This column is partly self-serving – it’s about my own survival. In the past four years, I’ve ridden my bicycle 35,000 miles, mostly around southwest Ohio. I’m glad the state has just made it the law that motorists must give three feet of clearance when passing cyclists.
Most of my riding is on rural roads with no shoulder, so I am usually in the lane. Thus, when motorists pass me, they should be aware of a safe passing clearance. (Incidentally, since bicycles legally are “vehicles” in all 50 states, and have the same rights and responsibilities as all other vehicles, we are allowed in the lane even if there is a shoulder.)
Motorists almost always give me plenty of room if there’s no oncoming traffic. However, I’ve witnessed many near disastrous car-to-car crashes when the motorist passes me in the opposing lane. How so? 1) Miscalculations regarding getting past the cyclist in time; 2) approaching a blind hill or curve and suddenly a car appears; 3) at an intersection where there is a right-turning car from the side street, because drivers turning right look left, and usually begin their turns while still looking left because they do not anticipate a car heading toward them in their lane; and 4) cars backing out of driveways.
The usual issue in passing a cyclist occurs when there is oncoming traffic. Motorists have often tried to pass me with only inches to spare, and it’s terrifying. My goal is to educate the public about what a three-foot clearance means when there is oncoming traffic. Unless the passing vehicle is a very narrow car such as a Smart Car, all vehicles will need to cross over the lane line to provide the necessary three feet. This means that if there is oncoming traffic (or if a blind hill or curve), the motorist will need to slow down behind the cyclist and wait until it’s safe to pass.
So many drivers seem to be of a mind that you never need to slow down when passing a cyclist. They hope they can squeeze by. The new bicycle law means that a motorist cannot squeeze by within the lane. He/she must cross over the lane line, but cannot do that if there is oncoming traffic (or, on a four-lane road, if there is traffic in the left lane at the moment you wish to pass).
When the motorist must decide about passing a bike, he/she will need to already be aware that three feet cannot be achieved if there’s oncoming traffic. By the way, it’s legal to cross double center lines to pass a bike.
The new law can also be a platform for other bicycle safety information, including that we’re not supposed to ride on sidewalks, and that we occasionally are supposed to ride in the center of the lane, not to the right. And that we are allowed to cross the road to turn left from the left lane.
So often, whenever information about cycling laws is presented, the public responds that they should not have to respect cyclists since they see so many running stop signs and red lights. I completely understand that sentiment, and am embarrassed that so many cyclists do not follow the rules of the road. I only hope that drivers will not decide that because some cyclists do not obey the law, that we therefore deserve to be injured or killed while we are legally riding on our roads.
There also have been questions about how motorists and law enforcement are supposed to know exactly whether a three-foot clearance has been achieved. In my opinion, the new law is not about exactly three feet, but knowing that three feet means you should be passing a bike only if you can cross over the center line safely. Thank you for my life.
Ken Mercurio of Monroe is a member of the Ohio Bicycle Federation.