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Washington’s proposed safe passing law; and how it differs from ours

Posted by on January 7th, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Bike lane in action

This year, Washington State lawmakers will consider a new safe passing law. The bill, House Bill 1018 (PDF), is just one part of what’s been dubbed as the “Mutual Responsibility Bill.” It appears to have support from both sides of the aisle (in total, eight democrats and three republicans support it) and seems to stand a better chance of passage than a similar attempt in 2008.

What’s in Washington’s bill, and how does it compare with Oregon’s existing safe passing law?

According to Bicycle Alliance of Washington Policy Director Dave Janis, bipartisan — and bi-modal — support for HB 1018 is key. “In previous attempts [for a safe passing law], we kept hearing ‘what are cyclists’ responsibilities in passing’,” Janis said in a phone interview earlier this week. The failure to address the duties of a person riding a bicycle in a passing situation, he added, created insurmountable concerns among legislatures and law enforcement with the 2008 bill.

How many feet is “safe”?

In the current bill, the mutual responsibility of road users on both sides of the windshield were incorporated to create a more “comprehensive bill,” that should be widely supported, said Janis.

Although the bill is subject to amendments, its current form is indeed comprehensive.

To highlight a few key aspects of the bill, it:

  • Defines a safe passing distance of bicycles by motorists as “three feet lateral separation between the closest part of the motor vehicle and the closest part of the bicycle or pedestrian,” when a motor vehicle is traveling less than 35 m.p.h. and five feet at greater speeds.
  • Mandates “every driver of a motor vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any bicyclist.”
  • Specifies that cyclists traveling on a roadway slower than the “legal and normal flow” of traffic must ride as far right as “judged reasonably safe by the bicyclist.”
  • Specifies that a cyclist traveling slower than the “legal and normal flow” ride in the paved shoulder, or designated bike lane when traffic is present and “such use is reasonably judged safe by the bicyclist.”
  • Provides a partial list of unsafe conditions that may require a cyclist to ride in lane positions other than the far right. The list includes road hazards, the potential to be doored and being passed at “less than a safe distance.”
  • Requires that bicyclists yield to pedestrians when riding on sidewalks, crosswalks, multi-use trail or trails but, does not relieve a pedestrian of the “of the obligation to exercise due care.”

Washington’s bill differs greatly from Oregon’s law, ORS 811.065, in several significant ways.

Although the Oregon code defines ‘safe distance’ as a distance “sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the driver’s lane of traffic,” it exempts a majority of day-to-day passing scenarios.

In contrast to the very concept of safe passing, the Oregon code allows for a driver going 20, 30 and even 35 mph to pass within inches of someone riding a bicycle. It also keeps it legal for semi-trucks, with large and dangerous side mirrors, to whizz by at any rate of speed, so long as the person on the bike is in a marked bike lane.

Motor vehicles traveling “[a]t a speed not greater than 35 miles per hour” are exempt from Oregon’s passing requirement. So are motor vehicles driving “[i]n a lane that is separate from and adjacent to a designated bicycle lane.”

So far, relevant statistical data that would back up a need for these myriad exceptions to the law has not been found, which could lead one to believe that they were simply compromises in order to get the bill passed.

Whether Washington’s law survives the legislative sausage-making and leads to truly “safe passing” remains to be seen.

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Comments
  • BURR January 7, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    It’s basically a mandatory bike lane and FRAP law disguised as a safe passing law.

    Safe passing is already required by the vehicle code in every state, this is stealth anti-cyclist legislation.

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    • John Russell (jr98664) January 7, 2011 at 9:43 pm

      My thoughts exactly when I read this:

      “Specifies that a cyclist traveling slower than the ‘legal and normal flow’ ride in the paved shoulder, or designated bike lane when traffic is present and ‘such use is reasonably judged safe by the bicyclist.’”

