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.