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Driving Around Cyclists for Dummies

I got an email from a regular reader, Keay Edwards; he said,

“I thought you might be interested in AAA's stance on California's proposed law requiring a three foot passing distance of cyclists by motor vehicles. 

I was surprised to discover that my auto insurance company was lobbying against the proposed law and asked them why." 

Here is their response: 

Thank you for your comments relative to AAA's position on SB 910.

Our official position is not a straight oppose, it is an 'oppose unless amended'. We don't take issue with the 3 foot distance rule when it can be safely accomplished. The problem is how to address situations when a 3 foot distance cannot be maintained or met.

Current language in the bill would require the vehicle to slow to 15 mph of the speed of the bicycle to pass. But this is problematic for several reasons, as pointed out in the bill analysis. Law enforcement has issues with this approach as well because it can cause a drastic decrease in speed differentials between the vehicle passing the bicycle and other vehicles on the road depending on the posted speed limit.

Not only can this cause rear-end collisions, it can create a more dangerous situation for the cyclists. It is the differences in speed that is the number one cause of car crashes. Another suggested approach is to require the car to enter into the opposite lane of traffic (cross a double line) in order to give the cyclists the 3 foot distance. This is something being explored as well as a number of other ideas.

While we can all agree on the concept and goal SB 910, crafting workable legislation usually requires addressing a number of details and issues that arise throughout the process as the concept is flushed out and enforceability is addressed.

The author of the bill, Senator Lowenthal, is committed to working with all interested parties, including law enforcement, AAA and the bicycle coalition sponsors of the bill to find the most appropriate and safest way to address situations, when the general rule to allow a 3 foot distance cannot be met due to road design. We have to determine what the law should be in those circumstances and there is some disagreement on that level.

Thank you again for allowing us to explain our position on the bill.
Best Regards,
Crista B. (
AAA Northern California, Nevada and Utah.)

Thank you Keay for forwarding this; here is my take:

Why all the fuss over an issue that should be common sense. Would you pass any vehicle giving less than 3 foot of space? You would give a stray dog at least 3 feet when passing.

Let’s say there is a large object, a refrigerator for example, lying at the side of the road protruding 3 feet into your lane. Would you continue driving at 55 or 60mph and miss it by less than three feet?

Most sensible people would slow, and if they couldn’t go into the opposing lane, they would squeeze by carefully at a slow speed. The 3 foot passing law is calling for what people should do anyway if they were using common sense.

Let me offer another simple scenario: You are driving on any two lane highway or street; a vehicle is waiting to make a left turn. (Right turn in the UK.) The driver cannot make the turn because there is opposing traffic; he stops and waits with his turn signal on.

Other traffic stops and stacks up behind, waiting for the driver to make his turn. There is no danger, no one runs into the rear of anyone; eventually there is a break in opposing traffic, the vehicle makes its turn and everyone goes on their merry way.

And yet to read Crista B’s explanation above, a vehicle slowing because it is not safe to pass a cyclist presents a danger to other road users. I would suggest if a vehicle runs into the rear of another, they were driving too fast for the road conditions, or they were following too close. This is driving 101.

Maybe I should write a “Driving around cyclists for Dummies” book. In it I would say, “If you see a cyclists ahead give him/her plenty of room as you pass. If you can’t go into the opposing lane because there are cars coming the other way, slow down and wait for a break in opposing traffic.”

You only need a small break because a cyclist is about 7 foot long and 3 foot wide, usually traveling at 15 to 20mph; it is not like trying to pass an 18 wheel semi. And you don’t have to go completely over to the opposite lane but at least straddle the center line.

If I am that cyclist quite honestly I have no objections if you squeeze by with less than 3 feet, as long as you do so carefully at slow speed. If you bump me at 5mph over the speed I am doing it would probably not be too serious; but clip me at 55 or 60 and it might be fatal.

This 3 foot passing law is getting way too complicated for the average person to understand. Crista B for the AAA asks:

When the general rule to allow a 3 foot distance cannot be met due to road design. We have to determine what the law should be in those circumstances.

This situation is no different than a stop sign where cross traffic doesn’t stop. You stop, and then proceed when it is safe to do so. Legislators are not asked, “What do I do when it is not safe to proceed?” The answer is simple; you wait until it is safe. Give a cyclist 3 feet; if you can’t do that safely, then wait until you can.

No need to change the wording; if you slow down and pass a cyclist carefully no one is going to take a yard stick and argue over the exact 3 feet.

Imagine the cyclist is a refrigerator or some other large object in the road.  Just slow down and go around while being careful not to bump into it.



Reader Comments (14)

Stop making sense:)
My take on this and other issues like it is that if people could just learn to accept the basic fact that other road users, regardless of their vehicle, are just trying to get where they are going and wish to be left at peace to do so, and that each individual, no matter what they think, is not the centre of the universe and does not always have to be "first" (whatever that means) that we would have far fewer problems on our roadways.

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchris

If everyone had a little patience, everyone would be a great deal safer. I agree with chris that it is selfishness or the 'me first' attitude that causes the problems and conflicts. I would apply that to both cars and trucks, and cyclists.