      As per RCW 46.61.770, use of shoulders and bicycle lanes in Washington state is thankfully completely optional:

      “A person operating a bicycle upon a roadway may use the shoulder of the roadway or any specially designated bicycle lane if such exists.”

      http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=46.61.770

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    • Marcus Griffith January 8, 2011 at 12:48 am

      Burr: I re-read the Oregon laws and the proposed laws and disagree with the mandatory bike lane/far-right-as-possible assertion. Perhaps you could review the laws again and highlight the text that concerns you? Thanks.

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  • BURR January 7, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    [quote]the Oregon code allows for a driver going 20, 30 and even 35 mph to pass within inches of someone riding a bicycle. It also keeps it legal for semi-trucks, with large and dangerous side mirrors, to whizz by at any rate of speed, so long as the person on the bike is in a marked bike lane.[/quote]

    This is patently untrue, ORS 811.005 and ORS 811.065 both require safe passing of cyclists by motorists.

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    • Lazlo January 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm

      ORS 811.005:
      “None of the provisions of the vehicle code relieve a pedestrian from the duty to exercise due care or relieve a driver from the duty to exercise due care concerning pedestrians.”

      This clause makes no mention of bicycles. As for ORS 811.065, it clearly states that the safe passing rule “does not apply to a driver operating a motor vehicle:
      (B) At a speed not greater than 35 miles per hour”

      How is that patently false?

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    • are January 7, 2011 at 5:48 pm

      a more specific statute is often interpreted as superseding a more general statute. safe passing of a cyclist arguably superseding safe passing generally. the oregon statute is in fact lame.

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      • BURR January 7, 2011 at 6:02 pm

        my bad, I was reading quickly…as for lame, isn’ the BTA partly responsible for that?

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        • BURR January 7, 2011 at 7:03 pm

          I thought about this a bit more on my ride home and got to wondering why 811.005 doesn’t also include cyclists, that section is on the duties of motorists to pedestrians and cyclists, after all.

          OTOH, it may be mostly a moot point, since your average motorist doesn’t spend their time studying and understanding the statutes the way some of us do.

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        • are January 7, 2011 at 8:33 pm

          some of what the BTA has accomplished in the state legislature is, yes, lame. getting this statute enacted in this condition is actually worse than nothing, because it makes it that much harder to get a better statute enacted down the road.

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  • BURR January 7, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Cyclists in Washington would be best served by opposing this poorly written legislation.

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  • Allison January 7, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Wow. Oregon’s safe passing law is lame! I’m so pleased I was passed respectfully so much of the time, considering they were under no legal obligation to do so.

    Fully 3/4 of the passings that cause me to respond, “Hey! Watch it!!” would be totally legal under the Oregon law.

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  • Marcus Griffith January 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    I am still doing the nerdy research, but so far a majority of cities have reported that almost all their roads are posted 35 m.p.h or less, which does seem to gut the Oregon law.

    As for the bike lane requirement, it applies to cyclists going SLOWER than the legal limit. Cyclists going road-speed are not required to scoot over. Such a requirement does two things for traffic: first it keeps it legal for road-speed cyclists to stay in a lane; second, it avoids forcing faster cyclists to have to weave around slower traffic in the bike lane.

    Note that the bill, as proposed, makes it the cyclists decision on what is safe of not.

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    • are January 7, 2011 at 5:47 pm

      not the limit, the normal flow

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      • Tacoma January 7, 2011 at 9:43 pm

        The proposed WA law states “…at a rate of speed less than the legal and normal flow of traffic….” I understand this to mean that the “normal flow” of traffic could be at a rate of speed higher than the legal flow and if I am traveling at the legal limit, I am within the law to “take the lane”. The proposed law may need some “wordsmithing”.

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        • BURR January 7, 2011 at 10:20 pm

          how many cyclists actually travel at the posted speed limit? very few I’d venture to guess.

