header image

Three foot rule

Posted by: Alan Fedoruk | May 22, 2010 | No Comment |


A private member’s bill has been introduced into the Ontario Legislature that would require motorists to leave three feet between their car and a cyclist, five feet if the speeds are over 50 kph. There are a number of stories on the web about this, complete with a plethora of comments.

I was thinking about it while riding to work, and when I got I in, I looked up some numbers and found that:

  • the width of a cyclist, elbow to elbow, is 0.75 m (I measured myself, I am not a huge guy so a larger number may be more appropriate);
  • a Hummer is a large vehicle and is 2.2 m wide;
  • a smart fortwo is a small vehicle and is 1.5 m wide;
  • lanes around these parts range from 3.5-3.7 m.


So, if I am riding the recommended 1 m from the curb or the line parked cars, and I take up 0.75 m, and a car must stay 1 m or more from me, the space I occupy on the lane will be 2.75 m wide. Add the motor vehicle to that and the space occupied is between 4.25 m, for the smart fortwo, 4.95 m for the Hummer. For a vehicle going 50 kph or more, the space required expands by 0.5 m to be between 4.75 m and 5.45 m respectively.

This means that a driver overtaking a cyclist, even driving the smallest of vehicles, in the widest of lanes, can never pass a cyclist without going into the adjacent lane.

What would this look like? In a 3.7  m wide lane, with me riding 1 m from the curb, a smart fortwo would be 1/3 in the adjacent lane and a Hummer would be half in the adjacent lane. Visualizing this, I think it would mean that overtaking vehicles would have their right tire in the left hand wheel rut of the cyclist’s lane.

I like this very much because it simply says, you can’t squeeze past a cyclist. If you don’t move at least partly into the adjacent lane, you are too close.

I like the idea of a law like this, but of course it raises some questions.

  • Why do we need this? Don’t we already have a law that says you must overtake other vehicles safely? We do, but it does not seem to work. There are multiple reasons: I think that most drivers have no idea how unsafe it is to pass a cyclist with inches to spare (see April 16) ; many drivers are not aware of how much space their vehicle is occupying, this is made worse by the cyclist being on the passenger side (harder to judge); and to many drivers, a cyclist is just an object to go around, not a person.
  • Can motorists accurately judge if they are one meter from a cyclist? Looking around in any parking lot, you would have to answer no. I assume that most people are not out to kill me, but they still often pass with less than three feet, I would again answer no.
  • Is one meter enough? In my opinion no. How much room to leave depends entirely on the situation. Sometimes, winter for example, a whole lane is needed for safety. Three feet is still very close when you are talking about thousands of kilos of metal and plastic moving at 80 or 90 kph.
  • Does the reverse hold as well? That is, do cyclists have to stay more than one meter from cars? This would eliminate most ‘filtering’ or ‘lane splitting’, a contentious issue between motorists and cyclists and even between cyclists. I don’t ‘filter’, I wait in line with the cars because the extra bit of time saved is not offset by the risk to my safety. Filtering also creates ‘bad-will’ with drivers: they just went to the trouble of passing you and now you are making them do it again. Most of the time when I wait in line and another cyclist filters up, I end up catching up to them, so I am not losing any time.
  • A three foot law has been implemented in a number of places in the US, has it lowered motor vehicle-cyclist accident rates? There does not seem to be any information that it has.
  • Wouldn’t a ‘three foot law’ slow down traffic and cause more accidents? I doubt it. The common argument is that a three foot law would ‘force’ drivers into opposing traffic and cause accidents. The problem with this argument is tied to the issue of cyclists being treated as obstacles rather than people that I raised in ‘Them’. You (drivers) are not forced to pass a cyclist the moment you get behind one! You can wait until the adjacent or opposing lane is clear!  Really! Nothing will happen to you or your car if you feather the accelerator for 20 seconds until the coast is clear for you move out of the lane. Remember, it is a speed limit, not a speed requirement.
  • Wouldn’t this bring already slow traffic to a stand-still? I doubt it. Most cyclists don’t like to ride on busy roads so main arterial roads would not be much effected. For example, I mainly ride on secondary roads or roads that have two lanes in the direction I am traveling. If I am using the right hand lane, the left lane is still available for drivers to use. The thing is that many drivers don’t realize is that cyclists are moving, usually at between 20 and 30 kph. So even if you are behind a cyclist, you are not stopped, just going a little slower. I would be very surprised if I have ever actually managed to delay a driver for a full minute. At 20 kph I can cover 5.5 m times 60 seconds = 330 m or about 3-4 blocks in one minute. I have never had a driver ‘trapped’ behind me for 3-4 blocks.
  • Wouldn’t this encourage the people who are now giving more than three feet, to give less? I doubt it. Those people are not the ones the law is aimed at.

I think talking about such a law would help to promote a dialogue and further safety and understanding between road users. If it does go into law, a strong education campaign will also be needed. Drivers need a rule of thumb like the one I gave above: If you aren’t in the other lane you are too close. Drivers need to know what to do around cyclists all of the time, not just when overtaking. Currently many do not as driver education does not include much about cyclists. Cyclists need to know how to ride in traffic. Kids are taught children’s rules, like ‘box turns’ but teenagers need to learn vehicular cycling techniques (lane control, staying visible, being part of traffic).  There is far too much sidewalk and inferiority riding going on out there.

If such a law was put in place, in Ontario, or here in Alberta, it should also apply to cyclists on MUPs. That is, a cylclist must always remain at least one meter from pedestrians, roller-bladers, and other cyclists on the multi-use pathways. This would mean no passing in the same lane, just like it does for drivers. It would also mean that cyclists would sometimes have to slow down, and wait a few seconds before they pass.

under: Cycling

Leave a response -

Your response:

Categories