Starting Jan 1, drivers must change lanes when passing people biking or slow down and give 3 feet + More

Some of the most significant changes to Washington State’s rules of the road in recent history will take effect January 1, when SB 5723 becomes law.

Perhaps the biggest and most exciting change is that people driving will now have clear instruction on how to safely and legally pass someone on a bike (or riding a horse, a carriage or tractor):

  • If there is more than one lane in the direction of travel, people driving must “completely” change lanes to pass.
  • If there is only one lane in the direction of travel, people driving must slow to a safe speed “relative to the speed of the individual” and only pass once there is at least three feet of space between their vehicle and the person biking. If three feet is not available, people driving must change lanes into the opposing lane when it is safe to do so.

The new law also clarifies the responsibilities for people biking. If there is enough space in the lane for safe passing, people biking must ride to the right to allow passing. But you are not required to squeeze to the right if there is not enough space in the lane for safe passing or if “other conditions make it unsafe to do so.” So if there is debris or damaged pavement or parked cars with doors that could swing open at any moment or another road user, you are not required to move right.

The law passed during the 2019 legislative session with wide bipartisan support (70-26 in the House, 43-5 in the Senate) and is in large part thanks to the advocacy work of Washington Bikes.

These changes are very favorable to people biking and set a new standard for safe passing laws in the U.S. They make it clear that a person’s safety is paramount. No, they won’t suddenly make it super comfortable to bike on the many streets and highways in our state that have no bike lanes or adequate shoulders. But they at least remove a lot of the doubt about what is legally expected of everyone.

Of course this brings us to the big questions: Will people know the law has changed? And will it be enforced?

You may bike in the right turn lane even if you aren’t turning

There are a handful of other rule changes, including some rules that I (and, I’m assuming, many others) thought were already the law. For example, let’s say you are biking straight, but the rightmost lane becomes a right-turn-only lane. Previously, you could read the law as saying that you must bike in the through lane, not the right turn lane. Sometimes this might make sense (like when you need to go around a traffic island to continue straight), but other times it would basically force you to ride in the middle of two lanes of traffic. That’s just not safe, and shouldn’t be legally required. So the new rules clarify that yes, you are allowed to bike in the turn lane even if you intend to go straight.

People with disabilities are not required to use an inaccessible sidewalk

This one blew me away when I first saw it. A very literal reading of the existing law says that someone with a disability is required to use the sidewalk whether that sidewalk is accessible or not. I want to believe this law was never enforced to the word, but I can’t be sure. Either way, it’s good to have it fixed to clarify that of course a person can’t be required to use a sidewalk they can’t use.

The same section was also updated to clarify that no, a person walking on a roadway without a sidewalk or shoulder is not legally required to throw themselves into the bushes or a ditch in order to get out of the way of a car. Again, you could read the existing law (“shall move clear of the roadway”) as saying as much. You are still supposed to move out of the road, but only “when practicable.”

Excerpt: (1) Where sidewalks are provided and are accessible, it is unlawful for any pedestrian to walk or otherwise move along and upon an adjacent roadway. Where sidewalks are provided but wheelchair access is not available, ((strike disabled end strike)) persons with disabilities who require such access may walk or otherwise move along and upon an adjacent roadway until they reach an access point in the sidewalk. (2) Where sidewalks are not provided ((strike any end strike)) or are inaccessible, a pedestrian walking or otherwise moving along and upon a highway shall((,)): (a)When ((strike practicable end strike)) shoulders are provided and are accessible, walk ((strike or move only end strike)) on the ((strike left side of the roadway or its end strike)) shoulder ((strike facing traffic which may approach from the opposite direction and end strike)) of the roadway as far as is practicable from the edge of the roadway, facing traffic when a shoulder is available in this direction; or (b)When shoulders are not provided or are inaccessible, walk as near as is practicable to the outside edge of the roadway facing traffic, and when practicable, move clear of the roadway upon meeting an oncoming vehicle ((strike shall move clear of the roadway end strike)).

From SB 5723 as approved (PDF).

