Wednesday, October 27, 2010

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

UPDATED - I forgot to make an important point the first time I published this post. I've added it, highlighted in red.

I’ll start out by saying that some sort of law clarifying how motorist should and should not pass cyclist is desperately needed in New Jersey. I agree that a more concrete metric is needed to give motorists and law enforcement a clear understanding of what constitutes the safe overtaking of a cyclist. However, I am still not convinced that simply petitioning for a mere three feet of clearance is all that we should be asking for in a safe passing law, even at this embryonic moment of statewide, independent New Jersey bicycle advocacy. In fact much more needs to be done before we even begin to talk about a minimal safe passing distance.

As is, Title 39 (New Jersey’s vehicle code) is entirely mute about when, where and how motorist can pass cyclist or any other slow moving vehicle like farm equipment. To my amazement I could not find any language specifically allowing motorists to pass a slow moving vehicle, be that a bicycle or farm tractor, in a no passing zone even though it is common practice all over the state. This issue is simply never mentioned AT ALL. As such I wonder if such passing is even technically legal! Never mind details about when motorists are forbidden to pass a cyclists like when a cyclist is taking the lane or when the cyclist is traveling close to, at or even above the speed limit. All that NJ Title 39 asks of motorists is to overtake and pass only when it is “safe and prudent,” be it another motor vehicle or a bicyclist.

So I propose three things that need to be addressed regarding the safe passing of cyclists. They should be addressed in order, and you will notice that the first two having nothing to do with a measurable passing distance.

1 – Clarify that it is actually legal to pass slow moving vehicles and cyclists in no passing zones on two lane roads and when and how that pass should be done.
  • Some drivers have passed me by mere inches (really!) even though it was very clear that the opposing lane was entirely clear of cars. The one time I was able to talk to a driver about why he did this, he told me that it was illegal for him to cross the double yellow line. As I read the law, or lack there of, he could be right.
  • Some simple suggestions at this moment include: when it is clear that there is no oncoming traffic, with good sightlines (not around a blind corner or rise) and only when there is sufficient room for the overtaking vehicle to pass on narrow roadways.
2a – Clarify at what speed is it no longer legal to pass a cyclist when that cyclist is traveling at higher speeds.
  • I think it should be self evident that it is illegal to pass a cyclist in a no passing zone if that cyclist is traveling at or above the posted speed limit, which is easy to do in a downhill situation. However I’ve been passed a number of times in no passing zones while traveling at or slightly above the posted limit. Language that specifically spells out that this is illegal would be helpful even if it were technically redundant.
2b – I suggest that it be illegal to pass a cyclist on two lane roads in a no passing zone if that cyclist is traveling at speeds at or above 25mph and if the cyclist is required to take the lane to safely navigate a stretch of road.
  • Again drivers have passed me numerous times in no passing zones while I was traveling at high speeds but not exceeding the limit. The most egregious example of this happened to me over five years ago (yes I still remember because it was that frightening) when a driver in a large SUV passed me on a twisty mountain descent in Sussex County that never had a good sightline for a pass. I was traveling at 35mph in a 40 zone, all while my bicycle was loaded down with 40 pounds of gear for a multi-day, unsupported tour.
2c – I also suggest that there be stiffer penalties for drivers who harass cyclists while attempting to pass, particularly when cyclists are traveling on narrow roads where passing is not safe or the speed at which the cyclist is traveling makes such a pass unsafe. Some such actions are no longer mere driving infractions but should be viewed as criminal acts when perpetrated against vulnerable users like cyclists.
  • Beyond simply passing in dangerous situations, I’ve also been honked at, tailed by drivers by less than ten feet (in some cases MUCH less) and even threatened verbally and physically (with the bumper of their car, a deadly weapon) all while traveling at speeds above 25mph, while taking the lane and usually at or within a 3mph of the posted speed limit.
3 – Clarify what minimal discrete distance a driver must give a cyclist when overtaking.
  • Only when we’ve clarified when it is legal for an overtaking motorist to actually attempt to pass a cyclist, should we begin to specify by what minimal distance the overtaking driver should give the cyclist.

Unfortunately I also believe that there are a number of flaws in requesting that drivers give cyclists a minimum of 3-feet while passing. Since this entry has already gotten long I’ll conclude my discussion on the 3-foot passing law in part two later this week.


Anonymous said...

I'd also like to see some reciprocity, allowing bikes to pass on the right when the main travel lane is slow/stopped.

If we are going to force cyclists to stay to the right so cars can pass them, cyclists should be allowed to do the reverse.

Unknown said...


Good post but what we've been repeatedly told by the Senate on this measure is that they will not even consider bringing out of committee anything more detailed than the bill before them. It is a case of this, or nothing at all. My opinion is get this passed, on the books, and try to amend it later.

Jim Nicholson
New Jersey Bike & Walk Coalition

Tricia Kovacs said...

Please see the Ohio revised code for the exceptions to no-passing zones: