Breaking Down the 3-Foot-Law Debate

As far as bicycling advocacy goes, the 3-foot law is the most widespread cause.

Some 20 states have passed the law, which requires vehicles to give cyclists at least three feet of space when passing (Pennsylvania requires four feet). But it's not without debates, and it's not always successful.

In 2011, California—one of the most popular states for endurance athletes, and one with major traffic problems in certain areas—had a 3-foot law pass both legislative chambers before being vetoed by governor Jerry Brown. The California Bike Coalition is proposing an amended bill in for the 2012 session.

So what's all the fuss about? Opponents of the law have a few basic beefs with it, while cyclists have an answer for each one.

Here are some common debates:

More: How Effective Is the 3-Foot Passing Law?

POINT: A 3-foot law is difficult to enforce, and is often left to an estimation by police officers who just happen to witness the possible violation.

COUNTERPOINT: Enforcement is only half the battle. Many cyclists feel that passing a 3-foot law would automatically mean dramatically fewer violations, due primarily to the law's effect on educating drivers.

Many drivers currently are unaware of what they're supposed to do when forced to share a road with a cyclist. If a 3-foot law is passed and publicized, it gives drivers an idea of how they're supposed to handle the situation, even if a violation is difficult to enforce.

Says the California Bike Coalition: "If drivers don't know what constitutes a safe passing distance, how can Californians who ride bicycles or want to ride bicycles feel confident that drivers know how to share the road safely?"

More: How to Handle a Bike Accident With a Vehicle

POINT: A 3-foot law could be dangerous for motorists, if obeying that law means creeping over a lane line to accommodate cyclists, or by having to slow down due to a lack of space in the road and getting rear-ended.

COUNTERPOINT: This is a common argument by opponents of the law across the country, but bicycle advocates claim there is no evidence to support it.

Andy Clark, president of the League of American Bicyclists, tells the CBC that "in our experience working with 19 other states that have passed three-foot passing laws, we have heard of no increases in the number of motor vehicle crashes due to the new requirements or any increased burden on law enforcement. In contrast, we have received nothing but positive responses to these laws."

More: Important Safety Tips for Commuting by Bike

POINT: When driving down a fast road, say, 45 miles per hour, is three feet even enough? This law would teach drivers that three feet is all that's needed no matter how fast you're going, which still isn't safe on some roads.

COUNTERPOINT: Certainly, three feet isn't a comfortable distance on a road with a speed limit higher than 25 or 35 mph. But the language of the law in many states takes care of that. In New Hampshire, the minimum distance is three feet but for every 10 mph above 30, the driver must leave an additional foot of space.

Even if a certain state doesn't have language for faster traffic, advocates feel that a tangible number rather than vague wording like "a safe distance" will make a positive impact. And so far, 20 states and Washington D.C. agree.

More: Your Bike Was Mangled by a Car...Now What?

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About the Author

Ryan Wood

Ryan Wood is an editor for He enjoys a good ride and loves participating in endurance events throughout the year. Follow him on Google+.
Ryan Wood is an editor for He enjoys a good ride and loves participating in endurance events throughout the year. Follow him on Google+.

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