Feb 162013

The Maryland legislature is considering House Bill 445 which would strengthen the flawed “three foot” law enacted last year in 2010.  The flaws in the existing law make it important that the law be fixed.  Briefly, here are the main problems:

  1. Drivers often won’t know if they have to give three feet or not.  The three foot law doesn’t apply if the cyclist isn’t where he’s supposed to be in the roadway (in the bike lane, to the right, wherever).  But the rules governing where cyclists are supposed to be within the roadway are complicated, dependent on conditions, and not fully understood by anyone except bike advocates (if even them).  How are drivers to know what they’re not allowed to do?  In fact a driver should never pass dangerously close to any cyclist if at all possible, not be granted an exception for unlawful cyclist behavior.
  2. The law could be construed (by some) to mean drivers have to give three feet unless it would require crossing the center line, and then they don’t have to.  On roads without room to pass with 3 feet clearance, this essentially this means the driver has to provide three feet unless he wants to pass — which is of course meaningless. (I believe you’re still not allowed to actually hit the cyclist).

There is a third exception to the three foot rule – when the cyclist is failing to ride in a steady course.  That’s okay in theory but the language needs to be more precise.  An exception for erratically weaving cyclists is reasonable. But cyclists who are “taking the lane” may legally shift position within the lane (say to avoid a pothole), so for that case there should be no exception to the 3′ law.

So clearly a fix is needed.  The new bill introduced by delegates Jon Cardin, Luke Clippinger, and Maggie “Make ’em Wear Helmets” McIntosh would do this:

  1. Add “safe distance” (without specifics) as a precondition for passing of any vehicle (not just bikes).
  2. Remove the exception to the three foot rule for when the road is too narrow to pass with 3 feet of clearance.

The bill unfortunately would not change the law to allow drivers to cross the center line (when safe to do so) if needed to pass a cyclist safely. Drivers pass cyclists that way every day (on Beach Drive in Rock Creek Park for example).  Maybe that could be added to the bill before the end.  The General Assembly website has more information about the bill and its status.

I hope and pray this bill was not secured as a sort of package deal with the Bikeshare-killing bill that requires adult cyclists to wear helmets all the time. That’s a devil’s bargain.  The flawed three foot law is a problem.  But a mandatory helmet law would be disastrous, and quite likely could never be repealed.

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