RESEARCH - Enforcement of Cycle Passing Distances

1.5m cycle passing gapCycling advocates in BC would like to see our government enact a safe passing distance law so that drivers are aware of how much space they must leave between their vehicle and the cycle as they drive by. Two US cities, Grand Rapids, Michigan and Knowville, Kentucky have such laws and were chosen by NHTSA for a study of how high visibility enforcement of the law influenced passing distances.

Here is the document's abstract:

This study selected Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Knoxville, Tennessee, to implement high-visibility enforcement (HVE) programs to increase compliance with laws requiring drivers to leave a minimum distance when passing bicycles.

In Grand Rapids, a local ordinance required leaving 5 feet, and in Knoxville, the State law and local ordinance required a minimum 3 feet to pass. Police in both cities used the same type of ultrasonic measuring device to determine if drivers passing decoy officers on bicycles were too close.

The ultrasonic measuring device was modified to store data and was used to collect evaluation measures by two groups of data collection riders— “staged riders” who rode repeatedly on routes on which enforcement was focused, and “volunteer riders” who used their bicycles as primary transportation.

Each city developed its own publicity program to increase the visibility of the enforcement. HVE programs continued for approximately 4 months in each city.

Results showed that the average passing distance in both cities during baseline was already well in excess of the prevailing legal requirement, but violations (passes closer than 5 feet in Grand Rapids and closer than 3 feet in Knoxville) were still high (26.0% in Grand Rapids and 5.0% in Knoxville). By the end of the HVE programs, statistically significant increases in average passing distance and significant decreases in violations were achieved in both cities.

Police had no problems using the ultrasonic measuring device to identify violators and chose to issue more warnings than tickets.

Read Evaluating High-Visibility Enforcement of Bicycle Passing Laws

In as much as drivers are expected to give cyclists room as they pass them, what are the rules for cyclists, in terms of moving over nearer the curb where conditions permit?

And how about if they're riding two abreast, when riding single file would give more room to the vast majority of road users (cars, trucks, buses, etc)? 

BikeSense quotes the BC MVA which includes "(c) must, subject to paragraph (a), ride as near as practicable to the right side of the highway,   (d) must not ride abreast of another person operating a cycle on the roadway,"  and gives the following advice "Your position and behaviour on the road can make your movements more predictable to other road users, and may make you more visible.

  • Ride on the right with the flow of traffic, as near to the right side of the road as is safe and reasonable, keeping 1 metre (3 feet) away from curbs. 

  • Stay at least 1 metre away from parked cars; watch for opening doors, people emerging from between parked cars, and cars leaving parking spots.

  • Maintain a straight line and avoid weaving in and out between parked cars; motor vehicle operators may not see you, and you could be 'squeezed' when merging back into traffic.

  • Do not cycle in right-turn or left-turn lanes if you intend to continue straight through, unless indicated by road markings or signs. Cycling in the middle of a travel lane, or 'taking the lane', may make you more visible and prevent close passing by motor vehicles. Drivers are less likely to notice people on bikes or make space where traffic volumes and traffic speeds are high, and where there is traffic in the opposite direction.

    Consider taking the lane in the following situations:

    • Where traffic is low and motor vehicles speeds are slow (eg. neighbourhood bikeways)

    • Where the travel lane is too narrow for motor vehicles to pass without providing passing distance of at least 1 metre

    • When overtaking and passing another road user

    • When travelling at the same speed as other traffic

    • To stay out of the door zone of parked cars

    • To avoid road surface hazards

    • When preparing for a left turn 

    • When waiting at a red light"


The issue with the BC MVA and the way it expects cyclists to "stay out of the way" is that this encourages unsafe passing from drivers. Many drivers consider that it should ALWAYS be possible and legal to squeeze past cyclists. This reaches its most absurd when drivers say things like: "Cyclists should stay on the edge of the road, especially if the road is narrow". No. When the road is narrow, the cyclist should position themselves for safety, and if this means occupying the kane to prevent an unsafe pass, then that's what they should do. The BC MVA is basically silent on this, and is written with the sole intention of reducing the irritation to drivers that other road users may cause. The safety of other road users s very far down the list of priorities.

It would be interesting to see what distance cyclists leave when they are passing cars. Should not cyclists leave the same distance?