Understanding the Cycling 3 Foot Rule

Case study in this important traffic safety law

How To

Understanding the Cycling 3 Foot Rule

Editor’s Note: RoadBikeReview contributor Megan Hottman is a recognized legal expert on cycling laws and advocate in the cycling community. She provides bike law education clinics and classes to cyclists, local bike clubs and to law enforcement personnel. Images courtesy www.hottmanlawoffice.com and bikeyface.com.

The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction shall allow the bicyclist at least a three-foot separation between the right side of the driver’s vehicle, including all mirrors or other projections, and the left side of the bicyclist at all times. But how much is 3 feet, really? Approximately the length of your arm (this is why our cycling team jackets have rulers on the backs of our sleeves).

Understanding the Cycling 3 Foot Rule

In my opinion, though, the law really should include the words “when safe to do so.” In other words, if a motorist cannot safely give a cyclist three feet when passing, without interfering with oncoming traffic, the motorist should slow down and wait behind the cyclist, while oncoming traffic passes, and then proceed to pass the cyclist with the 3-foot buffer.

I experienced this myself firsthand a few years ago when a large pick-up truck passed me from behind, giving me in excess of 3 feet. Unfortunately for him, the same make and model truck was approaching from the opposite direction. The truck passing me crossed the centerline to give me space, but in doing so, he crossed the center line and went into oncoming traffic’s lane.

The result is that they sheared one another’s side mirrors off. The oncoming truck was driven by an off-duty police officer. He informed the truck passing me that he needed to WAIT BEHIND ME before attempting to pass with three feet. The driver attempting to pass me was obligated to pay for the damage to both trucks and was cited as the at-fault party. I felt terrible because I was so grateful he had given me so much passing room.

But the reality is the 3-foot law does not override or supersede a driver’s obligation to ensure it is safe to pass or cross the center line. The driver must check for oncoming traffic first. If oncoming traffic prevents passing a cyclist with three feet, the motorist must wait behind the cyclist. Not crowd into them in the lane. Not swerve back over into the lane and knock the cyclist off the road. Wait. Safety first. Then, 3 feet. Many motorists do not realize this is the proper analysis.

As luck would have it, as I was writing this article Jerry N., an avid cyclist and cycling advocate, contacted me. He informed me that very recently, he called Colorado State Patrol to report a motorist who passed him too closely and CSP pursued the motorist and issued a 3-foot law violation citation. Jerry asked me not to share his full name, or the complaint and report, since the case is currently pending, but he did offer some advice to cyclists who want to report this type of encounter:

Megan: Jerry, this is great news that you took the time to place the call and complete a traffic complaint report — and that CSP took it seriously and pursued it. What advice would you give other cyclists who wish to do the same when a motorist passes them too closely or “buzzes” them?

Jerry: Well, it takes a moment to collect yourself after suddenly feeling as though you are dazed and confused. Make sure that you are first able to safely maintain your line and resume your presence of mind to operate the bike within your comfort zone. Then, as you do so, look up, gain a visual on the license plate. Recite the number to yourself. Then repeat the number internally or aloud. Then associate a date, a month and a calendar day to the numerical portion of the license number. Use words beginning with the letters that appear on the plate. Keep repeating these to yourself in order that you can remember it. Commit the vehicle type, make, model, color and approximate year and try somehow to ascertain a visual on the driver. Commit the driver’s physical features to memory so that you may describe and or visually identify the driver at a later time.

Stop when it is safe to do so and call state patrol. Tell the dispatcher where you are and why you are calling. He or she will then patch you through to the local jurisdictional authority. Be prepared to provide a detailed description of the sequence of events and depending on the severity of the alleged transgression you may request an officer or agent respond in person or you may ask, otherwise to create a case file.

If you are unable to physically identify the driver law enforcement may not respond in person but are likely to accept your request to record a driver in the registered vehicle you describe on file as having failed to yield a three foot berth or as having presumably driven intentionally close to you or whatever may be the case in your circumstance.

Megan: Jerry, as you are probably aware, law enforcement officers do not often cite motorists with a 3-foot violation — even where a motorist hits a cyclist. What steps would you like to see us as cyclists taking, to encourage law enforcement to use this statute more often, and to enforce it?

