When the Elkhart City Council voted unanimously on Aug. 4 to pass the 3-foot passing ordinance, supporters celebrated with some restrain.
The ordinance establishes “a three-foot passing distance for motor vehicles passing bicyclists.” Violators would pay a $25 fine. Advocates like Danny Graber, president of Bike Elkhart, know that the ordinance is only the beginning of a long process to make Elkhart a safer city for cyclists. Motorists need to become aware of the ordinance, and cyclists, for their part, need to be much more conscientious about following the rules of the road, like stopping at stop signs, to show the community they take travel laws seriously, too.
John D. Yoder is a local cycling enthusiast and president of the Friends of the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, Inc. You can read more of his work in his community blog
for The Elkhart Truth, Cycling Sense
Sharing the road is fundamentally about showing respect for other road users. If this new ordnance can make motorists more aware that cyclists need 3 feet in passing to be safe and at the same time it encourage cyclists to take more seriously their responsibility to follow the rules of the road, then it will indeed make the streets of Elkhart safer and more bicycle (and motorist) friendly.
Elkhart became the fifth Indiana city to pass such an ordnance after Fort Wayne, South Bend, Indianapolis and Carmel, and it is the hope of area cyclists that if enough cities pass the law, lawmakers in Indianapolis will consider a state 3-foot passing law as 21 other states have done.
The best state law in this regard is from New Hampshire. It reads: “Every driver of a vehicle, when approaching a bicyclist, shall insure the safety and protection of the bicyclist and shall exercise due care by leaving a reasonable and prudent distance between the vehicle and the bicycle. The distance shall be presumed to be reasonable and prudent if it is at least 3 feet when the vehicle is traveling at 30 miles per hour or less, with one additional foot of clearance required for every 10 miles per hour above 30 miles per hour.” – N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §265:143-a
The problem with the current law in Indiana is that it does not specify the distance a motorist should be from the cyclist when passing, nor does it mention cyclists specifically. It reads: "A person who drives a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left of the other vehicle at a safe distance and may not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle."
So motorists are left to interpret “safe distance” for themselves, which in my experience as a cyclist all too often means, passing six inches from my ear at 60 miles per hour. The law needs to define “safe distance” to be meaningful. The BMV Driver's Manual has the right idea. It says: "Drivers may pass a bicyclist only when there is a safe amount of room beside the bicyclist (3 foot minimum) and when there is no danger from oncoming traffic," but it’s not the law.
(For the wording of passing laws in all 50 states, see this blog post from Bike League)
Why is a three-foot passing law important? Why have 21 states enacted them?
1. Motor vehicles sweep gravel, rocks and other object to the edge of the road, the area where cyclists ride, creating hazards that can cause a cyclist to fall. Consequently, a person on a bicycle needs room to move left or right when they encounter this debris. If there isn’t enough room to right to avoid these hazards (because the cyclist would go off the road, into a parked car or hit the curb), then they need to move left, closer to the where motorists pass. Having three open feet to the left makes that move possible.
2. Motorists passing cyclists closer than three feet are in danger of hitting the cyclist with their side rear-view mirror. A friend of mind was hit with the mirror of a passing truck last year and broke a collar bone in the fall, but the fall could have caused a much more serious injury.
3. The gust of wind created by a passing motorist on the highway, particularly a large truck, can literally push a cyclist off the road and cause them to fall.
4. Cyclists are balanced on two wheels, and any sudden movement, like swatting at a bee or adjusting clothing, can cause them to swerve left into the path of a close-passing motorist.
As a minority community, cyclists need to celebrate any action on the city- or state-wide level that gives cyclists more visibility and respect. In a transportation climate where distracted drivers are a growing problem, the three-foot passing ordinance is one tool we, as cyclists and motorists, can use to share the road more intelligently and safely.