The USA Must Stop Legislating a Mere 3-foot Gap when Passing Bicyclists

June 29, 2018

Despite recent new laws in several American states, which stipulate a three-foot gap as being enough space when passing cyclists, there are multiple circumstances in which passing that closely is both inadequate and dangerous.

Photograph of a car passing a bicycle at a bad location on a mountain curve.
Cyclists are often passed badly by reckless or unthinking drivers, and faster sections of road such as shown here, are definitely a place where passing just three feet from a cyclist, at speed, would be both dangerous and frightening.  (Copyright image, 2012).

One of the key essentials for the safety of cyclists is for drivers to be wise enough to slow down sufficiently, when the situation warrants, and to pass carefully.

Photograph of a car passing a cyclist on a busy, suburban rioad.
If there are vehicles coming the other way, drivers need to carefully assess the space available to pass any bicycles and then either go gently past or wait for more space in order to pass safely. (Copyright image, 2014.)

Global best practice requires a minimum 1.5-metre gap — effectively five feet — and as an example, a new law is now being enforced in Britain, from today, involving a £100 (US $130) fine and 3 penalty points on the drivers’ licences of offenders who pass closer than this to cyclists.

A major problem in the USA is either ignorance on the part of politicians or of them having other goals which, in their minds, conflict with the perpetual need for greater safety on the nation’s roads.  As a result, some cycling organizations, such as the eminently-sensible New York Bicycling Coalition, are currently grateful if they get legislation to support just the inadequate three-foot gap that is currently fashionable here, but this truly is inadequate and therefore unsafe.

As it stands, in America in particular, the issue is, of course, exacerbated when drivers are not very good at judging distances.  Where exactly IS three feet away, on the far side of the car?  And how much leeway will police officers and judges allow?  Will drivers only get a ticket if they actually get closer than say 2’6″?  Or 2’0″?  And how will it accurately be measured?  (Cameras would only work accurately if entirely square to the gap…. and heaven-forbid that cyclists’ lives be made more important that drivers’ “rights” not to have their vehicles photographed even when endangering other people’s lives!)

Any leeway at all and things can get really dangerous.  And yet will judges be rigid about the law if it appears the driver was only six inches within the mandated gap?  We more than doubt it.

Chart of cyclist death rates in multiple countries.
The fatality rate for cyclists in the USA has always been very bad but a 2018 report from ITF/OECD shows that the rate of deaths went up by a further 35 percent from just 2010-2016. (Image copyright IRTAD 2018)

As a young driver, I was taught to always allow for a cyclist at the very least wobbling and at the very worst falling off their bicycle, into my path.  If ever we want cycle riders to be significantly safer in the USA — where the death rate for cyclists is absurdly high — it is very important that, among other things, young people need more and better road safety coaching and education, well before they are old enough to drive.  The “Share the Road” program needs much greater official support and legislation for a five-foot gap, not three!



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Author: EddieWren

Eddie Wren is the CEO and Chief Instructor at Advanced Drivers of North America. His driver safety background is given at:

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