About 45 years ago, Wisconsin became the first state to pass a “three feet passing law” for the safety of cyclists. Eventually many other states followed. Now, 36 states have enacted some version of a law mandating a safety cushion for motorists passing cyclists.
In 2006, Florida passed its own three feet law. The law requires motorists to pass cyclists by giving them at least three feet between the vehicle and the bicycle and rider.
How can the motorist pass legally when the travel lane is the standard 12 feet width or less? Is there room for a motorist to stay in the same lane as the cyclist, and yet pass with 3 feet? The answer is "no". The motorist will be closer than the mandatory 3 feet to the cyclist. One option for passing is for the motorist to pass by changing lanes.
What if there is "no passing" markings on the road? May the motorist cross the double yellow line (no passing zone) and pass the cyclist while in the oncoming lane? A motorist passing a cyclist by crossing the double yellow line is depicted below. In practice, most motorists cross a double yellow line to pass a cyclist – rather than stay behind the cyclist for a long period of time at the slower speed.
Does Florida law allow the motorist to pass as shown above? Florida Statute 316.0875 says that motorists may cross the double yellow line when “an obstruction exists making it necessary”. The problem for both motorists and cyclists is that this statute does not define the term, “obstruction”.
Is a cyclist classified as an obstruction? How about a stopped trash truck? How about garbage cans? How about runners? Is the speed important? Is a stopped trash truck an 'obstruction' because it is not moving? Most people would agree that it is. What about a cyclist traveling 15 mph? Or 5 mph? Is that slow enough? Unfortunately, the definition of "obstruction" is left to the police officer in deciding whether to write a traffic citation and for the traffic court judge to determine if a violation occurred.
To make it crystal clear that motorists may pass cyclists by crossing a double yellow line, Florida should pass a law similar to a Kentucky law which went into effect on July 14, 2018. Kentucky’s law states:
The driver of a motor vehicle may drive to the left of the center of a roadway, including when a no-passing zone is marked…to pass a person operating a bicycle only if the roadway to the left of the center is unobstructed for a sufficient distance to permit the driver to pass the person operating the bicycle safely and avoid interference with oncoming traffic. This paragraph does not authorize driving on the left side of the center of the roadway when otherwise prohibited under state law.
Such a law would be helpful to inform motorists, cyclists and law enforcement that passing a cyclist by using the oncoming lane is legal and safe. The law would remove the ambiguity of defining a cyclist as an “obstruction”. The law would codify how road users generally behave. The law would dignify bicyclists as legitimate road users and not as “obstructions” to motor vehicle travel.