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Model Safe Passing Law
Safe passing laws require vehicles to pass each other at a safe distance. In most states, legislatures have recognizes that "safe distance" requires further definition, particularly for motor vehicles passing people on bicycles. The majority of states that have chosen to define a "safe distance" between a passing motor vehicle and a person on a bicycle have chosen 3 feet as an acceptable passing distance.
The League's model law recognizes that the 3 foot standard, while useful, can be improved. It is our hope that the model law will make it easier for safe passing laws to be enforced by law enforcement and will more clearly communicate proper behavior to motor vehicle drivers. If you have questions about the model law, similar laws, or how to advocate for this type of law please contact Ken at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- When overtaking or passing a person operating a bicycle proceeding in the same direction, the driver of a motor vehicle shall exercise due care and:
If there is more than one lane for traffic proceeding in the same direction, move the vehicle to the lane to the immediate left, if the lane is available and moving into the lane is reasonably safe; or
- If there is only one lane for traffic proceeding in the same direction, pass to the left of the person operating a bicycle at a safe distance, which must be not less than 3 feet between any portion of the vehicle and the bicycle, and shall not move again to the right side of the highway until the vehicle is safely clear of the overtaken person operating a bicycle.
- The driver of a motor vehicle may drive to the left of the center of a roadway, including when a no passing zone is marked, to pass a person operating a bicycle only if the roadway to the left of the center is unobstructed for a sufficient distance to permit the driver to pass the person operating the bicycle safely and avoid interference with oncoming traffic. This paragraph does not authorize driving on the left side of the center of the roadway when prohibited under [the state’s equivalent to UVC sections 11-303 (Overtaking a vehicle on the left), 11-305 (limitations on overtaking on the left), and 11-306 (further limitations on driving on left of the center of roadway).]
- The collision of a motor vehicle with a person operating a bicycle is prima facie evidence of a violation of this section.
The model safe passing law combines elements seen in the laws of several states. While it is the belief of the League that current 3 foot passing laws can be enforced with proper training and/or equipment, the model law attempts to improve upon the 3 foot standard in a number of ways.
Section 1 provides the most important improvement upon the 3 foot standard. It requires drivers of motor vehicles to treat a person on a bicycle like any other vehicle when traveling on a road with more than one lane traveling in the same direction. This is modeled after the laws of Nevada (NRS 484B.270(2)) and Delaware (4116) and is important for at least two reasons: 1) the majority of people killed while biking are killed on arterial roads (57% in 2013), which are likely to have more than one lane traveling in the same direction, and 2) the most common reason a bicyclist is killed is an unsafe pass by a motor vehicle driver. We believe this rule can be easily enforced, easily made clear to the public, and is likely to save lives.
Section 2 provides a 3 foot standard, as seen in many state laws, and is applicable whenever there is only one lane headed in each direction. The model law contains a 3 foot standard because 26 states, and DC, have defined a “safe distance” for a motorist passing a bicyclist as “at least 3 feet.” There are other standards that provide similar or better clarity about what is meant by a “safe distance.” Notably, Pennsylvania has a “no less than 4 feet” standard and Oregon and Rhode Island require a motorist to give “a distance sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the driver’s lane of traffic.” You can learn more about Oregon’s law in Ray Thomas’ article.
Section 3 allows the driver of a motor vehicle to cross a centerline, including a double yellow line, in order to safely pass a person on a bicycle. This language is based upon the language of Oregon (811.065(1)(b)) and Rhode Island (31-15-18). Crossing a double yellow line is more likely to be safe when a driver of a motor vehicle is passing a person on a bicycle than when passing a motor vehicle because of the smaller size of a person on a bicycle, the likelihood of a greater speed disparity between the motor vehicle and bicycle, and the greater visibility of oncoming traffic when a driver approaches a bicycle. The model law suggests that the allowance should be limited in the same way that crossing a center line when a double yellow is not marked.
Section 4 provides a mechanism for enforcement of the safe passing law. One of the primary complaints about 3 foot passing laws is that they cannot be enforced. This provision creates a presumption that a collision between a motor vehicle and a person on a bicycle is a violation of the safe passing law, and is based on language from Maine (Maine 29-A 2070). If the safe passing law is clearly not applicable then it is easy to discharge the presumption. However, if the circumstances of a collision are not clear then this provision means that law enforcement should issue a citation to the driver or conduct an investigation that provides evidence that rebuts the presumption. This enforcement mechanism ensures a thorough investigative process occurs for the crash type that is most likely to result in the death of a person using a bicycle.
