By Cory Bilton.
When a vehicle driver wants to pass another vehicle, it goes without saying that the passing vehicle has to move his car into another lane to pass. It’s a simple fact: lanes aren’t wide enough to accommodate two cars side by side in one lane. However, it is less clear when a motorist intends to pass a bicyclist. After all, it is possible for a vehicle and a bicyclist to be side by side with in one lane. But just because it’s physically possible doesn’t mean it is safe to do so. So what is a safe distance for a motorist to give a bicyclist?
Starting July 1st, motorists are required to provide at least three feet of passing space to the left of the bicyclist. The new law, SB 97, modifies Virginia Code § 46.2-839 which previously required only two feet of passing space. In addition to bicycles, the new 3 foot minimum passing distance also applies to electric personal mobility devices, electric power-assisted bicycles, mopeds, animals, and animal-drawn vehicles.
Who would really notice the difference between 2 feet and 3 feet of passing space? Bicyclists certainly will. Here’s why: motorists now need to pass far enough from bicyclists that the bicyclist cannot reach out and touch the vehicle. So not only will there be an increase in real safety brought about by the extra clearance, there will also be increased perceived safety by bicyclists.
I got out the tape measure this afternoon to collect some anecdotal data. I am 6’3”. If I hold out my arm to my side with my fingers pointed straight out, there is about 29” between my torso and the end of my fingertips. So I’m a good example of why the new law is significant. If a vehicle is only required to give me two feet of passing clearance while I’m on my bike, I’d be able to reach out and touch the passing vehicle. But at three feet, I can’t touch the vehicle. I imagine that most adults fit into this same category. At two feet, the vehicle is close enough to touch, at three feet, it is not.
I think this gives the new law a dramatic psychological benefit. Bicyclists that feel uncertain about riding on the street along with vehicle traffic will have additional peace of mind that motorists are required to provide them enough personal space that reaching out and touching the vehicle isn’t possible. Even for bicyclists that are more comfortable riding in vehicle traffic, like me, will gain a little extra peace of mind from the added passing distance. So those 12 extra inches make a big practical difference.
But the new law will only benefit bicyclists if motorists actually follow it and police officers actually enforce it. Especially while the law is new, there is probably going to be some confusion and misunderstanding. I’ll restate for clarity: starting July 1st, 2014 in Virginia, motorists must give bicyclists at least 3 feet of clearance while passing. Additionally, if you read the text of Virginia Code § 46.2-839, you’ll see the motorist also has a duty to pass the bicyclist using a reasonable speed and should not swerve back in front of the bicyclist until it is safe to do so. To me, these are common sense rules that most drivers already follow. But just in case it is not common sense to everyone, it is now written down in the Virginia Code.
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