A few weeks ago we launched our state-specific highlights of traffic laws that affect bicyclists — and the feedback was tremendous.
We know you’re keen to learn more, so, over coming weeks, we’ll delve into each of the 11 categories we highlighted, from sidewalk riding to distracted driving. To start, we’re taking a deep dive into Safe Passing Laws.
What are Safe Passing Laws?
Safe passing laws require vehicles to pass each other at a safe distance. In most states, the amount of space necessary to be “safe” isn’t defined, but, in a growing number of states, there are laws that say a safe distance between a bicyclist and a motorist is not less than three feet.
Why should you care?
A safe passing law is valuable because it raises awareness as to how vehicles should share the road. It may also lead to enforcement actions against unsafe passing or be used in legal actions resulting from collisions or other incidents between road users.
Who has them?
All states have some version of a safe passing law. In 32 states, and the District of Columbia, the safe passing law explicitly mentions bicyclists. In the other 18 states, bicyclists are protected by safe passing laws written with no distinction between bicyclists and other road users.
In 24 states, and the District of Columbia, there is a defined distance standard — typically three feet — which sets the minimum distance required for safe passing. The other 26 states do not define what constitutes a safe distance in terms of feet. There are four states – Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Vermont – which have laws that do not define a minimum safe distance in terms of feet, but are significantly different than the Uniform Vehicle Code in a way that provides more protection to bicyclists.
Spotlight State – New Hampshire
New Hampshire has a great law regulating safe passing because it incorporates several different concepts to ensure that a bicyclist is protected. The law states:
Every driver of a vehicle, when approaching a bicyclist, shall insure the safety and protection of the bicyclist and shall exercise due care by leaving a reasonable and prudent distance between the vehicle and the bicycle. The distance shall be presumed to be reasonable and prudent if it is at least 3 feet when the vehicle is traveling at 30 miles per hour or less, with one additional foot of clearance required for every 10 miles per hour above 30 miles per hour. – N.H. Rev. Stat. Ann. §265:143-a
This law touches on three important concepts:
- Due care – By saying that a driver must exercise due care the law creates a relationship of responsibility for the driver of a vehicle approaching a bicyclist. Language stating a due care requirement may make it easier for bicyclists to hold a driver liable if hit.
- Defined distance – By stating that a reasonable and prudent distance is one of at least 3 feet the law makes it easy to publicize what is regarded as a safe distance and reinforces the most commonly required safe passing distance.
- Variable distance – By stating that a reasonable and prudent distance is one that varies with increased speed, the law makes it clear that three feet is not an absolute. What is safe can vary depending upon speed and road conditions. Recognizing this is rare amongst state laws that define a safe distance.
Where did they come from?
The first state to pass a three foot law was Wisconsin in 1973. Safe passing laws that do not define a distance are generally derived from the model laws found in the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC), which was last updated in 2000.
There are three UVC sections that have an impact on safe passing laws. If you would like to know more about safe passing in your state, or you are considering new legislation in this area of law, finding your state’s equivalent statutes for the following UVC sections would be a good place to look.
UVC 11-303: Overtaking a Vehicle on the Left – This section is the source of the safe distance language used by a majority of states.
UVC 11-305: Limitations on Overtaking on the Left – This section generally deals with crossing the center-line of the roadway in order to pass another vehicle. Crossing the center line can be relevant to safe passing laws because a vehicle may have to cross the center line in order to provide a safe distance while passing, therefore it is important that vehicles are allowed to do so.
UVC 11-306: Further Limitations on Driving on Left of Center of Roadway– This section deals with crossing the center-line of the roadway in order to pass when there are specific road circumstances that compromise visibility. Since it only applies when there are specific road circumstances, like a curve or slope that may affect visibility, it is less likely to create problems when interacting with a safe passing law.
Click to download the chart of safe passing laws for all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Ken McLeodKen joined the League in 2012 after graduating from William & Mary School of Law. He is a licensed attorney in the state of Virginia. During law school he worked for a private law firm in Cambodia and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Prior to that, Ken worked at a law firm in Orange County and a legal services provider in Seattle. He graduated from Pomona College in 2007 with a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He began using his bike regularly after college and has been car-free since February 2012.
Legal Specialist, Advocacy Advance