The model law only contains text for traffic rules. In creating legislation, you should feel free to draw upon the explanation of the law, talking points for similar laws, and other relevant sources to create a legislative declaration or preamble that explains the importance of the law to your state, legislators, and governor.
The model law assumes that all relevant words used in the model law have been defined in your state’s laws. If your state has not defined relevant words, e.g. “bicycle” or “lane,” then your legislation should address the definition of those words. The words used in the model law may have particular meanings in your state, for instance “roadway” can have a particular meaning in some states that is inclusive or exclusive of a shoulder. In creating legislation, you should feel free to use the words already defined in your state that best adapt the model law to your state’s existing definition. However, there may be times where this review of definitions provides an important opportunity to clarify these ancillary terms.
The model law includes references to provisions of the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC). In creating legislation you should substitute existing laws from your state that are based on or substantively equivalent to those UVC provisions. A review of traffic laws from each state compared to the 2000 version of the UVC is available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The model law is based upon current laws. You should feel free to propose new language that extends protection to bicyclists. In particular, there is a diversity of approaches to how to define “safe distance” and 3 feet was chosen as the standard for our model law because it is used by most states, if you can pass a law with a larger distance that is recommended. The model law does not address some factors that might be important for what is considered safe, such as the speed and size of the passing motor vehicle. Please draw upon the resources provided by the League to find what every state does to protect bicyclists and create the best possible safe passing law for your state.
According to available research, 3 foot passing laws are not as effective as bicycle lanes in terms of increasing the distance between a person on a bicycle and a passing motor vehicle. However, safe passing laws, that define a “safe distance” as 3 feet or greater, provide significant benefits to the public, including:
- A simple public message about how to safely pass a person on a bicycle,
- A means for punishing unsafe behavior by drivers of motor vehicles,
- A public policy response to the most common reason for the death of a person on a bicycle that can become effective statewide in a short period of time, and
- A basis for high visibility enforcement and education to drivers about sharing the road with people on bikes.
Safe passing laws are not a replacement for investments in safe bicycle infrastructure, but they provide safety through education and enforcement where bicycle infrastructure is lacking.
- The League of American Bicyclists’ review of state safe passing laws, including citations to each state’s law.
- Report by Rutgers University about the experience of state’s that have passed 3 foot passing laws, primarily based upon interviews with advocates and state officials.
- Local example of 3 foot law enforcement from the Washington area Bicyclist Association.
- Example of technological approach to 3 foot passing law enforcement.
- The National Conference of State Legislatures’ review of current safe passing laws.
- Ray Thomas’ explanation of the fall over distance standard as an alternative to the 3 foot or “safe distance” standard.
How many states have safe passing laws written for bicyclists?
42 states and the District of Columbia have safe passing laws that explicitly mention bicycles.
How many states require a safe distance of at least 3 feet?
33 states and the District of Columbia have safe passing laws that define a "safe distance" as at least 3 feet.
Do any states require more than a 3 foot passing distance?
Yes, Pennsylvania requires a 4 foot passing distance. Oregon and Rhode Island require "a distance sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the driver’s lane of traffic" which is often likely to be greater than 3 feet. New Hampshire and South Dakota require a distance greater than 3 feet when a motor vehicle is going faster than 35 mph.
Do any states require a motorist to change lanes to pass?
Yes, Delaware, Kentucky, and Nevada all require an overtaking motorist to change lanes in order to safely pass a bicyclist when an adjacent lane traveling in the same direction is available.
Are 3 foot passing laws ever enforced?
Yes, the City of Austin and the City of Memphis have done proactive 3 foot passing law enforcement. While statewide data on traffic citations is difficult to find for most states, Florida has an annual report on traffic citations and issued 496 improper passing of a bicycle citations in 2014.
What is the impact of unsafe passing on bicyclists?
While there is no annually reported nationwide data on the types of crashes that cause the serious injury or death of bicyclists, a 2014 review of media reports by the League of American Bicyclists found that 40% of deaths with reported crash types were rear-end crashes, likely resulting from unsafe passing. Data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests that 45% of bicyclist deaths may be due to unsafe passing. Even where no crash occurs, unsafe passing contributes to bicyclist attitudes towards safety and motor vehicles. According to a 2012 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a motorist driving very close to a person on a bike was the most frequently reported action that made the person on a bike feel threatened, with 39% of people feeling threatened reporting that action as the cause for their fear for personal safety.