Is it common for motor vehicle laws to have measurable thresholds?
April 30, 2010 9:23 AM   Subscribe

So there's an initiative in New York State to consider a safe passing law for cyclists. The bill would require drivers to give cyclists a three-foot buffer when passing. Opponents want to change "three feet" to "safe distance". Are there other motoring laws that cite a specific measurable distance, rather than a subjective term like "safe distance"?
posted by Wild_Eep to Law & Government (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The City of Portland, OR, has installed bike boxes on a lot of the busy streets there. This may illustrate some of the thinking.

This .pdf Also addresses, at some length, bike safety issues in the city.
posted by Danf at 9:32 AM on April 30, 2010

In practice for something like a passing law, three feet is subjective. It can't be measured before, during, or after the fact.
posted by JJ86 at 9:36 AM on April 30, 2010

Well, there are a handful of other states that have the "3 feet" law for passing cyclists. Or are you looking for other NY laws that use specific distances?
posted by mikepop at 9:38 AM on April 30, 2010

Minnesota stipulates a minimum of three feet as well.
posted by advicepig at 9:48 AM on April 30, 2010

I just remember (mumble-mumble years ago) in driver's ed to stay "N seconds" behind the car in front of you, not a measurable distance like "50 yards". So I wondered if there were other laws that specifically mention dimensions in them, like parallel parking 12 inches from the curb or some such.
posted by Wild_Eep at 9:49 AM on April 30, 2010

That is say, I wondered if specifying "3 feet" in the law would be considered unusual compared to elastic terms like "safe distance".

For the record, I do agree with JJ86 completely, as I don't ride with a yardstick taped to my handlebars.
posted by Wild_Eep at 9:51 AM on April 30, 2010

3 Feet To Pass

There's an awareness campaign in Washington (bumper stickers, ads, etc.) to popularize the 3 feet rule.

TBH, I'd feel safer with a "safe distance" law; three feet might not be enough in some circumstances, and for that matter I can imagine circumstances in which 2 feet might be plenty (very slow traffic in a narrow space). My ideal would be for the law to specify a safe distance but with an official dictum that generally three feet is a safe distance.
posted by hattifattener at 10:02 AM on April 30, 2010

The Illinois Vehicle Code states that in a business or residential area you must signal for 100 feet before turning, 200 feet for other areas.

Also in Illinois, you must maintain a safe distance when passing a cyclist, but not less than three feet, so we got something to please everybody.
posted by hydrophonic at 10:05 AM on April 30, 2010

In Indiana at least there is a split between subjective language like "reasonable and prudent" and exact distances:

IC 9-21-8-14
A person who drives a motor vehicle may not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of both vehicles, the time interval between vehicles, and the condition of the highway.

and from the very next section (IC 9-21-8-15)
Except when overtaking and passing, a person who drives a motor truck, motor truck drawing another vehicle, or tractor-trailer combination, when traveling upon a roadway outside of a business or residence district or upon a roadway that is a part of the interstate highway system, whether within or without a business or residence district, may not follow within three hundred (300) feet of another motor truck, motor truck drawing another vehicle, or a tractor-trailer combination.

Indianapolis just passed a 3' rule this year. I am actually right now putting together an ultrasonic range sensor and data logger to duplicate this study for my own curiosity. You may not be able to carry a yard stick with you but ultrasonic range sensors are pretty cheap.

Having an exact distance written into the law gives drivers, who may have never ridden a bicycle in traffic themselves, a strict rule to follow. It will also make enforcement much easier. Speed limits are set as exact numbers for the very same reason.
posted by ChrisHartley at 10:11 AM on April 30, 2010

TN has a 3-foot rule:
posted by jquinby at 10:15 AM on April 30, 2010

In regards to N seconds behind the car in front of you, the idea is that your reaction time is constant, where your speed may not be. Following at 10' behind a car may be safe at 20 MPH, but not at 60 MPH. Following 5 seconds behind means the gap will increase as your speed increases, maintaining a safe distance relative to the speed.

In regards to the bike law, I could see someone arguing "safe" to be subjective or relative - I would not be surprised if the "Safe with a minimum or suggestion of 3 feet" option works out.
posted by GJSchaller at 10:55 AM on April 30, 2010

Colorado recently passed a 3-foot law. At the time it was controversial, but speaking as both a motorist and cyclist, I haven't really seen much difference since. (Drivers in my burg were pretty cool to begin with.)
posted by richyoung at 11:59 AM on April 30, 2010

Thanks for the heads up. I biked to work today in NYC and two drivers made me think I was about to die. This is about normal unfortunately: people inside cars seem to think that it's okay to gently bump cyclists out of the way when they're in a hurry. (This despite the fact that I'm often moving faster than they are).

I wrote my senator and told him I bike and vote. This bill might not actually help much, but it sure can't hurt.
posted by Erroneous at 2:11 PM on April 30, 2010

Connecticut passed this in 2008. Started advertising it on billboards and buses in 2009. Do I feel safer on my bike and when I run? No. Do cyclists and motorists obey the laws better? Not particularly. But I'm happy the state is trying to get some awareness about the issue. Someday...
posted by smalls at 11:00 PM on April 30, 2010

More generally, the rationale behind such laws is that many, many cyclists are uncomfortable riding in traffic, and especially women. It's only when women cycle in greater numbers that the overall number of cyclists goes up. This is behind building more buffer zones around bike lanes and creating separate cycletracks.

As a veteran of Chicago traffic, I'm not intimidated by much, but out here in small-city Wisconsin, even road bikers of many years can be weirded out by actually riding on a busy street. Learning to have the cojones to take the lane or aggressively nose out into a complex intersection is a big deal.

Here in Wisconsin we just passed an anti-dooring law last year. Nobody thinks it's actually going to immediately reduce dooring, but it does establish a baseline of responsibility in the event of an accident. Over time, awareness will spread.

In any event, this is much less reactive and much more proactive than it may appear at first glance. The idea is to begin to establish broad, common standards of behavior that make drivers more involved in doing their part to avoid accidents.
posted by dhartung at 11:09 PM on April 30, 2010

It's only when women cycle in greater numbers that the overall number of cyclists goes up

From a London perspective, I would disagree with that. What has made a big difference here is an overall rise in cyclists and a change in the profile, not gender, of cyclists. Drivers are simply more used to sharing the road with cyclists, and cyclists are present in greater numbers. At the same time most cyclists now wear helmets and reflective gear. I'd also bet that most cyclists are driving license holders too, which makes a small difference.

Many motorists still ignore bike boxes, but it's a lot better than it was. Apart from black cab drivers - who seem curiously drawn to shaving my legs with their wing mirrors - I find most drivers have become more considerate. If anything, it's the 50%+ of cyclists who ignore red lights that need the re-education.

Anyway, in answer to the OP: in the UK the Highway Code uses the term "safe distance", e.g.

When you can see well ahead and the road conditions are good, you should

•drive at a steady cruising speed which you and your vehicle can handle safely and is within the speed limit (see Rule 124)
•keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front and increase the gap on wet or icy roads, or in fog (see Rules 126 and 235)

posted by MuffinMan at 12:09 AM on May 1, 2010

If you are still collecting statistics: the minimum in France is 1.5 meters. As you can imagine, often, car + bike + 1.5 m > width of road - width of cars parked on both sides of street. Fun!
posted by whatzit at 11:24 AM on May 2, 2010

@whatzit? What's the problem? The car simply follows the bicycle until there is a passing lane, just like the car would follow another car.

If you want to get to your destination quickly, take the subway.
posted by jrockway at 7:18 AM on May 4, 2010

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