Minimum passing distance - 3 feet from the grave

Minimum passing distance – 3 feet from the grave

Over the last few years there has been growing traction in States and countries all over the world for pushing through laws that protect cyclists when being passed by vehicles on the road.

In the US of A, States that have passed or will be passing the law, the amount of space that must be left between cyclists and passing vehicles is typically 3 feet. Elsewhere, like in Australia, 1 metre is the distance under 60kph (a little more than 3 feet), and 1.5 metres over 60kph (just on 5 feet).

The main issue surrounding this law is enforcement. How are the police going to say for sure that the car was within or just outside of 3 feet? That’s not going to be easy, and in all likelihood, probably won’t work most of the time, when they bother to enforce it at all.

Then you have all the irate motorists who already don’t believe that they have any obligation to accommodate cyclists getting upset that it’s just going to make congestion and road rage worse. Let’s take a look at one, shinning example of just such an argument:

You can read the full article here, but the main points are as follows:

The law is “doomed to fail” because lanes are not wide enough to accommodate a car and a cyclist and 3 additional feet of space. That’s actually the bulk of Madonna King’s article summed up in what is proported to be a reputable paper. I’ll just let that sink in.

Can you spot the stupidity? Does it hurt your brain?

Ok, lets take her argument with the facts she provides: the wider of the two lanes she discusses is 2.79 meters wide. Her car is 2.21 meters wide. What we have left is .58 meters, which is just inside of 2 feet. We all know that two feet is just over the width of the average person, and slightly less than the width of the average straight bike handlebar. You can see the problem here, but despite stating it herself, Ms King has decided to carry on anyway.

…Even after she makes the argument against it in the very next sentence: “sharing the road already requires motorists to cross the middle lane, to safely pass a cyclist.”

So, she already has to enter the next lane in order to safely – and I very much doubt it’s safely – pass a cyclist even without the new law, but somehow, with the new law she can’t even moreso, and all of a sudden the world is going to grind to a halt, “it’s only going to escalate tensions”, “a recipe for anger and accidents”, and will “increase road rage”.

Even though the law won’t actually change the situation, by her own argument.

Anyway, she gives away more of her driving habits when she complains that she will no longer be able to squeeze cyclists off the road through a traffic island (“add into the mix a traffic island, that you can’t readily mount at 60km/h”). I’m fairly sure mounting a traffic island at any speed is pretty bad practice. And, heaven help us, what is she supposed to do if there is “a car in the lane alongside” her, which my enormous powers of deduction tell me would indicate the presence of a second lane? What?! Get into that lane to safely pass the cyclist, which she has said mere sentences earlier that she already has to do? Preposterous! She’s in a car, after all, and has places to go!

Another issue Ms Madonna King raises is that it will be a waste “of our limited police resources!” Isn’t it funny how people always play that card when a new law is proposed that affects them – just regular people trying to get to work? Would she be happy to let buses and large trucks bully her off the road with no legal recourse?

Anyway, we, the cyclists, should listen to her, because, she’s really on our side. After all, she is one of us… except, she can’t even quite convince herself of that, commiting to print that, “I am one of them too”. Not “I am a cyclist too”, but that she is “one of them”. Good try Madonna. You appear to be a little bit like a virgin when it comes to using basic logic and argumentation.

The real power of the law

So we face some issues. The law will be difficult to enforce, that much is true. That is not, however, the real power of the law. As stated in the brilliantly subtle video below, the law will be most effective in the event that a cyclist is actually hit by a car. Without minimum passing distance laws, police often don’t have anything that they can charge motorists with, as you can still hit, and kill, a cyclist even though you were not speeding, under the influence, or driving erratically. Even though the “accident” was preventable, police don’t technically have any charges they can lay in these instances.

Now they do.

The penalties for not providing a minimum passing distance varies quite a lot, from a $35 fine (California – pathetic, really, but it goes up to $233 if there is a collision and totals up to $959 with court fees), to $330 and 3 demerit points in Queensland, although a more recent article reports “a maximum fine of $4554 if the matter goes to court”. In Arkansas, the penalty for violating the law and resulting in injury or death of the cyclist is $1000 (as of 2012).

You may be thinking, “Fined $1000 for killing someone? Does that really sound like justice? Someone is dead because someone else decided that they couldn’t be bothered to be more careful!”. And you would be right.

A law is only effective if people have reason to obey it, and if the safety of others isn’t enough to convince you, a small fine won’t be either. If you are really serious about enforcing a law, make the penalty one that people will think long and hard about risking.

At least, for now, State governments are taking steps to introduce a little accountability to motorists for their actions. Far more is needed.