According to a 2009 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), approximately 2.2% of the total traffic fatalities in New Jersey were suffered by bicyclists. This statistic exceeds the national average of 1.9% and places New Jersey in the bottom quarter for bicycle safety.  As a result cyclists in New Jersey and advocacy groups have previously called for the imposition of a 3-foot minimum clearance rule, which would obligate motorists to leave a 3 foot gap between themselves and a bicyclist when attempting to pass.  In May 2009 a bill was introduced in the NJ the State Assembly which would have implemented this important safety measure but, unfortunately, the law was not passed.  To my knowledge the issue has never been revisited.  Isn’t it high time that changed?

The concept of a minimum clearance rule is not new.  As of April 2012 twenty-one (21) states had enacted such laws requiring at least a 3 foot gap, including: Nebraska, Pennsylvania (4 foot gap required), Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin

Amongst the most liberal of these provisions is the 4 foot clearance required by law in Pennsylvania.  The law’s importance was succinctly explained by the York Daily Record’s report on the bill, which stated:

“The intent of the new law is pretty clear. Recognize bicyclists as part of the transportation

mix and follow some basic rules of the road to ensure the safety for all.”

Another thoughtful example of this type of legislation is New Hampshire’s law, which mandates that motorists leave a “reasonable and prudent” gap when passing a cyclist, and states that the gap shall be “deemed to be reasonable and prudent if it is at least 3 feet when the vehicle is traveling at 30 mph or less, with one additional foot of clearance for every 10 mph above 30 mph.”  Wisconsin has a similar provision in its law, requiring additional clearance when passing at higher speeds.  Wisconsin’s law is also noteworthy, in that it has been on the books since 1973!

One of the chief criticisms to 3-foot clearance laws concerns the difficulty with enforcement; many just can’t imagine police “hanging around waiting for someone to pass too closely to a bicyclist”.   However it’s unlikely that officers would “hang around” looking for violations.  Like other traffic laws, if an officer happens to see a violation, they would be empowered to enforce it, thereby promoting safety.  And the existence of the law and the prospect for enforcement through citation or civil liability for its violation would help promote safety for cyclists.

How so?  Take a look at some of the enforcement/penalty provisions which our sister states have built into their 3 foot laws:

Arizona:  This state’s law provides that: “When overtaking and passing a bicycle proceeding in the same direction, a person driving a motor vehicle shall exercise due care by leaving a safe distance between the motor vehicle and the bicycle of not less than three feet …” The law sets fines if a violation results in injury or death.

Arkansas: This state’s law provides that a motorist must “… pass to the left at a safe distance of not less 3 feet…” The law sets fines if a violation results in injury or death.

Colorado:  This state’s law requires motorists to give bicycles at least 3 feet or be subject to a $110 fine. Further, the law provides that anyone who throws an object at bicyclist may be charged with class 2 misdemeanor, exposing them to a fine of $250 – $1,000 fine and the prospect of a prison term of 3 – 12 months.

An excellent report outlining the legislative experience which many of the states listed above have had with this law, expert commentary, and evidence of the importance of such laws was prepared by the New Jersey Bicycle and Pedestrian Resource Center at Rutgers University and was submitted NJ DOT back in 2009.

To view the report, click here.