DC Judge Upholds Three Foot Law; Case Highlights Need for Contrib Reform

Last week in the District’s small claims court, Judge Michael O’Keefe made a significant ruling for District bicyclists. In the incident at-issue, a driver passed a cyclist too closely, leading to a crash that caused minor injuries and property damage for the cyclist.

  • MPD failed to cite the driver for passing too closely. In fact, MPD initially cited the cyclist.
  • The US Attorney’s office declined to bring any criminal charges against the driver whatsoever.
  • The relevant insurer wrongly declined to pay the cyclist’s damages, citing his contributory negligence for being in the road and failing to move out of the way of the unsafe driver.

After months of work prodding these three entities to do their jobs and coming up empty, the cyclist was left with no recourse but to bring a civil case himself.  Despite knowing that his damages exceeded its $5000 limit, he chose to proceed in the District’s small claims civil court. Pursuing a small claim was actually his only choice, as he was unable to secure an attorney willing to represent him due to the relatively low amount at stake and the prior, incorrect, decisions of MPD and the insurer.

Because the incident was caught on a handlebar-mounted camera, the facts of the incident were minimally disputed, and the court was able to focus squarely on the law. WABA provided expert testimony on the application of DC traffic laws to bicyclists, with topics ranging from the purpose and usage of “sharrows” to the details of the three foot passing law.

Ultimately, based on the video and his reading of the law, Judge O’Keefe ruled in favor of the cyclist. The judge found that the driver had violated the three-foot passing law and that this aggressive pass caused the resulting harms.

When will police start enforcing the three foot passing Law? 

This case showed that the three foot passing law can play a role in helping cyclists secure civil recovery for damages. That is good. But it is not the law’s intended purpose. The law is meant to enable police to ticket motorists who unsafely pass bicyclists. It is meant to impose consequences on unsafe behavior and, ultimately, to make bicyclists safer.

In this case, the cyclist showed the same video of the same behavior to District police officers as he showed to the Superior Court Judge. If it was good enough for the judge, why wasn’t it good enough for the officer? What will it take for local police to actually enforce safe passing laws that now exist in the District, Maryland, and Virginia? And in the District, what will it take for the US Attorney’s office to pursue charges against drivers who illegally harm cyclists?

When will insurers properly apply the law to cyclists? 

Initially, the insurance company denied the cyclist’s claim outright, stating that he was contributorily negligent for failing to move out of the way of the motorist. First, that’s a grossly incorrect understanding of the law. (We can say that with certainty now that Judge O’Keefe has weighed in.) But because of contributory negligence, that misunderstanding is as far as the insurer has to go. If it can find any fault on the cyclist’s part, it doesn’t even have to look at the motorist’s behavior. It just denies the claim, using a misreading of the law as the trigger to apply contributory negligence as a knockout rule.

Last week, Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill in D.C. Council to address this issue. The Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Act of 2015, if passed, would change D.C. law so that the contributory negligence of a bicyclist or pedestrian could not be used to deny coverage so long as he or she was 50% or less responsible for his or her own injuries.

This would mean that contributory negligence would no longer be a “knockout rule.” Insurers might still get the law wrong–though we hope the industry will recognize the need for improvement and offer training on bicycling law–but under the proposed rule, the insurer would still be required to examine the fault of other parties and determine the responsibility of each party.


There is a lot to unpack in this case but it’s clear that many of the systems in place to protect bicyclists are broken. With little recourse, crash victims find themselves fighting, rather than working with, the institutions that are supposed to bring justice.

This case highlights the fact that the small claims court process works, but imperfectly. Winning this case required time, a tenacious cyclist, video evidence, and WABA’s presence in court. The cyclist has been without compensation for the more than six months since the crash  And even after a favorable judgement, the cyclist won’t receive full monetary recovery. The system needs to change, and it can start with the changing fundamental legal expectation that bicyclists must be without error to be compensated for injuries and damage caused by the negligence of a driver.