Jerry: Call it in whenever the situation arises and as often as you fall victim to the menace, threat, discourtesy, ill will or pure negligence, apathy, disregard or complete ignorance of the law. A deluge of ongoing reports of this nature will trigger flag words in dispatch recordings being monitored and lead to heightened awareness within agencies which share volumes and frequencies of calls received on specific matters or common subjects.

The officer I most recently spoke with (who issued the summons I requested against a driver), told me over the phone that he believed the law was limited in its purview only to roads in rural locations such as winding mountain roads. I asked him to go and review and read the statute. When I spoke with him the following day he begged my pardon and admitted that he was unaware of the breadth of the law and that is does, in fact, apply to all circumstances of a cyclist being overtaken or passed by a motor vehicle. This means on all roadways, streets and highways inside the state of Colorado. So, with this being said, we as cyclists ought to concern ourselves with increasing awareness of the law and its application in as many ways as we can.

For more from the Cyclist Lawyer, please visit www.hottmanlawoffice.com.

About the author: Megan Hottman

Megan Hottman is a recognized legal expert on cycling laws and advocate in the cycling community. She provides bike law education clinics and classes to cyclists, local bike clubs and to law enforcement personnel. Her work in cycling cases was featured by HBO Real Sports (Bryant Gumbel) in 2015. A former-elite road and track cyclist, Megan now competes mainly in cyclocross and gravel races and dabbles in triathlon. She has been running and sponsoring Colorado cycling teams since 2006 and currently manages a women-only cycling team called the Bike Ambassadors, which focuses more on commuting and lifestyle cycling. Megan’s 2018 goal is to ride 10,000 miles.


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  • Steve C says:

    I believe you are grossly underestimating the distance of three feet. If your jacket sleeve is three feet long, you should be swinging from the trees. A typical jacket sleeve is not maybe a foot and a half long.

  • Ivan says:

    1. Good Morning
    2. The primary issue is CELL PHONE use by drivers in the lane adjacent to the shoulder. These drivers are non-cyclists, and cyclists as well.
    3. Secondary issue are drivers with poor eyesight.
    4. Lastly, people who have no clue to Rules of the Road.
    ..Yes, I am a County Police Officer in Maryland, and a cyclist.

  • OMS says:

    So my question has always been this: Given that the average lane is 12 feet wide and the average car is 6 feet wide, when two neighboring cars are centered in their lanes they are 6 feet apart. In other words, our current system (only where 3 feet laws exist) gives metal fenders 6 feet of clearance BUT human skin only gets 3 feet of clearance. WTF………. Why Three Feet?

    Don’t humans deserve at least the same safety margin as sheet metal?.

  • Miffed says:

    I recently had a driver yell at me for not giving him 3-feet when I passed him on the shoulder as he slowed with traffic for a stop sign. I assume he was off his rocker. Any advice?

  • Barnicle Bill says:

    We’ve had the 3-foot law in the state where I live since 2009. Since then we’ve had no fewer than three cyclists killed by motorists and not one of them was charged with violating the new law. The very first one famously involved the owner of a bike shop in one of my state’s largest cities, and the driver in that case wasn’t charged with any moving violation at all. There was one incident of a fourth cyclist who was struck and seriously injured (but not killed), and the driver _was_ charged in that case, but not in any of the three cases I know of to a certainty that involved the death of the cyclist. In fact, in my experience, the police themselves are among the worst violators.

    Cell phones, eye sight and ignorance of the rules aside, most motorists JUST DON’T CARE. They’re too self-absorbed and can’t be bothered to slow down and overtake cyclists at a safe speed and distance because they think whatever they have waiting at the other end of their trip is just too vital to be late for. Certainly not worth the 15 seconds it would take for them to slow down and safeguard my life.

    The irony is I regularly see motorists give me and my bicycle a wide birth (especially since I put more flashing red lights on the back of my bike than a Macy’s Christmas tree) only to force the oncoming motorist onto the shoulder of the road to avoid being hit. Which I consider proof that it goes deeper than just not according cyclists an ounce of respect.

    They don’t respect cyclists because we’re no danger to them, even if they hit us. And there’s little to no danger of any repercussion if they DO hit us (except some minor body work), so why be bothered? They think if they keep punish-passing us often enough, we’ll eventually “wise up” and take up another hobby.

  • Mike Dodge says:

    The 3-foot law applies only to motorized vehicles.

    The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction shall allow the bicyclist at least a three-foot separation between the right side of the driver’s vehicle, including all mirrors or other projections, and the left side of the bicyclist at all times.

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