PALM Day Three: Safe Passing Distance Legislation

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Today we rode from Grandville to Lake Odessa along miles of busy highway, often without a bike lane or paved shoulder. Bike wheels dance in cadence along the white line behind me and in front–an endless disconnected parade of riders in neon yellows, greens and oranges.

Again and again the shout comes up the line, relayed from one cyclist to the next: “Car back! Car back!”You can see the message as it moves ahead like the ripple of a sound wave, as riders heed the warning and press even closer to that treacherous edge where asphalt meets loose gravel.

Some cars wait patiently for the lane to clear before making their move to pass. Some swing wide, sometimes even into the oncoming lane. Others blow by without giving an inch, and the wind of their passing hits your body like an invisible fist.

Every driver, it seems, has their own idea of just how much room they need to give to safely pass a cyclist.

Even a standard 3-foot bike lane provides only an illusion of safety, said LMB instructor Al Lauland.

“The problem is that uneducated motorists tend to view that white line as a brick wall and they will literally pass you even closer than they would on an unmarked road,” said Lauland. “Their attitude is they are in their lane where they’re supposed to be, even if that means they are just inches from your handlebar.”

And that’s exactly why Michigan’s roads can’t be truly bike friendly without a Safe Passing Distance law, says the League of Michigan Bicylists.

Give us 5: Enact a 5-Foot Safe Passing Law

According to the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning1, 1,895 bicyclists were involved in motor vehicle crashes in 2011 alone. 24 of those crashes were fatal. Police reports indicate that 18 of the 24 killed were “going straight ahead” just prior to crash. Additionally, 79.2% of all crashes (including 10 of the 24 fatal crashes) occurred during daylight hours.

The League of Michigan Bicyclists says “The ambiguous “safe distance” language of Michigan’s current passing law provides little protection to bicyclists, and the lack of an objective standard frustrates bicyclists, motorists, and law enforcement alike. A five-foot passing rule delineates the legal standard for “safe distance,” allows bicyclists room to maneuver and avoid road hazards, and still provides ample room for motorists to pass safely under most conditions. This greatly reduces bicyclist’s risk of injury, eases tension between roadway users, and aids law enforcement.

“Safe passing laws to protect vulnerable roadway users will play an important role in encouraging the next generation of Michigan residents to stay active, which in turn will save lives and billions of taxpayer dollars spent on health care costs. Half the states across the country have adopted safe passing distance laws with defined distances. It’s time for Michigan to do the same.”