The Explainer: Share the damn road

Mr. Explainer,
A year or two back the State of Colorado passed a law requiring drivers to give cyclists a minimum of three feet while passing. Speaking just from my own experiences, I noticed that drivers seemed to be aware of the new law for about one news cycle, after that it was back to the normal close calls and brush backs. My question: has there been any evidence that the new law has increased the safety of cyclists? Is there any evidence that our law enforcement agencies are even enforcing this law?

A side note on this law. Here in Grand Junction we have an entity of the National Park Service with a really gorgeous road ride through it. You may have heard of it, it’s called “Tour of the Moon” and it was included in the Coors Classic. Anyway, that road, like most if not all roads in National Parks, is a federal road and hence state traffic laws, including the three-foot law, do not apply. Something to remember if ever you find yourself riding a road in a National Park or Monument.

P.S. The last I heard you’re on the mend, hope that still the case. How much longer and what will it take for you to get a clean bill of health?
―John

Dear John,
As to your first question, I can answer with a resounding maybe. Colorado is now one of 20 states that have enacted similar three-foot passing zones. Many of those have been enacted in the past three or four years so it may take a while to do a definitive study as to how effective the rule has been.

Whether Colorado’s “three-foot rule” has had an impact in reducing fatalities is probably a question that won’t be answered for a few years, until solid crash data is available and subsequently analyzed. That takes some time and since Colorado’s law is only a couple of years old, it could be a while before we get a definitive answer. Like the rest of the country, Colorado has generally seen a gradual decline in bicycle-related injuries and fatalities over the years and that trend has continued since passage of the three-foot rule.

Either way, it has to be an improvement. The law provides a guide for cyclists, drivers and police. It can also assist in determining just who is at fault in the event of an accident, meaning that plaintiffs, their lawyers and, ultimately, a judge or jury, can use the law as guide in deciding civil cases. All of those are a big plus for riders, even if the immediate impact isn’t discernible from crash statistics.

As for enforcement, there have been a number of cases in which police have either failed to enforce the rule when they see it violated or, worse, failed to take the law into consideration when investigating an accident. My friend Rick Bernardi did a terrific piece on the rather odd interpretation of the law by police in Loveland, Colorado, last year.

When it comes to enforcement, there is no real hard data and we’re left to work with the anecdotal, instead. Aggressive ticketing and other enforcement, said Dan Grunig, the executive director of Bicycle Colorado (and one of the “good guys” when you think of lobbyists) wasn’t the primary goal when the organization worked for the passage of the bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Greg Brophy and Democratic Representative Mike Merrifield. Grunig said the law represents a significant improvement over what was out there before the 2009 revisions.

“It’s really not as much about enforcement as it is raising awareness,” Grunig said. “That’s where the law can really make a difference.”

And, for at least a brief moment, it had a direct impact. I think you’re right in observing that there was a notable – although short-lived – difference in drivers’ behavior around bicycles. Most of my cycling friends in Colorado noticed the same thing and also noticed that it was but a fleeting phenomenon.

To continue to raise awareness, Bicycle Colorado has recently succeeded in getting a mention of the law included in Colorado’s drivers’ manual and on the test one is required to pass before being issued a driver’s license. These are baby steps, to be sure, but they are steps in the right direction.

Of course, the ideal would be the establishment of a national policy that would mandate the establishment of safe passing distances for automobiles passing bicycles. Quick action on that is unlikely, given that this is an election year, Congress hasn’t really been accomplishing a whole heck of a lot lately and when they have, it hasn’t always been what one might term “bicycle friendly.”

The establishment of a national policy would, of course, address your other question about whether the Colorado law applies to roads within the confines of national parks. Actually, there again, we have something of a mixed answer. The Colorado law does apply to state roads that travel through national parks, but if a road is exclusively within the confines of the park, then federal rules apply.

Your question also raises an interesting question about who is actually in charge of roads, particularly when they take you through a park or community while you travel from point A to point B.

Whose road is it anyway?
At the risk of being accused of having a “Colorado bias” (an odd, but frequent, accusation when it comes to a long-time resident of Wyoming), I would urge you to keep track of a case now before the Colorado Supreme Court. At issue is whether local communities may enforce a ban on bicycle traffic on certain roads, even when there exists no reasonable alternative route, especially for those trying to get through town.

The City of Black Hawk was once a sleepy little mountain community, established at the height of Colorado’s silver boom in the 19th century. Once most of the mines had played out, Black Hawk was damn close to becoming a ghost town … until city fathers and their neighbors in Central City got the state’s permission to establish casino gambling in both towns. The resulting boom probably puts the heady days of the silver rush to shame.

