Motorists in Washington state will be legally obligated to give bicyclists at least 3 feet of clearance when passing in the same lane beginning on Jan. 1.
The law, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in May, passed the legislature this past session. With its enactment, Washington joined the more than 30 states that require motorists to pass bicyclists by 3 feet or more.
The bill — Substitute Senate Bill 5723 — passed the Senate 43-5 and the House 70-26. The bill states:
— on roads with two or more lanes in the same direction, motorists must move completely into the left lane when passing a bicyclist or pedestrian in the right lane;
— on roads with one lane in each direction, the motorist must …. “Reduce speed to a safe speed for passing relative to the speed of the individual”, and “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 (B) When there is insufficient room to the left of the individual in the lane for traffic moving in the direction of travel to comply with … this subsection, before passing and until safely 24 clear of the individual, move completely into the lane for traffic moving in the opposite direction when it is safe to do so …”
Motorists caught violating the law will be fined based on a schedule of monetary penalties for designated traffic infractions. The fines will go into a special fund to increase awareness about the law to law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and judges.
Washington state previously did not have a law that required a specific distance for passing a bicyclist. Previously, motorists were instructed to pass as a “safe distance,” although the state’s Driver’s Manual defined a “safe distance” as 3 feet.
In 1973, Wisconsin became the first state to require that motorists give bicyclists a 3-foot clearance. That’s often considered the minimum for safely passing a bicyclist who may have to swerve to avoid road debris or an opening car door.
The National Conference of State Legislatures in July 2018 reported that 31 states, and the District of Columbia, required a minimum clearance of 3 feet; three of those states also require the motorist to completely change lanes if there is more than one lane travelling in the same direction. In addition, Pennsylvania requires a 4-foot clearance, and South Dakota requires 3-feet when under 35 mph, and 6 feet when more than 35 mph. North Carolina requires a 2-foot clearance.
Furthur, nine states only require that motorists pass as a “safe distance”, and eight states have no laws for passing bicyclists.