It'll never happen though.

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaulSC

Well said, Dave. Also, perhaps before a person gets a drivers license, he/she should be required to cycle for one month on normal roads. Somehow it seems sitting in a chair, stepping on two pedals and turning a steering wheel can have a dulling effect on intelligence and thinking (for some people).

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMicheal Blue

From the response, it does not appear that they see the bicycle as a vehicle. You have the same rear ending issue with slow moving vehicles (i.e. tractors, scooters, etc.), where you slow down and wait for an opportunity to pass.

I am kinda surprised people who just have to pass even when there isn't enough room aren't more scared of getting their car scratched.

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbrent

Is it any wonder why the larger, more bureaucratic, lawyer infested, more political federal government can't come to grips with budget-spending-borrowing?

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGary

"Why all the fuss over an issue that should be common sense. Would you pass any vehicle giving less than 3 foot of space? You would give a stray dog at least 3 feet when passing."

We are increasingly solving regulatory/licensing problems with legislation. Think about recent legislation against "distracted driving." Really, do we need a LAW for this? We don't need better laws, we need better drivers, which would mean getting & keeping a driver's license would be harder.

25 years ago at age 15 (the age at which I thought giving myself a mohawk with dog-grooming clippers was a good idea) I drove my parents' car for 20minutes with a bored bureaucrat in the passenger's seat. This was the last time I had to demonstrate my ability to operate two tons of steel at 75mph.

We have come to regard driving a car as a right not a privilege.

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Souders

There are two problems I have with 3 foot laws. They both come from the same root. The 3 foot requirement. CA currently has a safe passing distance law. I can see some one in court asking the police officer just how he measured the 3 feet. What kind of training and accuracy can a driver expect from the officer who arrests him? THE other issue comes with safe passing. In a crowded slow moving traffic situation 2 feet can be safe. I ride in plenty of places where my lane is 4 feet total, but the vehicles are all doing 15 mph or less. But I also ride on roads with little or nonexistant shoulders and posted 50 mph signs. 3 feet is not safe 5 feet would be much better. We need common sense and co-operation to get around.

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRalph

As a driver trailing behind a cyclist waiting for a safe opportunity to pass (and as a cyclist with a driver trailing me) the thing that worries me is the car one or two cars back who maybe can't see the cyclist being trailed. As I driver, I can trail quite comfortably. But I keep one eye continually glancing in the rear/side view mirror looking for the driver behind who cannot figure out why I might be driving at 15 mph and assumes I'm just a passive-aggressive azho who is determined to keep him/her from their important appointed rounds. That diver is going to attempt to pass me and the cyclist they can't see. I worry less when I'm driving my car, and more when I'm driving my spouse's SUV.

That doesn't change the equation of what I am obligated to do as a driver. No cyclist hood-ornaments for me. But, it does make me hypervigilant when I'm the first car trailing. Kind of wish vehicles had some kind of roof-top signal that would tell the drivers behind that you ain't just screwin' with 'em for funsies and all will be well in just a few. Wished I shared the road with the kind of folks who didn't begin with the assumption I was.

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbystander

Amen, Dave. This is not rocket science.

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephen

BAN ALL BIKES from the roads! As a driver AND a cyclist. Bikes are nothing but another distraction. The fasination with the automobile has consumed the public to the point that driving is nothing but a danger to everyone. Contact your congress or council person and petition for BIKE PATHS! Anyone one who is stupid enough to ride a bike on the roads, deserves any problems they have, Take your life into your own hands, DONT RISK IT! IS IT WORTH IT? better to be alive, than die,doing something that you enjoy, For 78yrs I have been LUCKY but I am STILL alive. All this talk about 3 feet and all that B/S means NOTHING you loose riding a bike on he roads. SUICIDE!

July 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn GRUMP

You Sir are a trouble maker, and I've got your number :)

July 29, 2011 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

If it inconveniences motorized drivers it is obviously unsafe. Our roads, laws and enforcement procedures have been designed to subsidize these attitudes.

July 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJack

Dave, You got that RIGHT! Cheers mate, John CRUMP AKA GRUMP But all seriousness aside, Cyclist will NEVER be 100% safe riding a bloody bike on the roads. But, if your time is up it up, At least you went doing something you enjoyed and beleived in, Its a great shame that the human race has no respect for one and another anymore (OR LESS) Times HAVE changed greatly from when you and I grew up. We would have said "I say old chap that isn't cricket" Have you ever watched the Chevy Chase movie "European Vacations". The Brit with the bike said it all. At least I got a response! Good show! ALSO maybe my post saved someones life!

July 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn GRUMP

End of story! I guess I have some SENIOR moments when replyig to this blog, Dave I am sorry mate, BUT I do feel VERY strongly about riding a bike anywhere BUT on a bike path and of course the use of drugs in races. To hear or read that a fellow cyclist was injured or worse yet killed on the road OR some SOB won a race with the cloud over his head of drug use. At MY age and yours Dave having made it to this point in our lives. We MUST have been doing something RIGHT RIGHT! John Crump

July 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohn GRUMP

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