Just a Three-Foot Gap to Pass Bicyclists is Seriously Unsafe

In the past few years, some states and cities have introduced laws that there must be a gap of at least three feet when a driver passes a cyclist.  Sadly, even cycling groups are seeing this as a good thing but yet again, very disappointingly, on this subject the USA is a long way behind the world’s leading countries in road safety.

Cyclist in traffic.
Cyclists who are passing parked cars while being passed themselves are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If the moving vehicle comes too close,  or a car door opens, or a pedestrian steps out, it is quite likely that somebody is going to get hit and get hurt. (Copyright image, 2018.)

Part of the danger to bicycle riders is the attitude of some car drivers.  All too often, we have heard drivers claiming that cyclists shouldn’t even be allowed on the roads.  They are, of course, not allowed on interstates and some other specified roads but it is very likely — and a good thing — that bicycles will now become ever more important in urban areas, something from which safety and general health will eventually benefit greatly.

So, if three feet is too close, what are other developed countries mandating?

Bearing in mind that the British drive on the left, this photo is from a safety campaign by the West Midlands Police, in England, showing the minimum gap of 1.5m (five feet). England also has lots of narrow roads and if it is unsafe to pass, drivers are required to wait until they can safely do so.

Throughout Europe, the goal is a minimum gap of 1.5 metres between bicycles and any motor vehicles that are passing them.  That is 59 inches, so to all intents and purposes, the minimum gap is five feet, not three!

Bike Gremlin is giving the right advice for the USA and Canada.

But in Germany — the first country to do this — they have gone one step further.

On February 25, 2020, the European Transport Safety Council [ETSC] announced several new traffic safety laws from Germany, one of which expands the rule for a safe gap when overtaking bicycles:

“Drivers will need to use a minimum passing distance for bicycles of 1.5m in urban areas, and 2m out of town – the first time a specific limit has been introduced in law.”  [Those gaps are effectively 5 feet, and 6 feet 6 inches, respectively.]

The new law in Germany: On out-of-town roads, drivers must leave a gap of two metres (6 feet 6 inches) when passing a bicycle.

And for those drivers who say that leaving such big gaps might not always possible (on which at times they will undoubtedly be correct), there is an additional law, and:  “a new sign is being introduced for narrow roads to prohibit the overtaking of two-wheeled vehicles.”

German traffic sign: No passing bicycles or other two-wheelers.

The fact is that a gap of just three feet between a moving vehicle and a cyclist who is being passed is commonly very unsafe.  One must assume it was an idea dreamt up by somebody with very little understanding of good road safety.

Specific examples of this include a fast vehicle passing a much slower bicyclist, and also an overtake by a large vehicle just three feet away (think semis, buses, delivery vans and large pick-up trucks).

Sadly, in a conversation with a cyclists’ group recently, we suggested that their push to get a three-foot law was not enough and they should go for a five-foot minimum.  In response, we were told that the cyclists anticipated difficulty getting three feet and would stand no chance whatsoever of getting five!

That response tragically speaks volumes, not only about the lack of road safety knowledge and political willpower in the USA, but also why this otherwise great nation suffers tens of thousands more road deaths each year than need be the case.


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