Black Hawk’s steep and narrow streets are now lined with glistening monuments to the math-impaired and its roads are packed with cars and tour buses full of those willing to accelerate the depletion of their checking accounts in a statistically predictable manner. In the old days, the road through Central City and Black Hawk offered a really nice way to get on to one of this country’s most beautiful bike routes, the famed Peak-to-Peak highway.

Indeed, the same road now at issue in this case was thrice used by racers in the short-lived Boulder to Breckenridge road race promoted by Len Pettyjohn. Despite the community’s role in racing history, the city council, in 2009, voted to prohibit cycling “on any street, highway, or public way” upon which the city had posted “appropriate signage.”

At issue in this case is not whether the City Council of Black Hawk is populated by bone-heads (that appears to be settled at this point), but whether or not a community along an otherwise passable route can simply enact its own traffic rules that stand starkly in contrast with state and federal laws, rules and guidelines and do so even when it negatively impacts neighboring communities.

The bike ban aside, if the Court upholds Black Hawk’s position in this case, I can see little to keep another town from suddenly deciding that its affinity for all things British allows it to force drivers to operate their vehicles on the left side of the road.

Pelkey: Slowly getting back to "normal." Now with actual eyebrows ta boot!

I plan on following the case closely and expect that I’ll be doing a longer, more detailed column on the case of The City of Black Hawk v. Rational Thought when the Colorado Supremes issue a ruling.

Now, as for your P.S., John, I am doing quite well. I am not sure when oncologists issue a permanent “clean bill of health,” especially since I am going to be monitored and checked up for years to come. My latest PET scans, however, show no cancer and that is good news after going through all of this crap for these past few months. I still thank my lucky stars for catching this thing early. Chemo is but a fading memory at this point. My hair is growing back and all of the other hideous side-effects of treatment are quickly fading. I am planning to be out on the bike more often as the weather here in Wyoming improves and … well, speaking of which, it’s time to go for a ride. I’ll be moving mighty slow, so be sure to give me three feet when you pass me, okay?
– Charles

The Explainer is now a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at Charles@Pelkey.com. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

Follow me on Twitter: @Charles_Pelkey

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19 comments

  1. Ashley

    Speaking of drivers passing us lycra-clad people, I’ve come to my own conclusions that riding two-up, tightly close together is way better for drivers to get around. This is rather than single file where the driver has to be almost over the yellow line for an extended period of time. Do you have a thought on this at all?

  2. Walt S

    I live outside of Albuquerque, NM in a relatively small city of Rio Rancho, NM. My regular training route encompasses wide two lane roads with a marginal shoulder. Regularly I am buzzed by all forms of motorists, including drivers of school buses, garbage trucks, and even police officers. On one occasion on a down hill section where my speed regularly approaches the 40 mph speed limit, a motorist came so close, that if I would not have been an experienced cyclist, I probably would have crashed with extraordinary bad consequences to my life and limb. The combination terror and anger that I felt having been nearly run over or killed elicited various hand “gestures” and yelling at the fleeting motorist on my part. The vehicle that was directly behind the aggressive motorist? A Rio Rancho police car! I truly expected to see his light go on and for him to pull over the motorist. It did not happen.

    Here’s the interesting part. New Mexico is one of the few states that requires motorists to pass cyclists by a 5 foot safe passing margin. What good are the laws on the books if they are not enforced?

  3. THRASH

    OMG – Show up this kit in OC and you are dead. The Housewives of OC are a wicked bunch of 7 Series and S Class Road Warriors…Oh, don’t forget the Range Rovers.

  4. Paul Matlin

    Here in Maryland, a three-foot law was enacted about two years ago. To be fair, I never really noticed it as a severe problem save for the very occasional (once a month, at most) yahoo who decided to prove that the few brains cells they had were not on speaking terms with each other. So it’s a bit difficult to say that things have improved, though I do notice that cars tend to give me and other cyclists a bit more room, probably overestimating the three foot part of the law. I suspect that this is more a regional function and there are areas that will be better and areas that will be worse. I’m thankful to live in one of the better areas.

    As for your PS response – I believe that the threshold for being “cured” is considered to be five years without recurrence. And if you’re really as slow as you imply, then you’re getting down to my level – come to Baltimore and join me for a “relaxed” ride. :-D

  5. Deezil

    Maryland’s Three Foot Law is a joke. I’ve actually been “buzzed” by police cars on more than one occasion and morons still float over the white line onto the shoulder shortly after passing in order to prove that they could have hit me if they wanted. This usually happens right in front of a “Share The Road” sign. Three Foot Laws and the like are largely toothless and hypocritical, likely enacted for reasons other than the safety of cyclists. The only way to truly protect cyclists, pedestrians, and responsible motorists is to deny driver’s licensing to sub-morons and imbeciles. That, of course, will never happen because of the economic and tax implications. In Maryland, for example, stricter licensing would probably cut the driving population in half. Instead, I’m hoping for $10-12 a gallon at the pumps to thin the herd and cut down on joyriding and frivolous driving.

  6. Dave

    I hate to seem the cynic, but can anybody show me even ONE example from anywhere in the country of anyone being actually ticketed for violating one of these three foot laws? Also please someone explain to me how anyone CAN be ticketed for violating one of these laws in a way that can be proved in court in ANY way except in the aftermath of them actually hitting a cyclist? This is a prime example of hypocritical legislators passing a law that does nothing and won’t (can’t) be enforced and then claiming they have “solved” a problem. Cyclists who think this law doing any good whatsoever are simply demonstrating their own naivete.

    1. Padraig

      First, I’m grateful to Charles for addressing an important advocacy issue. That he did so with grace, humor, thorough research and insight is unsurprising.

      Now, on to his post: A three-foot passing law was enacted for the city of Los Angeles. Yes, the city where nearly everyone said bike advocacy was a lost cause. When the law was announced, local cycling advocates asked some hard questions about enforcement. As Charles noted, part of the mission cited in some examples was simple awareness; that’s true in LA as well. What officials also said was that they didn’t intend to pull over drivers who buzzed cyclists; it would be an enforcement nightmare. Rather, their intent was to use the law as yet another tool to address infractions when there was a cyclist hit by a driver. Practically speaking, I suppose this just means yet another count to weigh on a driver as they are pressed to plead down to something less egregious.

      Are these laws ideal? Not by a long shot, but let’s keep in mind this is better than any of us had five years ago. Progress, not perfection, as they say.

  7. Patrick

    Deezil,

    The motorists who “float over the white line … after passing” aren’t doing it to show they could hit you, they’re doing it because of their reactions to actually passing you. They nudge the steering wheel left to pass, then they overcompensate by steering too far to the right, thus crossing that white line on the shoulder. Feel good that they did move over to pass, it could have been worse (see Walt S. above).
    And I definitely agree with Paul Maitlin about regionality. Here around Tampa most folks are pretty good about giving you room, but the number of incidents of less room are directly correlated to the closeness to ‘rush hour’ and the busiest roads. But watch out for cellphones and texting! (Of course they’re behind you, so you won’t know until after.)
    Charles, the eyebrows don’t matter, as I’ve always pictured you with them when reading your columns anyway. Best wishes toward full wellness, and here’s to hoping you make a comeback a lå L.A.

  8. CptCrnch

    As of April 2 the commonwealth of PA will enact. 4 foot to pass law. I don’t know how much good it will do. I get clipped on a monthy basis by drivers too busy to wait for the oncoming lane to be clear. The last time I was clipped was by the rear wheel of a 18 wheeler that buzzed me on purpose. I didn’t get his plate as I was busy trying to keep it upright.

    I don’t thing the 4 foot law will do much. It’ll be hard to enforce. Sadly it will probably only be enforced after the cyclist was hit. But the fine is only going to be $25 so it’s not even a slap on the wrist. Until we start making hitting cyclists a felony things will never improve. In a local town a few years back a man hit and killed a young cyclist of 16 and walked away with a $150 fine for reckless driving. The poor girl’s father was so distraught over it he took his own life after being told there was nothing more he could do in a court of law.

  9. Shawn

    Until 3 feet laws are regularly part of the written portion of driver license exams, I don’t even see them truly raising awareness.

    Regarding Black Hawk, I remember reading that the ban was in response to state mandated bicycle lanes through town centers. Rather than spend the money to construct bike lanes, just ban bicycles. I think that this makes the case even more interesting as it is a municipality’s attempt to circumvent a state law aimed at public safety.

  10. David Hendry

    As a cancer survivor of short duration I have just this week received news from my oncologist that they consider 2 years cancer free, which I just passed this month, as a sort of watershed. He claimed it is unlikely that the original cancer is going to recur if it doesn’t happen in that first 2 year period. That was good news for me and I hope it will mean good news for you too. I’m in Canada by the way so I’m not certain that the American doctors would also think 2 years is a milestone but a great deal of what we know about the disease crosses over all the national borders.

  11. scaredskinnydog

    I have a friend who got pulled over on his bike for passing a car (a state trooper actually) too closely. We were competing in an uphill TT and a trooper had a vehicle pulled over on the pass. My friend road up so quietly that he scared the crap out of the trooper as he was writing a ticket to the motorist. The trooper quickly finished with the motorist, jumped in his car, caught up to and pulled over my friend. Between gasps of air he managed to choke out “Sorry sir, uphill time trial”. The trooper issued a stern warning about never sneaking up on an officer and let him go. The best part was he still got 3′rd! We joked afterward that he would of won if he hadn’t got pulled over for speeding.

  12. Deezil

    Patrick–
    re:”…they’re doing it because of their reactions to actually passing you.” Sometimes this might be the case but many times it is obvious that the intent is to communicate that they could squash me like a bug if they wanted. I’m even talking about on roads with full lanes and wide shoulders where there is no need for the motorist “go around” the cyclist. You can gauge intent because the meander over the white line lasts too long to simply be oversteering. On these wide shouldered roads I usually try to create my own 3 foot cushion but you still have morons that just can’t bear the thought of anyyone using the road for anything but driving even if they are impeded or inconvenienced not one bit.
    Shawn– Putting the question on the licensing test might help raise awareness. Even after all these years, I continue to be amazed at how many people continue to think that actually riding a bike on the road is illegal.

  13. Jerry

    Like many cyclists I’m also a driver. And when I see a lone cyclist or a pack, I’ll give them a wide berth, even if it means crossing a double yellow line (I hang back behind them and drive at their rate of speed until a long stretch of road with clear visibility and then I pass at a wide distance). But I’ve assumed that in doing so I’m violating a clear mandate never to cross the double yellow. I’d be clearly at fault if there was an oncoming car. I expect I’d be clearly at fault even if there was no oncoming car but the bad luck of a patrol car behind me.

    So I’ve got to disagree with your call for a national (Congressional) solution to the bike passing problem. First of all, grassroots advocacy has brought out a slow rollout of these laws and demonstrated the value of our federal system where states can be testing grounds of new legislation, and that legislation can be tailored to local conditions. Just look at the comments section for the variations that have come up 3 vs.4 vs. 5 feet. Plus numerous states with no “share the road” law so we can make statistical comparisons and see if these laws accomplish anything at all.

    Second, as I drive on a rural highway with a double yellow line for miles and miles, I’m reminded of the absurdity of that line — it was actually put there because of a Washington mandate, one of the worst cases of one size fits all to emanate from Washington. As a Wyoming resident, Charles, surely you appreciate that. Here in California dotted line passing zones were eliminated on numerous highways by this federal mandate.

    And I’m reminded that, at least in my experience, National Park roads are some of the worst for mixing bikes and cars because so many are narrow with no shoulder at all. Don’t know why, probably an aversion to pouring any extra asphalt in the wilderness. Those roads were designed for slow cars and no bikes. Thankfully at least the state roads that lead to those parks will often have adequate shoulders.

  14. Vandenberg

    Charles:
    I’m coming up to a year cancer-free, and I’ll be rejoicing in the fact. Every day I’m grateful to my wife for making me get that lump checked out, and that we caught it early. We’re the lucky ones…

  15. Eddie

    First let me say congratulations on your improving health. I live in North Carolina, home of the “Brain Dead Redneck”. If we really think about what has lead to the decrease of Drunk Drivers on the road in our state, I think it has more to do with two things. One is an increase in punishment. We will not see a decrease in cyclist injuries until we start treating this as a crime. The next time someone strikes a cyclist from the rear or while passing them there must some serious punishment. This will cause the second need, a cultural change. We must at some point treat these people the same as if they had hit a small child walking on the shoulder of the road. The real decrease in DWI in NC came from fear of punishment not from logical thought. I am sorry and tears of such are no consilation to the family of a dead cyclist. At som point when we decide as a society to punish the careless driver as the criminal they are then the culture will change.

  16. Kelly

    Growing up in a family of cyclists, the rules of the road were engrained in me at a very young age. The one I always have to stress when debating with friends or co-workers is that on a road, a bicycle is considered a VEHICLE. That is why we ride with traffic, not against it; we have to obey all traffic signs and rules. The problem is that most drivers don’t consider a cyclist a vehicle; they consider them a nuisance. My own husband doesn’t agree that bicycles should be allowed on roads with cars. I pay taxes just like the rest, I just choose to drive a two-wheeled, self-propelled vehicle, and I have as much right to be on the road as automobile drivers do.
    This being said, most of my riding has been in NY, VA and NC. I take every precaution when riding on busy roads, and I have even change my routes to avoid certain roads because I know how drivers can be. Should I have to? No. But until every driver learns to treat a cyclist as a vehicle instead of a pedestrian, no matter what laws change, the outcome will always be the same.

  17. Don

    I have to admit that when I saw the shirt, “Share the damn road,” I thought, “Then obey the damn laws.” I had to admit that because it is a huge frustration for me. I am a cyclist as are a ton of my friends. The only thing that ticks me off more than “Series 7 and Class S” road hogs is OTHER CYCLISTS who do not obey the law. When I see them blow right through stops signs or cut diagonally across lanes of traffic I think to myself, “You are the reason we don’t get the respect we need for our safety.” And it is probably not that rider who will get hit, but someone else who does obey the laws. If we want the four-wheeled types to respect those of us on two we have to hold cyclists accountable who do not obey the laws of the road or township in which they ride.

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