Vulnerable Road User Law strengthened

And finally, if the worst happens and someone driving kills or seriously injures a vulnerable road user, existing negligent driving fees are doubled, and the extra fees will go to a special account dedicated to educating the public, law enforcement or prosecutors about the vulnerable user law. Since the state passed the vulnerable user law in 2012, it has not been used as often as it should. And awareness of the law and how it works has been identified as one of the major reasons.

Second degree negligent driving is a very interesting and forward-thinking infraction because it provides significant penalties for killing or seriously injuring someone, even if the person responsible didn’t mean to do it or otherwise engage in criminal negligence (like DUI). Far too often, people are killed due to a simple traffic error, like failing to to yield at a crosswalk or illegal lane change. And too often, the excuse is that the person driving didn’t see the person they struck. In many cases before the vulnerable user law, people would walk (or drive) away from seriously injuring or killing a person with as little as $42 in fines. Such a small penalty for such a large loss just is not right.

But the law stops short of criminalizing bad driving. Because filling prisons with people who weren’t paying enough attention while driving also doesn’t make a ton of sense. Instead, the law prescribes a set of penalties that are more restorative, including suspensions to the driver’s license (up to 90 days), road safety courses, relevant community service and significant fees (up to $5,000). Judges have some discretion over the penalties, though the new fees cannot be waived unless the offender is deemed indigent.

Obviously, no penalty can ever make up for a lifelong injury or death. And none of these law changes include major increases in funding for building safe streets across our state to prevent traffic collisions. In fact, many of them are common sense laws for how people should get around on our substandard, lacking roadways, like those without safe spaces for biking and walking. But they are steps in the right direction, and could set examples for other states to emulate.

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25 Responses to Starting Jan 1, drivers must change lanes when passing people biking or slow down and give 3 feet + More

  1. ChefJoe says:

    Also, the law told bicyclists to help motorists pass by moving to the right. Section 10 item 4

    – (4) When the operator of a bicycle is using the travel lane of a roadway with only one lane for traffic moving in the direction of travel and it is wide enough for a bicyclist and a vehicle to travel safely side-by-side within it, the bicycle operator shall operate far enough to the right to facilitate the movement of an overtaking vehicle unless other conditions make it unsafe to do so or unless the bicyclist is preparing to make a turning movement or while making a turning movement.

    • ChefJoe says:

      It’s also “where practicable of at least 3 ft” but maintains the requirement to clearly avoid contact. Practicable is about as mandated as “as is safe” for riding to the right.

      (II) Pass at a safe distance, where practicable of at least three feet, to clearly avoid coming into contact with the individual or the individual’s vehicle or animal; or

      • markinthedark says:

        I consider the curb and storm drains to my right to be unsafe. I need some buffer on that side too. I’m usually taking 3′ to my right as well as well as expecting the 3′ on my left.

  2. Kathy says:

    When stopped at a red light through which I will be biking straight or turning left I move to the far left of the lane if there is enough room for cars to pass on the right to turn right on the red light. I don’t know how this relates to the new law, but I find drivers appreciate the courtesy and in some cases it might mitigate negative or even angry reactions from people driving. After clearing the intersection I move back to the right.

  3. Dave says:

    Bikes should definitely not block people from turning right on a red light unless it is impossible to move out of the way we have enough problems with drivers without bike riders providing plausible excuses for bad driver attitudes

    • Al Dimond says:

      Dunno if “impossible” is the right threshold. It’s often possible to get out of the way by getting closer to traffic to the left than would be comfortable when we start moving, or by standing in the middle of a crosswalk. You do see people on bikes doing those things, they’re possible, but I don’t think they’re good things to do.

      I also usually don’t waddle to change position once I’m already stopped. Because it’s annoying (especially if I’m carrying stuff), because I might bang my shin on a pedal, just because it’s undignified.

    • Gail Welch says:

      I have a problem with a biker running a red light and going straight when they could be hit by a car turning right. I see this happening quite a bit. The bikers go so fast and pass on the right where a driver of a car might not see them and can open the door or want to turn right and not see the biker. Bikers have to slow down when passing cars on right. That’s all I am trying to say.

