By Bruce Cohen - October 28, 2015
With the support of Delegates Steve Lafferty and Pam Beidle, we held a series of Three Foot Working Group meetings with stakeholders and legislators. Special thanks to Delegate Lafferty for organizing the group, and Delegates Beidle, Fraser-Hidalgo, and Lam for their regular input. Due to our inability to remove this “narrow roadway exception” during the 2015 General Assembly session, the goal of the legislative working group was to build consensus so bicyclists can have institutionalized safety on the road.
The major topic discussed during this working group was the current state of Maryland’s three foot law. As previously discussed, Maryland’s law has a glaring exception that excepts the law on “narrow roads.” As interpreted, narrow roads are any road where a vehicle, the bicyclist and three feet of passing space cannot fit to one side of the double double line. Participants from the State Highway Administration advised us that from their perspective, this is any road narrower than 14 feet. Unfortunately, most of the roads bicyclists ride on are considered narrow, which means that the law we fought so hard for in 2010 does not apply. On a road with lanes less than 14 feet wide, drivers have the legal ability to pass a person on a bicycle with a few inches to spare.
For those who have been passed at speed and under three feet, you can attest that this can be a most unnerving moment. With this slim margin for error, any course deviation by those driving or biking can have fatal consequences. Under current law this is the legal way to pass a bicyclist but is not safe behavior. Our biggest issue with this exception is that it codifies the convenience of a driver over the safety of the bicyclist. The law takes the stance that it is better for a driver to be able to pass quickly than for the driver to make the safe decision and wait behind the bicyclist.
During the working group sessions, we talked through passing over the double yellow line and how many drivers are already routinely performing this behavior safely. Some enforcement agencies in Maryland would like the legal allowance to cross over the double yellow line to pass a bicyclist since they believe that this maneuver is safer than passing at a distance of less than three feet.
As groups weighed in and discussed, participants became convinced that the safest way to pass a bicyclist is to have a legal mandate to wait until there is space to pass legally – inside the double yellow line. Truly, this is the safest maneuver because it:
This is the safest way to pass a bicyclist and it is appropriate to require that drivers wait until they can give a bicyclist three feet. Likely, most drivers will continue to cross the double yellow line to give extra clearance to a bicyclist, but keeping the status quo with the double yellow allows for increased penalties when a collision occurs.
What we found last year during the legislative session, many lawmakers were unwilling to accept that waiting behind a bicyclist is the appropriate behavior. We received push back that drivers would be stuck behind bicyclists “forever”. It was better, in their opinion, for a driver to squeeze by a bicyclist then to be slowed down. Unfortunately, this is not safe behavior.
Every year we hold Larry’s Ride in honor of Larry Bensky, a bicyclist and father who was hit and killed while riding on Butler Road. Days after he died, his wife fought and testified for the three foot law, hoping to give other cyclists the room on the roads that her husband was denied. Unfortunately, the General Assembly passed a law that excepts roads like Butler.
If lawmakers care about the safety of every person on Maryland roads, then they will vote to remove the narrow lane exception of our three foot law. Encourage your delegate and senator to support this pending legislation!
Three feet on every road!