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Legalize Changing Lanes to Pass a Bike in No Passing Zones

An Opportunity to Help Motorists and Cyclists: A “Change-Lanes-and-Pass” Rule

My neighborhood has many polite drivers who wait behind me as I ride on two-lane MD-953, which has double yellow (no passing) lines the whole way. I am usually in the center of the 10-ft lane, pulling a trailer with my daughter.  Even when I don’t have the trailer, 95% of the drivers wait until the oncoming lane is clear, change lanes, and pass.  And when I am riding toward the right side of the lane for some reason, the vast majority still change lanes to pass.

Countless drivers have probably done you the same favor on another road. But they are technically breaking the law.

We think Maryland should legalize changing lanes to pass a bike riding in a no-passing zone. Not only are these drivers being safe, they actually enhance safety.

Why would cycling organizations initiate a reform that increases motorists’ rights? Aside from the fact that it probably will make us safer, cyclists probably understand this issue better than motorists. Cyclists have discussed many “rules of the road” that make sense for motor vehicles, but do not enhance safety when applied to bicycles. We would love to see those laws reformed. In some cases we may lack the political power to compel the changes we hope to see. But we probably do have the power to secure the right to change lanes and pass a bike when there is a double yellow line. So I think we should.

But Let’s Not Go Too Far: The “Partly-Cross-the-Line and Pass” Rule

By coincidence, some other Maryland advocates are considering a similar reform, but they would go even farther. Their idea is to allow drivers to cross the double yellow line to pass bikes, without the requirement to fully change lanes. This “partly-cross-the-line and pass” rule seems to be motivated by the observation that some cyclists ride far enough to the right so that a car barely has enough room to squeeze between the bike and the yellow line, and some drivers do. This rule would allow motorists to move only partly into the adjacent lane to pass the cyclist by the required three feet.

We prefer the requirement that the motorist fully change lanes. Motorists frequently report difficulty in gauging the three feet of space they are required to leave when passing, so why not apply the normal requirement that motorists change lanes? It is an existing behavior with clear rules and expectations. There is no need to encourage drivers to pass while occupying parts of two lanes.

Additionally, the requirement to change lanes before passing would discourage the idea of “squeezing” around others—whether the cyclist or a potential oncoming motorist. Finally, the State of Maryland will soon start erecting signs that say “Bicycles May Use Full Lane”. We think that “change lanes and pass” better reinforces the message of those signs, than partly crossing the line and sharing the lane.

Over the next few weeks, advocates in Maryland will be deciding which approach to take. While WABA took a major role last year in the promotion and passage of the Maryland vehicular homicide law, this year WABA intends to play a supporting role to Bike Maryland, which frequently leads statewide efforts to enhance cyclists’ rights through state legislation.

(Jim Titus is a member of WABA’s Board of Directors from Prince George’s County)


So WABA doesn't support a 3 foot passing law? It wants a 10 foot+ passing law? A 14 foot lane would enable a car (typically less than 8 feet wide to pass 3 feet away from a cyclist riding 3 feet off the fog line within the single travel lane. No need to cross a double yellow, or even change lanes. But a 13 foot lane would require the driver (say who is dead middle of the 13 foot lane) to fully cross the double yellow line under the suggested change - moving move than 10 feet to the left passing that same cyclist with 10 feet or more of clearance and then move back? This versus asking the driver to move slighly over the double yellow (about 3 1/2 feet to the left) and come back after safely passing the cyclist with 3 feet of clearance - which WABA said was perfectly safe last year? The 3 foot law as written is crap - cause today in a 12 foot lane the 8 foot car is legally allowed to pass that same cyclist with 1 foot of clearance since they can't legally cross the double yellow - and in a narrower 11 or 10 foot lane (with a double yellow) the way the law is writtne as long as the driver doesn't cause the cyclist harm, they could pass inches away. Now if the cyclist was taking the lane - legally with or without the plaecment of a sign and positioning himself (and his daughter 3 feet behind) in the middle of the 10 foot lane - at approx 5 - 6 feet from the fog line - the driver would in fact have to be almost fully over the double yellow to create 3 feet between the trailer and the vehicle - the tires definitely would be all the way over. Not necssarily unreasonable on a 30 mph road with decent sightlines Now if the bike was all the way to the left - under a 3 foot law, the car would not be legally able to pass as there would be no way to create 3 foot of lateral separation - but under a double yellow crossing, the car would be able to pass with less than 3 feet. We have a lousy law as it is. Asking legislators who refused a straight 3 foot law to require a 10 foot passing zone would be nice, but unlikely ever to get out of subcommittee, especially if the advocates who state that this is there desire are not willing to lead the effort.

Geof Gee
Geof Gee

Excellent post Jim. In principle, there is little problem with the passing vehicle straddling the center line if they pass safely. But some drivers will err in the direction of too little space or attempt a pass in an unwise situation and the cyclist suffers the worst. It would seem that we would want to bias the law in the opposite direction of the externality. To some extent, this reminds me of a problem with a three foot law. Under certain circumstances, three feet is not particularly safe. Although legislation already exists that requires safe passing -- generally speaking, I don't know the "ins and outs" of Maryland law -- the minimum three foot law at least gives law enforcement and citizens something more concrete to focus on rather than the term "safe" which people tend to abuse for their own interests. Similarly, stating that the passing driver needs to completely go in the adjacent lane satisfies this idea. BTW, I'm guessing that the legislation will include something about driving a vehicle that can't legally pass in the same lane. I'd think that other bicycles and motorcycles could probably pass with a satisfactory amount of clearance without crossing the center line. So the legislation should say something along the lines of, if you have to cross the center line to pass safely, then you should completely cross the center line.

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