Passing into Oncoming Traffic

Bob Sutterfield has written an excellent letter to his local paper about the problem of motorists passing into oncoming traffic. This is the only regular problem I have with car drivers. I rarely experience close passing. Harassment comes from significantly less than 1% of drivers I encounter. I almost never have conflicts or scary moments with crossing and turning cars. But way too often, I witness oncoming drivers having to brake or take evasive action because a passing driver did not slow down and assess the situation before passing me.

In his letter, Bob writes:

Earlier this week my wife was caught in such a situation on Quito; thankfully she maneuvered skillfully and avoided injury. But then the woman driving the oncoming car shouted out her window as she passed, “Get off the road!” That admonition was misdirected at my wife, rather than at the overtaking driver who had driven unlawfully and created the perilous situation.

If the motoring public harbors such misunderstandings regarding our shared responsibility to obey the ordinary rules of the road, it’s a good opportunity for focused enforcement and education. Read the whole letter.

That’s happened to me, too. This misunderstanding is one of the most frustrating aspects of the behavior. I’ve actually seen newspaper comments stating that “cyclists are endangering motorists by making us pass into oncoming traffic.” How twisted is our culture that someone could think that, let alone say it? The responsibility for safe passing is unequivocally on the overtaking driver and it always has been! There is no right of speed or right to pass. If you can’t pass safely, you may not pass. Period.

FS 316.083 – Overtaking and Passing a Vehicle

The following rules shall govern the overtaking and passing of vehicles proceeding in the same direction

(1)  The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall … pass to the left thereof at a safe distance, and shall not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle.  The driver of a vehicle overtaking a bicycle or other non-motorized vehicle must pass the bicycle or non-motorized vehicle at a safe distance of not less than 3 feet between the vehicle and the bicycle or other non-motorized vehicle.

FS 316.085 – Limitations on Overtaking, Passing, Changing Lanes and Changing Course

(1) No vehicle shall be driven to the left of the center of the roadway … clearly visible and is free of oncoming traffic … without interfering with … any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction … return to an authorized lane of travel … before coming within 200 feet of any approaching vehicle.

from Florida Bicycle Law

Must Pass the Cyclist

The problem is, there is no logic to this behavior. Waiting to pass safely only takes a few insignificant seconds. Many times there isn’t any need to pass at all. Motorists pass and then turn off the road a block later, or pass on approach to a red light or stop sign. I have lost count of the number of times a motorist has stopped at a stop sign in the oncoming lane because there was no way s/he could get around me in the short distance available.

I wonder, does the belief that the cyclist doesn’t belong there worsen the sense of entitlement to pass? Are they acting out or is this just mindless stupidity? I would love to do a study where the perpetrators were stopped and surveyed (in lieu of a ticket) to determine the thinking, or lack-thereof, behind their behavior. I wonder if they even know. I want to show these people the big picture of the 2 seconds they saved in getting to that red light 500ft away vs the potential devastation they could have caused. But as a cyclist, it does no good for me to confront them. The response isn’t introspection, it’s knee-jerk finger-pointing: “you shouldn’t be on the road.”

Mr. Sutterfield is right, this is an issue that needs a high-visibility enforcement campaign. In my experience, this is far more common than close passing. Doing a sting on this behavior would be easier and yield more results than a sting on passing clearance. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel on a lot of our 2-lane roads!

But I suspect it will take some real leadership from public officials and a direct confrontation with the entitlement to speed before we’ll find the political will to enforce the law. Such an initiative would probably even mark a sea change in the effort to promote bicycling as a real alternative. If we want to get serious about equity and access, this is a good place to start challenging the culture of speed and its degradation of our communities.

21 replies
  1. Scott
    Scott says:

    My commute is mostly on two-lane roads and I experience this behavior every single day.

    My favorite was the driver of the Lexus SUV the other day who saw that traffic was coming the other way, floored the gas to go around me anyway, forced the driver of the tiny little Porsche in the oncoming lane to swerve into the shoulder and stop, and then gave ME the finger out the moonroof!

    • Keri
      Keri says:

      Scott, I’ve had similar experiences. It shouldn’t be shocking anymore, but it always is. It’s so deliberate and sociopathic. I have to wonder what story the person is telling themself to justify what they just did.

      • Eric
        Eric says:

        “I have to wonder what story the person is telling themself to justify what they just did.”

        Dot’s an easy one. That he wouldn’t have done it if the cyclist wasn’t on the road.

      • Eric
        Eric says:

        >One resulted in a paceline crash<

        Which is why I don't DO that, pacelines I mean. One cyclist gets spooked and many crash.

        When you ride in a paceline, you have to trust ALL your fellow cyclists.

        I tend to trust more carefully people and not at all people I don''t know.

    • RonE
      RonE says:

      I have also experienced similar aggressive passing behavior on four lane roads where the car or truck wants to pass so badly that they rush into the second lane without paying proper attention. Unfortunately, it almost always takes place well above the posted speed limit too.

      Personally, that is why I dislike biking Conway Road north of Hoffner Avenue in the evenings. Interestingly, mornings seem to be much better.

      • fred_dot_u
        fred_dot_u says:

        RonE, I’d read somewhere, perhaps “Traffic” that drivers on the way to work really don’t want to be going to work, so they are “more tolerant” of other road users. Those drivers heading home really really want to be home and are less tolerant.

        Even though my travels are usually pedal powered, I find that when the nose is pointed homeward, I’m hesitant to stop anywhere along the way, even if only to pick up an item from a store. Pilots have called it “get-home-itis”.

        Yesterday, or perhaps the day before, I was clearing a traffic light. The pickup truck driver who never was behind me had to blow his horn and indicate his intelligence with a hand gesture as he passed, on a four lane road. I waved with all of my hand, as I do, and laughed, continuing on my way.

  2. Steve A
    Steve A says:

    Interesting. Today, I experienced this from the OTHER side, on a two-lane road, for the first time in memory. The perspective is quite different, and it put some other things in sharper perspective as well. See website link, and remember that what I did is illegal in Texas, but would be perfectly legal in Florida.

  3. Eric
    Eric says:

    The photo shows the cyclist giving hand directions to stay back, which I do when I can see bad things ahead.

    What I DON’T do is give the drivers a wave to pass. I learned about that mistake maybe 40 years ago? When I thought the way was clear and it wasn’t.

    Now, I put the responsibility for passing safely where it belongs — on the person who is trying to pass.

  4. Keri
    Keri says:

    The straight-arm mitigates the problem quite a bit. Though, I’d really prefer just to be able to concentrate on my own driving and not have to think for, and direct, overtaking motorists.

    I won’t make absolute statements about waving to encourage passing. Sometimes it’s beneficial, sometimes it’s a bad idea.

  5. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    This happens every so often to me on Toronto’s narrow residential streets. I always get the license plate number, take out my cell phone and call 911. It gives me some comfort to know that a police officer is going to be visiting the car owner to discuss his driving behaviour.

  6. Bob Sutterfield
    Bob Sutterfield says:

    When I’m slowly climbing a twisty road (you wouldn’t know about that in Florida 🙂 I can see around the bend long before the driver behind me, so I’ll sometimes give a little wave if it’s clear. I often give a straight-arm to say “keep back” when I can see it’s not clear, or when in my judgment there isn’t enough space to complete the pass before the curve. Those straight-arms are sometimes respected and sometimes not.

    You’re right, motorists don’t think about driving, and few cyclists do either. So much is unconscious and unexamined.

    I didn’t actually write this as a letter to the newspaper. I wrote the letter to the Sheriff and the Police Department of the two jurisdictions divided by that road, requesting increased enforcement. I cc:d the media, the local bicycle advocacy group, and the county transportation authority’s bike/ped advisory committee. The Sheriff’s office at least acknowledged receipt. The bicycle advocates are ignoring me because I’m a loose cannon who wonders (out loud in public meetings) what good cyclists will get from even more mandatory bike lanes. The local small-town weekly printed it because they needed to fill column-inches on the Letters page, and that might be the extent of the high-visibility education campaign. Nothing else has come of it yet.

    We can control almost all of our cycling experience and the traffic flow around us, this one issue is such an anomaly. Beyond requesting enforcement and providing education, what can we do about it while we’re out there on the road? Other than lane position and hand signals, it feels like I’m missing something obvious.

