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How much space should you give a cyclist when passing?

August 14, 2012
Three foot law

This is what three feet looks like.

Ever been in this situation?

You’re driving on a two-lane street behind a cyclist and would like to go around the rider. It’s a fairly wide street, but there’s a car coming from the opposite direction, so you can’t use the other lane to pass. You could squeeze past the cyclist while staying in your lane, but you’re not sure if that’s safe or legal.

The answer: Passing very close to cyclists is not only unsafe but illegal in 20 states, and counting.

Most bike-commuters probably know about the “three foot law,” but I suspect—from frightening and infuriating first-hand experience—that many motorists do not. So, I’m here to tell you:

Keep at least three feet between your car and cyclists sharing the road with you at all times—even if it means slowing down and driving behind them for a block or two.

Please, also note my italics for the words “at least.” Three feet is the minimum distance required for passing cyclists safely, but another foot or so certainly wouldn’t hurt. And yes, your side-view mirror is part of your car—and has the capability to knock a rider off her bike in a split second—so you need to measure three feet from where the mirror ends to where the cyclist begins.

If the three foot law doesn’t exist in your state, follow it anyway (and maybe you could find out how to make it a law!). I realize that slowing down behind a cyclist can be inconvenient, even frustrating if you’re in a hurry.

But I feel the need to point to a reality: Cars get in the way of bikes, too. Sharing the road is not just a good deed expected of motorists; we ALL do it all the time.

Plus, think of the inconveniences involved in actually hitting a cyclist: insurance claims, law suits, police reports—here in Colorado, passing a cyclist within fewer than three feet can result in a $150 fine—and that’s to say nothing of the guilt you may feel.

If you didn’t know before, you know now: three feet.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Steven permalink
    March 24, 2013 3:41 am

    To discourage cars from coming too close, attach a stick 3 feet long, jutting out to the left of the bike. Then attach a paint brush dripping with red paint. No one wants a red streak on the side of their car, except maybe people driving red cars.

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