By Bruce Cohen - April 8, 2015
Under current Maryland law, if a road does not have enough width for a car to pass a bicyclist with three feet then the three foot passing law does not apply. This narrow roadway exception nearly killed advocate support for the original law in 2010. At the time, bicycle advocates decided that it was better to support the original three foot law and return later to remove the exception. This year we decided to move forward with removing the exception, but we were met with an unsympathetic legislature.
Instead of prioritizing safety over speedier travel times, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and House Environment and Transportation Committee decided to maintain the status quo and voted unfavorably on our bill. We thank Senators Lee, Raskin, and Ramirez, and Delegates Lafferty, Fraser-Hidalgo, and Lam for their constant support for our bill in committee and subcommittee.
Members of the committee were concerned that if the bicyclist was on a narrow road the car behind them would never be able to pass, and the driver would be stuck behind the bicyclist for a long period of time. Therefore, according to them, it is better to have it so the three foot law does not apply on narrow roads – so drivers can get around. Unfortunately, this prioritizes convenience over safety, and if three feet is the safe passing distance, then that is what should be mandated.
Another issue with this exception is that it makes the law difficult to enforce and teach. It relies on a driver’s correct judgment of lane width, as opposed to an easy to understand metric: “three feet at all time.”
It also puts “polite” cyclists in danger. These are the cyclists who stick to the right of the road to make it easier for drivers to pass, offering up the maximum amount of road space for the driver to maneuver. These bicyclists, by behaving in a way that is the most considerate to drivers, sacrifice their safety by enabling drivers to pass them within the lane but without three feet.
Maryland law allows bicyclists to “take the lane” when the road is too narrow to share with a car. This means riding towards the center of the lane to prevent a car from passing within the lane. Until we are able to successfully negotiate a safe passing law that includes narrow Maryland roadways we urge cyclists to ride defensively to prevent dangerous passing.