  7. Eric Moritz
    Eric Moritz says:

    I’ve seen someone clip an oncoming car because they passed me without due care. I don’t get it.

    I guess some folks don’t mind dealing with insurance companies.

  8. Golightly
    Golightly says:

    This is kind of funny because today I was south bound on Summerland Ave. I just crossed over Anderson St. and started climbing that little hill there, a car went to pass me on the left with out visibility of the oncoming lane and had to slam on her brakes and almost had a head on collision. I do believe the speed limit was 25 mph and I was traveling probably 22 mph. People just don’t get it and I’m doubting they ever will.

  9. rodney
    rodney says:

    Twice this month and as recent as today, my favorite “must past the cyclist” moment occurred. While being passed, on a two-lane, both motorists and I reached the STOP sign at the same time. Both lanes were occupied as if it were a four lane road.

    I proceeded through the stop and towards my predetermined destination, leaving this one to sort their predicament out.

    Today’s moment was great! Imagine the horror of coming to a stop, only to find oneself facing oncoming traffic that is waiting opposite of you.

    Awarded the operator an “L is for Love” signal on this one.

  10. Doohickie
    Doohickie says:

    This is a quote from a July 3rd Letter to the Editor in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

    “I had to pull into the opposite lane to reach the intersection to turn onto Frenchtown.

    Who do you think would be at fault if this caused an accident?”

    Ummmm… that would be you, sir.

  11. Doohickie
    Doohickie says:

    Oh… and personally, when I take the lane on a two-lane road and someone crosses the double yellow to pass me, I do one of two things: If there is enough room, I let the car pass and maybe even slide to the right.

    If, however, there is oncoming traffic that the passing car does not see, I put out an emphatic SLOW signal (left arm out and down, hand open and facing backward), and in all cases I have done this, the car will slow down and tuck back in behind me. After oncoming traffic has cleared, I slide right a bit and wave the car around.

    Amazingly (or maybe not so amazingly), they understand that I just saved them a close call and they will often wave a friendly wave as they go by.

    Communication is the key, folks. If you stubbornly (drivers might say obnoxiously) hold the lane when there is no need to, and acting like a car when you cannot possibly perform like a car, drivers get frustrated. But if you consistently communicate why you’re taking the lane (i.e., oncoming traffic and a pass is not safe), drivers appreciate it.

  12. Columbusite
    Columbusite says:

    This is a major reason for why I avoid major two-lane roads. I just had an obnoxious passenger in the car behind me in the right hand lane tonight asking why I wasn’t on the sidewalk to whom I pointed out the “Share the Road” signs, sharrows, and replied “It’s Ohio sate law: love it or leave it!”. All along there was a left hand lane, but the *cars* weren’t moving fast enough for them and afterwards they passed yelling, “faggot!”. Not a very original bunch are they? It’s either that or something about getting off the road or on the sidewalk. Of course, after *passing around me safely in the left hand lane* (was it really that hard?) they turned at the intersection up the next block and were around 15 ft down that street when I passed the intersection and gave them a little wave. They maybe saved 2 seconds after insisting on passing me.

  13. Guy
    Guy says:

    Way too often I am the driver of a bicycle in the on comming lane. It is quite terrifying when a vehicle comes at you on the wrong side of the road. many drivers don’t see a bicycle as on comming traffic when passing.

    • Keri
      Keri says:

      Guy, I’ve had 2 rather terrifying experiences with that out in Lake County. One resulted in a paceline crash — though the oncoming car managed to get back in its own lane, it startled a rider in the group and caused a pile-up. The other was a terrifying high-speed buzz by an opposite direction pick-up truck, but we all managed to hold our breath and hold our line.

      • Guy
        Guy says:

        That has happened to me alone or in with a group dozens of times. That is one reason why I usually ride in the middle of the lane and only move over to allow other vehicles to pass.
        One incident in particular was on Sanibel Island. I had just finished a pull and moved left to rotate to the back when a car came straight at me at high speed. I was able to move right back into the pace line. However, I ended up running another rider into the ditch. He crashed but was not hurt.

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