care about is saving cyclists lives and doing all I can to make that happen. I try to take a reasonable approach and not be greedy. It's been very difficult for some states to even get 3 feet of protected space let alone 5 feet. I just want to save lives, and I believe that getting at least 3 feet of protected space for cyclists is saving lives. Unquestionably, it is great to get more space. But, let's make sure that we at least get a minimum of 3 feet rather than nothing.

Your reference to the Florida study reflects what we all see out on the roads where 69% of the motorists said they felt it minimimally acceptable to give 3 to 12 feet space when passing. It's the 31% who think it fine to give less that I am worried about and I'm sure you are too.

Come on Andy. You and I both know that having a 3 foot law in place isn't going to make responsible motorists be less responsible. Those who already give 5, 8, 12 feet will continue to do so. They do it now because they "get it". I'm not worried about them.

New Jersey has to do what it thinks is best for them. A law requiring "at least feet clearance when passing cyclists from the rear" offers the cycling community an excellent tool for educating motorists on what is considered a safe passing distance. And it will make cycling safer and save lives. My concern is your attempts to show all the possible ways it might backfire, will only leave cyclists with no protected space. That would be disappointing.

Argue for something Andy that will save lives and then make it happen. That's what matters.

Good luck.

Joe Mizereck
The "3 Feet Please" Campaign

Brendan61 said...

I have to agree with Joe on this. The supposition that people who give a lot of passing distance now will start giving less because the law allows them to is unsupportable. Politically, getting a 3 foot law passed right now is a step in the right direction. My problem with the bill is the weak penalty. However, getting the law passed gives us an opportunity to get the idea of safer driving in front of the public and to work on improving it along the way. Trying to get some other standard written that would not get enough support to pass is a poor strategy.

Jonathan said...

Just my opinion, but I am queasy about the idea of legislating safe driving practices. Drivers should pass cyclists and other, slower traffic only if safe to do so. What is "safe?" Depends on road conditions, lighting, and driver training.

The way cars are constructed, there is a blind spot about three feet all the way around them. When something appears right next to the car, it is about three feet away. This I believe is to keep drivers from banging into other objects.

Andrew J. Besold said...

First, I got to confess that purposely I wrote this entry to be controversial so to get people talking and to feel out peoples opinions. Still, I stand by my opinion and believe that there are definite negative consequences if such a law is passed.

While I won't name the person who brought up the concern with the 3-foot law in my original post, I will just say that he is someone who I consider to be one of the Top 10 best applied practice bicycle scholars in the nation and who's opinion is universally highly respected in the profession.

I also understand the argument that it is better to have any law then no law when it comes to giving cyclist enough room when overtaking (it gives prosecutors more ammunition). However, I will continue to say that 3-feet of passing clearance is grossly inadequate under all circumstances and speeds. Why would we ever want to give motorist the impression that such action even approaches a safe and acceptable motoring practice?

Under NJ Statute 39:4-85.
"The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass at a safe distance to the left thereof and shall not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle."

Since there is no distinction between bicyclists and other vehicles with regards to passing, it is my opinion that 3-feet never constitutes a "safe distance to the left" upon which to pass a bicyclist.

Also, I have had conversations with people who have firsthand experience with passing transportation legislation in New Jersey and they fear if we pass a 3-foot law in New Jersey we won't be able to revisit it for many years, possibly decades to come. Why pass a flawed law now (that is likely to never be enforced anyway) which then greatly reduces the potential to get a better law passed in the near future.

Oh and Joe. I'm sorry I may have taken your words out of context but that article did give that impression.

CarFree Stupidity said...

Whats the point of having a law that is unenforceable?

I've been passed much closer then that... always when riding on the shoulder, bike lane, or trying to squeeze as near parked cars/gutter as possible. I find taking the lane and riding in the RH tire track is usually the safest route to getting cars to give you a bit more room.

Brendan61 said...

Why pass a law that is unenforceable? good question!
Maybe the real question is why is it unenforceable? Why does it appear that the distracted driving laws are unenforceable? Why does 40mph in a 25mph zone seem to be the rule instead of the exception? Maybe our solution isn't having more laws but having better law enforcement. I see the 3 foot law as being more symbolic than anything else. It gives us a talking point for bringing the problems of vulnerable users to the fore. It seems to me that the people who are having the most difficulty with the concept of 3 feet are the engineers and planning professionals who are tied up in the technical details without taking the politcal aspects into account. As for when a law can get revisited in the statehouse? Never underestimate the power of an "angry mob". A well organized and passionate constituency can get things done. That's why there is a New Jersey Bicycle Coalition and why it is so important for all the various advocates to come together with one loud voice. But I can assure you that quibbling over 3 feet, or 5 feet, or half a lane will leave us empty handed

deansangie said...

I believe effective lane positioning is the most important factor in getting safe passing clearance. I think if we had a 3 foot law, yahoo auto drivers who already hate cyclists WILL say "I'll show this biker 3 feet" and show us just how close 3 feet is. It is very very close. To me, on fast roads being passed with 3 feet feels like near death.
If you're gonna push for this (I'm not), why not go 5 feet, or half lane, or...???