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          • Tacoma January 8, 2011 at 9:19 am

            Oh, I agree that most of the time cyclists travel at a speed lower than the posted speed limit. But that’s not the point. The point is that when a cyclist IS traveling at the posted speed limit (I do it each morning commute) the term “legal” allows them to stay in the lane even if the “normal” flow is above the limit.

            While I find some of the other parts of the bill “problematic”, this part works for me.

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          • spare_wheel January 8, 2011 at 2:52 pm

            Far more than you would think. One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing someone ride 30 mph in a bike lane. This *should* be illegal, IMO.

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        • Andy B from Jersey January 8, 2011 at 4:35 pm

          I think your on to something here and I think this is the actual weak part of this bill, more so than when a cyclist is allowed to move to the left to avoid hazards.
          (Note – I only read the blog post and comments and not the actual bill so I could have missed something important.)

          I too will often hit speeds that meet or exceed the speed limit when on my road bike, particularly when going downhill. Still, here in New Jersey I will sometimes get passed by drivers while in a no passing zone even when exceeding the limit!! This must be illegal but there is another situation where this becomes unclear.

          What happens if you are traveling at 35 mph in a 45 mph zone? It sounds like a bicyclist would be forbidden in Washington from taking the lane in such situations. I find this most distressing as a bicyclist will often need the entire lane at speeds in excess of even 25mph.

          So if that’s the case I agree with BURR in the first post that this could unintentionally be a “Far Right as Possible” (not practicable, there’s a legal difference) law.

          I’ve written in extensive detail about motorist passing bicycles and concerns with the typical “3-foot Passing Law” on my blog WalkBikeJersey. I encourage you to take a look at it here:

          http://walkbikejersey.blogspot.com/2010/10/op-ed-is-3-foot-passing-law-best.html

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    • S January 8, 2011 at 11:06 am

      Great, so the current law favors the young, ultra-buff, super-fit, and (more likely) male cyclist who can achieve 20+ mph on the road. Many of us daily-commuting grunts don’t go much faster than 10 mph (nor really care to, for that matter). These laws contribute little toward making cycling a feasible alternate mode of transit for the general population.

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  • david...no the other one! January 7, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Safe? or not?? according to a police officer inspecting the cold immobile body. Yep, must have not given the motorist enough room.

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    • Tacoma January 7, 2011 at 9:48 pm

      The proposed law states the following: “…and such use is reasonably judged safe by the bicyclist…” but I’m not really sure how to interpret that in real life or how to interpret the word “reasonably”.

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      • wsbob January 8, 2011 at 12:32 am

        “…and such use is …” excerpt from Washington State House Bill 1018

        I think ‘reasonably judged safe by the bicyclist’ is one of the very interesting, and possibly very worthwhile phrases of Washington’s bill. It recognizes and accepts the idea that, as a general rule, cyclist’s electing not to ride FRAP, do so because roadway shoulders and bike lanes are sometimes not in sufficient condition to allow safe passage by bicycles.

        And also, that, as a general rule, cyclist’s electing not to ride FRAP, aren’t doing so out of ignorance, or antagonistic intent to hold up faster traffic.

        I like the phrasing of the top element of the bill:

        “Defines a safe passing distance of bicycles by motorists as “three feet lateral separation between the closest part of the motor vehicle and the closest part of the bicycle or pedestrian,” when a motor vehicle is traveling less than 35 m.p.h. and five feet at greater speeds.

        And the fifth element also:

        ” Provides a partial list of unsafe conditions that may require a cyclist to ride in lane positions other than the far right. The list includes road hazards, the potential to be doored and being passed at “less than a safe distance.” ”

        I think one of the reasons many motor vehicle operator that get upset with the presence of riders of bikes in the main travel lanes, do so because they don’t comprehend, or just don’t know basic reasons they would need to be there. A partial list incorporated in law, might help increase public awareness about what those reasons are.

        The fourth element of the bill seems good too.

