A law mandating a distance of three-to-five feet of passing distance between motor vehicles and people riding bicycles likely appeals to any rider who has buzzed by a speeding car. Washington law currently mandates that drivers pass at a “safe distance,” but does not define how much distance is required. A bill, dubbed the “Mutual Responsibility” bill, aims to add that safe passing distance. However, as bill sponsor Rep. Jamie Pedersen (D-43) explained, it may come with compromises to road rights.
“The legislative process is all about compromise,” he said. “What are you willing to give up?” House Bill 1018, which was crafted mostly by the Bicycle Alliance of Washington, goes into detail about how and where people on bicycles should ride, so long as doing so is deemed safe by the bicyclist. Cascade Bicycle Club (which is part of the Bicycle Alliance) has been conspicuously silent about the bill so far. Assuming they have been hearing from some of the people who have contacted me, I bet they are being bombarded with membership opposition to the bill (along with some support).
Among it’s rules, the bill directs people on bicycles to ride in bike lanes or shoulders in order to allow a motor vehicle to pass, so long as it is safe to do so. The bill also directs motor vehicle drivers to honk and/or give a verbal warning “when necessary to avoid an imminent or likely collision.”
“I presume we will make a number of changes to the bill” before it moves forward, said Pedersen, who is a bicycle commuter. He said they know of at least one unclear and confusing section in reference to riding two abreast that needs to be changed in order to make sense. He also said he thinks cars honking at cyclists is startling and likely more dangerous, and he doubts that section will stay in the bill for long.
The real debate over the bill is more philosophical than tangible. Currently, people riding bicycles basically have all the same privileges as people driving when it comes to passing. The responsibility for passing at a “clearly” safe distance is placed on the driver of the motor vehicle:
The driver of a vehicle approaching a pedestrian or bicycle that is on the roadway or on the right-hand shoulder or bicycle lane of the roadway shall pass to the left at a safe distance to clearly avoid coming into contact with the pedestrian or bicyclist, and shall not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken pedestrian or bicyclist. – RCW 46.61.110
The right of way is given to the vehicle (in this case, a bicyclist) being passed. But the new bill would put responsibility for safe passing at least partly on the bicyclist being passed:
… a person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at speeds less than the legal and normal flow of traffic shall, when traffic is present, make use of a paved shoulder of the roadway or any specially designated bicycle lane, if such a lane exists, and such use is reasonably judged safe by the bicyclist. – proposed RCW 46.61.770
Bicyclists would always be able to ride how they feel is safe. However, this is a change to the core of the way our roads work. Current law states that bicyclists may use shoulders and bike lanes, but the new version says shall.
“It’s one of the gives for the cyclists,” said Pedersen. Critics of a previous version of the bill, which stalled in the Senate, were upset that, despite money spent on bicycle facilities, some cyclists continue to ride in the road and create perceived passing problems.
“In some ways, it’s almost about etiquette,” he said. “Why are you using the road when there’s a bike lane? … Is about obstruction? If there’s not a pothole, if there’s not a safety issue, why wouldn’t you use the dedicated lane?”
Rep. Pedersen and the bill’s authors are certainly bike riders in pursuit of a clarified safe passing law that outlines safe practices. They have also been careful to always give bicyclists an “out” in each new rule mandating bike lane or shoulder use, leaving it up to the rider’s discretion. I have read the bill many times, and I have spent a fair amount of time reading other people’s opinions and discussing the issue with fellow riders. I do not believe it is a good idea to trade a philosophical right to ride in many general traffic lanes for a law defining how many feet is considered a “safe” distance.
There should be no need for compromises when the proposed changes are not controversial or problematic for anyone (I know, I know, welcome to Olympia…). I bet most people think “three feet to pass” is already the law, largely due to the prevalence of “three feet please” stickers and other messaging. Plus, it’s almost entirely unenforceable (though, to be fair, so are the new bike lane laws). What legitimate reason could anyone have to stand up for their right to drive within three feet of a bicyclist? There is none. It is clearly dangerous.
Too many Washington shoulders and bike lanes are simply too poorly designed or poorly maintained (and don’t get me started on the lack of sweeping) for this change to be made. However, if bidding is still open, I may be willing to trade this right for full funding for a complete network of safe bicycle facilities throughout the state.
Here are my suggestions for changes to the current bill:
- Parts of Sections 2, 4 and 5 of RCW 46.61.770 stating bicyclists “shall” use shoulders and bike lanes when present should be stricken from the bill. The former language (“may” use shoulders and bike lanes) should remain.
- Section 6 of RCW 46.61.770 defining what constitutes “safe” is unnecessary. There are too many potential dangers and variables on a roadway to attempt to list them all here. Leaving the definition of “safe” up to the person riding is a good catch-all.
- Remove all rules that require or even suggest that honking at a cyclist is a reasonable thing to do. If there truly is an imminent collision that could be avoided by honking, then fine. But do we need to specifically suggest this in law? I would also suggest swerving into a parked car in order to avoid hitting a cyclist or pedestrian, but that would be a weird thing to include in this law.
Without these changes (especially the first and third), I do not feel the bill is worth pursuing. Perhaps there is some other bargaining chip we can use. Do they want Seattle’s 2nd Ave bike line south of Belltown? They can have it!
Below is the text of the proposed bill as of today. Please leave your thoughts in the comments. Also, email Rep. Pedersen and Bicycle Alliance Policy Director Dave Janus with any proposed changes or support you have for the bill (the more specific, the better).