Joe Mizereck said...

Brendan, you are absolutely right. NJ cyclists need to get on the same page and move forward, or you will end up right where you are, with nothing.

Andy, it's good to get people thinking, but when lives are at stake, it is far better to get them focused. I don't care where NJ cyclists end up as long as you end up securing a law that gives cyclists (and other vulnerable road users) protected space, be it 3 feet, 5 feet or whatever.

Again, the value of such a law is not found in its enforceability, but rather in it being used as a tool (anchored in law) to educate motorists on what is and what is not a minimum safe passing distance.

Look, in the political arena the surest path to failure is greed. When using the political process one must be practical. Fourteen states have successfully secured a minimum safe passing distance of 3 feet for motorists passing cyclists from the rear. The precedent is set. Would we all like more space protected? Certainly. But, if you want to have the best chance of getting the absolute minimum amount of space protected, then 3 feet should be the goal. Your chances of success with each foot thereafter diminish because of the lack of precedent and the appearance of greed.

All the arguing is healthy, but my concern is that all the attempts to show all the possible ways a "3 Foot Clearance" law might backfire, will only leave cyclists with no protected space. And cyclists need at least this amount of space protected. If you think you can get more, go for it. Make it happen. But, don't leave cyclists with anything less than 3 feet, PLEASE.

Good luck.

Joe Mizereck

Paige said...

I think Joe said it best when he stated, "…It's been very difficult for some states to even get 3 feet of protected space let alone 5 feet. I just want to save lives, and I believe that getting at least 3 feet of protected space for cyclists is saving lives. Unquestionably, it is great to get more space. But, let's make sure that we at least get a minimum of 3 feet rather than nothing."

And that is why the New Jersey Bicycle Coalition supports the 3 Foot Passing Bill, already introduced in the NJ State Assembly and Senate for 2010. Last year, the bill was passed overwhelmingly in the Assembly by 78-1-0, but did stalled in the Senate.

I suggest that instead of continuing to oppose legislation that has already been passed in fourteen states with six additional states submitting 3 Foot Passing Bills for 2010, including New Jersey, we join together and support legislation already set in motion. Would it not be better for all NJ cyclists to at least have three feet of protection this year rather than no protection at all, which is what will certainly happen if we continue down this divisive path.

Paige Hiemier
New Jersey Bicycle Coalition

Unknown said...

It’s unfortunate that the debate taking place here is over the wording of a law rather than the need for the law itself. Wording can, and probably will change.

However, what is not up for debate here is that some protection is needed for vulnerable road users in this state.

We must focus on what can be passed rather than what some would ideally like to see. A three-foot safety clearance measure is already law in a number of states and being considered in still others. The “holy grail” here is consistency between states in traffic regulations. Where these measures have been passed into law, three feet has been the norm, as it should be in New Jersey.

The New Jersey Bicycle Coalition firmly supports a safe passing, or vulnerable user, law in New Jersey and feels that three feet of clearance can be passed by both the Senate and the Assembly. More than three feet is not a viable option for passage at this time and the notion of “half-a-lane” is not even a measurable concept on many of our more rural roads.

Three feet is a measurable distance, and if a driver cannot visualize three feet while operating his or her vehicle, the question of whether that driver should be licensed to drive at all must be questioned.

We agree with Joe Mizereck and Brendan61 that courteous drivers who give more than three feet of clearance are not going to become less courteous and give less with the passage of this law. We also agree that enforcement is a major issue, whether it is of this law, or the cell phone law, or a proposed distracted driver law.

And, finally, we also agree strongly that this law would greatly contribute to the education of motorists in considering the rights and safety of non-motorized traffic when operating their own vehicles.

Let’s work together and get this measure into law in New Jersey and protect all vulnerable users of our public roads.

Jim Nicholson
New Jersey Bicycle Coalition

tedbiker said...

I appreciate your concern that we have the "optimum" law for Minimum Safe Passing Distances. However, there is a rule in Operations Research which is called the "minimax principle". It suggests a way to getting a solution rather than only the "best" solution which has a very low probability of occurring.
I am a "SENIOR" cyclist and need all the safety I can muster. I ride over 3000 miles a year but am always concerned when being passed by vehicles of any type - and especially large trucks, busses as well as cars.
We need more drivers be aware that they need to give other vehicles as much space as they can. A law (almost any law) that is publicized in the press, etc. will make them MORE AWARE. We need a law passed ASAP. We can make it even "better" in future years but trying to optimize it at first blush (if there is an optimum) may delay its inception forever.
It's important to be an idealist - however, it is more realistic to be a realist!
Ted Semegran
Legislative Action Officer of Bicycle Touring Club of North Jersey
Board Member of NJBC

Personal Injury Attorney Houston said...

Great stuff! I totally agree with you that it would be worse for cyclists.

BikingBrian said...

You may be interested in hearing about a proposed 3 foot law in California, along with why I oppose it: