Law Enforcement Bias and the 3ft Law
So, I finally got around to reading through the links Eric provided in the heartbreaking post about David Meek.
Regarding enforcement of the 3-foot law
This quote is from one of the TV news story links Eric provided. The officer is explaining the legitimate difficulty of enforcing the law, but throws in another little gem of absolute car-centric bias:
“It’s very hard to do. The officer has to be in the right place and he has to observe a vehicle not giving the cyclist three feet. And if there’s on coming traffic, it’s hard for the motorist” said Dusty Stokes of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department.
Excuse me? Hard for the motorist? Because the motorist HAS to pass? Because his car will explode if he takes his foot off the gas and waits until it is safe to pass with adequate clearance?
This is exactly the kind of institutionalized anti-cycling bias that undermines the foundation of the advocacy pyramid. Cyclists are not drivers of vehicles to this official, they are an obstruction that poor motorists have to get around. Those poor motorists, in their comfortable seats and climate-controlled shells, having to wait a second.
Sorry. I’m not anti-motoring. I’m anti-entitlement (for either party). We are all equal users of the road, so let’s kill this notion that having to slow down to safely pass a slow vehicle is some kind of hardship.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this kind of “sympathy” for motorists having to wait. It’s been framed in terms of potential downstream road rage, too. If law enforcement is worried about the causes of delay-induced frustration, they might want to take a look at traffic light signal timing! Let’s have some official love for the hardship of long red lights, and freight trains, and school buses—cripes, you can’t even pass those things!
And now I have a few things to say about the 3-foot law
- It is virtually unenforceable unless a cyclist is actually hit. We’ve seen, repeatedly, that it’s not being enforced even then. Even here in Orlando—last year a cyclist was hit with a landscape trailer and the motorist was not cited with anything.
- There were already applicable laws on the books which cover safe passing of vehicles. All this one did was codify a minimum distance for bicycles—a minimum that is way to close in the most critical circumstances.
- Safe passing clearance is a variable that depends on speed differential and vehicle size. If a motorist is passing at a speed close to mine, I don’t mind letting him come by with less space (a foot or two, even, if the situation warrants it). I’ve had Lynx buses give me exactly three feet—that’s intimidating at any speed. High speed differentials make three feet feel like 6 inches, even with small cars. Really, there is only a small window of speed at which it feels comfortable for a small vehicle to pass at 3 feet. “But it says ‘minimum!’” I hear you cry. Need I remind you, all interpretations default to the minimum? Especially for bicyclists.
- Cyclists can get way more than 3 feet of passing clearance with good lane position. I rarely get less than 5 feet. The occasional close pass is one in many hundreds of drivers that pass me. That’s a REALLY SMALL target audience for all the energy people want to spend advertising this law. Of the tiny minority of drivers who pass me too close, most are doing it on purpose. Do you think they give a rat’s ass if there’s a law against it? I don’t.
When you’re used to getting space, your perspective changes
A year or so ago, a small group I was riding with was passed by a utility truck on Markham Woods Rd. It felt kinda close, but it was at least 4 feet away. That group had been using good lane position for a few months and they had quickly become accustomed to much greater passing clearance. When we stopped, they all remarked about how close that truck was… not realizing it was more than 3 feet.
Brian and Dan of CyclistView rode a series of video passes on a 6-lane arterial road. They gradually increased their distance from the edge and measured the passing clearance. This chart shows how lane position influences the behavior of overtaking drivers and results in increasing passing clearance with leftward lane position. There are corresponding screen shots and video clips to show you what each of these passes looks like (here).
The following description applies to multi-lane roads. The optimal lane position is essential on a high speed road, where maximum passing clearance is most critical.
If you ride at the right edge of the lane, many motorists will pass within the lane, even if the other lanes are empty. At the left edge of the Exclusion Zone, most motorists will move over if the next lane is empty. But, if a platoon approaches at high speed, many motorists will squeeze through rather than wait to merge. This results in uncomfortable and unsafe passing. It’s a terrifying experience.
Riding in the Optimal Zone communicates, from a distance, the need for motorists to change lanes. With this information, they change lanes early, at speed, and traffic files into the next lane over well in advance of the cyclist. The result is an increasing gap as the lane clears behind the cyclist—a virtual 11 foot bike lane. The few that aren’t paying attention will have to slow and wait until they can merge. That’s their problem. And don’t think you’re delaying them, you’ll see the whole platoon waiting together at the next traffic light.
In this video, the above-described practice is demonstrated on University Boulevard. The passing clearance you see is ~6ft at the closest, most cars are 8 or more feet away. At those speeds, I would not want them any closer.
Included in this clip are the high-speed entrance and exit ramps for the 417. Toward the end, Brian’s microphone picks up an unintelligible territorial noise, which neither of us heard while riding.
We need to reach higher than three feet
The 3ft law has become a distraction from solving core problems. Now, every time there is a discussion about harassment problems or cycling safety, someone talks about publicizing the 3ft law. Awareness of that law isn’t going to solve either of those problems! First of all, we need to attack intimidation and aggressive driving for what it is—assault and reckless endangerment. Passing clearance is the least of the issue with abusive behavior. Second, no matter how much you publicize that law, it is not going to make up for bad lane position. If cyclists ride so far right that motorists can squeeze through, they will. They just can’t help it! Impatience plus opportunity overrides reason, consideration and law. I mean, c’mon, look at the other stuff drivers do that EVERYONE knows is illegal!
If we truly want cyclists to be safe, we have to educate them (and the public) about how cyclists protect themselves. We need to remove the stigma of being slow in a fast world. We need to enforce the laws that protect all road users—speed limits, following distance and safe passing. We need to make hostility and aggressiveness socially unacceptable, with some legal teeth. There are so many bigger problems we aren’t finding solutions for when we waste energy trying to make people aware of an inadequate and unenforceable law.