        I wonder how the writing of this bill came about. Group written? This seems like it could be a very good basis for a new safe passing law, one that may help motor vehicle and bike road users understand each others road use needs better.

        Oh, by the way…Marcus G…nice job on this article.

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        • Marcus Griffith January 8, 2011 at 12:41 am

          I am starting to receive some interesting statistics about motor-vehicle related bike collisions as well as percent of road ways with “suitable” shoulders for bike riding. In the follow-up article, I will try to present all the nerdy details in a concise format.

          I, too, believe the Washington proposal is highly polished and could set a new standard for safe passing laws.

          PS: Thanks for the compliment, but Maus merits far more kudos for keeping the Bike Portland website up and running.

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  • JAT in Seattle January 7, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    I too have a paranoid fear that when I deem the shoulder or bike lane unsafe (and many of them are) and the cop disagrees I’m going to end up with a ticket.

    Thanks for posting the link to the actual bill.

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  • Melissa D. January 7, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    The 35 miles-per-hour freebie rule was not part of the original bill. Here is what was first proposed in Oregon: http://www.bta4bikes.org/docs/sb0299.intro.pdf

    Other than the freeways and a few state highways, very few roads in Portland (or anywhere else in Oregon) are faster than 35. So no matter how much the BTA wants to brag abouts its “success” in getting the first safe passing bill, the 35 limit issue ruins the bill.

    Not only is our “safe passing” law lame, its pointless. I am glad BAW didn’t fully follow the BTA disappointing lead.

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  • Tourbiker January 7, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    35mph rule was written in cause of lazy Tri-Met drivers

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  • Another Doug January 7, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    While Oregon’s passing laws are confusing and, perhaps, poorly written, they do NOT allow a motor vehicle to pass within inches under any circumstances. ORS 811.410 requires any vehicle overtaking and passing another vehicle to leave a safe distance. ORS 811.065 defines safe distance for vehicles traveling more than 35 mph where there are no bike lanes as the fall over distance. While 811.065 may have limited applicability in urban areas, it does not override the requirements for safe passing under 811.410.

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  • Kane January 7, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    Where is that “Share the Road” sign from? It looks like the cyclist is on the left. I sure hope no US states are advocating that in their signs :(

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  • Melissa D. January 8, 2011 at 12:31 am

    What is a “safe distance”??? Judging by what the police, courts and driving public allow, its just a few inches (hey, they didn’t hit you, did they argument).

    Under Oregon law, a semi-truck, or TriMet bus,can blow right past a cyclists and claim a few inches is a “safe distance” because the fall over distance doesn’t apply to roads with a marked bike lane or with speeds 35 mph or less.

    Hopefully the BAW doesn’t sell out BTA style.

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  • charley January 8, 2011 at 10:27 am

    I think the most important part of the Washington law is the “reasonably judged safe by the bicyclist” part. I always have a good reason for taking the lane (when I take the lane), and the law would respect that. Kudos.

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  • Josh January 8, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    How many police have enough cycling expertise to agree that a majority of causes for taking the lane rather than the shoulder or bike lane are “reasonable” on the part of the cyclist?

    This proposal leaves every cyclist not using a bike lane or shoulder at the mercy of the least-enlightened police officer on the force.

    Considering I’ve had LEOs in Washington State order me to get my bike on the sidewalk, tell me to get off and walk at crosswalks, and insist bicycles were not allowed on routes that are marked bicycle routes, I’m not eager to have “reasonably … safe” replace the current legal standard of “safe”.

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  • Johnnie Olivan January 8, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Would this allow cyclists to document passing cars and crackdown on reckless passers(using video)? It isn’t a war against cars, but only a scary scenerio when a car passes as 35 on williams and all you can say is “i’m on bikeportland.org because somebody couldn’t slow down and pass me safely.” I want Three Feet of head space.

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  • Marcus Griffith January 8, 2011 at 4:59 pm

    J,O.: Good question. Law enforcement agencies have in the past used witness statements and videos to issue traffic violations against drivers; but, it isn’t the normal pattern. A question yet to be fully answered is what would the fine for a safe passing violation be set at?

    Under current Washington laws, a violation of the rules of the road for non-motorized vehicles (RCW 46.61.750 to RCW 46.61.780) is a “traffic infraction” subject to the court payment schedule set by Washington State Court Rule IRLJ 6.2.

    That schedule sets “Any infraction regarding bicycles” at $32. It also sets violations not itemized on the list at $42.

    Unless law makers set an dollar amount, the courts will likely create a court rule to set a standard amount.

    The links for those that want them:
    Violations above RCW’s are traffic infractionshttp://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=46.61.750

    Fine amounts for infractions:
    http://www.courts.wa.gov/court_rules/pdf/CLJIRLJ6.2.pdf

    A list of all limited jurisdiction court rules:
    http://www.courts.wa.gov/court_rules/?fa=court_rules.list&group=clj&set=IRLJ

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  • Marcus Griffith January 8, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    PS: The normal process is for an officer to witness the infraction directly. As for the fine amount, forty bucks may seem low for unsafe passing, but negligent driving in the second degree only carries a $250 fine.

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  • Marilla January 9, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Do safe passing laws effect the determination of fault for insurance, liability reasons?

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  • bbbbb January 10, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    They also allow a motorist to honk at bicyclist if they think they are going to hit you.

    And if they want bicycles to use their judgement, then why can’t they pass a Idaho stop law?

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    • Marcus Griffith January 10, 2011 at 9:37 pm

      What is wrong with requiring motorist to give warning during an “imminent or likely collision”?

      Neither current law nor the proposed bill allows for road rage honking at cyclists or anyone else.

      In fact, HB 1018 doesn’t add an obligation to a driver so much as it clarifies an existing law, RCW 46.37.380 which states: “The driver of a motor vehicle shall when reasonably necessary to insure safe operation give audible warning with his or her horn but shall not otherwise use such horn when upon a highway.”

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      • Alan January 11, 2011 at 12:14 am

        Given the excessive use of horns towards bikes already (based on my own experience and anecdotes from others) that section strikes me as not only redundant to existing law (and excessive and redundant legislation is a problem of its own) but encouraging of that sort of bad behavior.

        Also, it says “sounding the horn or an appropriate verbal warning.” I have a hard time imagining what sort of “verbal warning” from inside a car would help avoid a collision. I can well imagine hostile shouts from an open window after threat of collision was past, but not of any use in avoiding a collision. Again, it’s not something I’d like the law to encourage.

        Seems to me that this law, if it addresses horns at all, should specify that horns must be used ONLY for avoiding an imminent collision. As many drivers apparently see simply riding on two wheels as a “likely collision,” the wording as it stands gives them free rein to toot at every bike they see.

        How many bike/car collisions would be avoided by honking? My guess is not many, and quite possibly fewer than bike-only crashes caused by excessive horn use, but does someone have real data?

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        • Tacoma January 11, 2011 at 11:11 am

          Alan says: “As many drivers apparently see simply riding on two wheels as a ‘likely collision’, the wording as it stands gives them free rein to toot at every bike they see.”

          This is exactly my belief and expectation from the wording. “Bike on the road. I better sound my horn to make sure that a collision doesn’t occur.” And if RCW 46.37.380 already exists, why does it need to be “clarified” in the current bill? Redundant!

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          • Alan January 11, 2011 at 12:45 pm

            “Bike on the road. I better sound my horn to make sure that a collision doesn’t occur.”

            Exactly. And then, when they right-hook the rider in the bike lane they say, “well I sounded my horn like the law says, so it must not be my fault.”

            Clarify RCW 46.37.380 (the existing horn law) if needed but don’t put extraneous and possibly confusing sections into the safe passing bill.

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