  4. Stu says:

    With all traffic rules and laws, enforcement is the issue. I see patrols overlooking the worst of infractions, in particular red light runners. The idea that any of the many scofflaw drivers will even be aware of these important new laws is not realistic. What is needed would be a forum where we can sit down with the enforcement officials to come to an agreement on how to make enforcement more comprehensive. As it is now the fear of consequences by scofflaw drivers is non-existent.

  5. Peri Hartman says:

    Yep, as Stu says, enforcement is the issue. Also awareness. But awareness isn’t going to change the small percentage of bike haters. Only enforcement can help, there.

    Currently, it seems we have very little enforcement of traffic laws. It is considered acceptable to drive 10 MPH over the speed limit and that flagrance carries over to other laws: the laws are just suggestions. If we expect people to change behavior, we need our traffic cops to be fair, but uncompromising.

    • G says:

      Yes, like the new lower speed limits, given the complete lack of enforcement on Seattle’s streets, I can’t see this law making any difference in safety for cyclists. But it’s a nice gesture, I guess.

      Perhaps it could make a different after a collision – in terms of civil suits?

  6. William says:

    ‪Where did 3 ft come from? At all quite slow speeds, that’s too close. In the UK it’s 5 ft (1.5 m) which I think is a lot safer‬

  7. DOUG. says:

    What does this mean for lane-splitting? I was once yelled at by a cop for riding between cars stopped in traffic. I told her that what I was doing was legal—if faster cars can pass me in the lane, then I (as a faster cyclist) can pass them. So does this new law mean that I cannot ride between cars stopped (or slowed) in traffic?

  8. Mark Fei says:

    As far as I can tell, it’s still legal for bicyclists to ride on Seattle sidewalks, which is crazy–at least on those roads where we have made a substantial investment in dedicated bike lanes. We live in Belltown on 2nd Ave with a beautiful dedicated bike lane and we still regularly see idiots on the sidewalks on both sides of the street. Unfortunately, this is not a question of enforcement as such behavior is still legal.

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  10. Inanna says:

    Will bicyclists also be ticketed for failure to come to a complete stop at all stop signs and traffic lights? Or cited for failure to yield to pedestrians? Will they be required to have insurance for when their actions cause damage to people or property?

    Bicycles are a great mode of transportation…. And riders need to be held to the same standards as others who use the roads and sidewalks.

    • Ballard Biker says:

      Bicycles are a great mode of transportation…. And riders need to be held to the same standards as others who use the roads and sidewalks.

      Lucky for cyclists then that cars are held to no standard when it comes to traffic laws?

    • markinthedark says:

      Washington feels close enough to Idaho. I like their rules. Keeps bikes and cars away from each other at signal intersections.

  11. Michael O Stacie says:

    All these laws, and daily I see bicycles running stop signs, Red Lights, and crosswalks while I’m in them. Big violation of the laws, yet we add more to protect them. There is no enforcement period. If I blow through any of those in my car I get pulled over. A biker almost hitting me and my child apparently doesn’t count. When I say something to a biker that almost hit me in a cross walk I get a big old middle finger and a F U. I say we need to make bikers accountable as cars, they should have a license plate and have to pass a test to get their license, and then the authorities need to enforce the laws. And FYI, I like the law changes, but, there are more important things to focus on.

  12. Elayne Wylie says:

    How do existing motorists get informed about these laws, with the expectation that they’ll read them and observe them? Is there a provision in RCW or WAC to require driver license renewals to include law updates?

  13. Ana says:

    SB 5723 should be amended with this.

    You need to be a responsible cyclist that will bike on bike lanes ONLY if available (like 2nd Ave in Seattle downtown). You have to wear visible clothing or aim to be visible like wearing with reflectors at all times and no biking when visibility is low like raining and foggy(there is one in Kent in the center lane wearing a dark clothing that I almost hit) You should have a maximum speed limit while cruising alongside cars. It the main thoroughfares has lots of traffic, considering using alternate roadways.

    Roadway diet is not a good idea. How old is to old to bike. Can you move a big cargo on bike or is there an ambulance on bike or a firetruck. Can you transport a criminal on bike? Roadways are built to efficiently move traffic and goods.

    Roadways should be planned as multimodal and not just for bike alone.

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