Back in June, police in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, Ontario began an awareness-building campaign about the province’s one-metre (3.3 ft) passing law. The police, riding bikes equipped with a sensory gadget that beeped when drivers came closer than one metre, were pulling over offending motorists to inform them that their pass was too close. They weren’t handing out the $110 CAD fines that legally accompany the indiscretion, simply informing the motorists about the law and letting them know that ticketed enforcement will begin soon.
When CBC News Ottawa posted a video of the campaign to social media after the fact, the reaction was predictably, uh, mixed. While over 2,000 of the 1.3 million viewers ‘liked’ the video and offered words of support, many of the presumed “team car” viewers were less-than-impressed or outright shocked by the endeavor.
Most of the confusion stemmed from the fact that, in order to give the cyclist one metre of space, the drivers would have to cross the solid yellow line into oncoming traffic. “Ok so seriously what should the drivers have done?” wrote Jen Jaijiwan Leech. “The cyclist driving next the the parked cars is on the white line. As the cars went around them they were on the yellow line. So would they drive into oncoming traffic? Or drive w bikes speed and every cyclist causes a major traffic jam? I don’t see how anyone could have avoided that ticket.”
Reading through the thread, you’ll find thousands of comments similar to Leech’s. Viewers wrote in with a combination of outrage, bewilderment, typical “cyclists don’t follow the rules or pay for the roads” arguments, accusations of a policing double standard, bizarre allegations that bikes are ruining the economy, even “feeling sick” and “disgusted” by the law.
So in light of all of the confusion, we thought we’d try to clear things up a bit with a handy safe passing how-to guide for motorists everywhere. Alternative title – how to not accidentally kill people with your car, for beginners!
When you’re approaching a person riding a bike, slow down. As you’ll see in the next few steps, passing a person a bike is going to require you to make a few more moves than just continuing on your course, so reduce your speed in order to prepare yourself.
2. Leave 3 feet (one metre) of space between your car and the person biking.
This should not be the case only in jurisdictions where a safe passing law is instituted, this should just be the minimum standard. People riding bikes don’t always ride in a perfectly straight line, especially in cities where they frequently need to swerve in order to avoid potholes, storm drains, cracks, or road debris. Leaving a minimum of 3 feet (one metre) of space between you and the person riding ensures they have room to swerve if need be, even when you’re right alongside them.
3. Signal, change lanes.
Unless there’s a solid shoulder, most roads in North America are not wide enough to safely pass a person on a bike while remaining in your lane. Most motorists’ workaround for this is to simply pass them unsafely. If you can’t leave a person biking a minimum of one metre (3 feet) of space while remaining in your lane, it is your responsibility to signal and change into the other lane, or at the very least to signal and briefly move into the other lane before coming back into your lane after passing the cyclist.
In the Ottawa case, the lane the motorists would have to move into was an oncoming traffic lane, separated by a solid yellow line. This is where many of the commenters were confused – was the driver supposed to just swerve into oncoming traffic?? In fact, yes they were. In most jurisdictions with safe passing laws, the legally required move in this case would be to wait until it’s safe to briefly swerve into oncoming traffic in order to leave room for the cyclist, then get back in your lane as soon as you pass the person.
But what if you can’t swerve into oncoming traffic? Well….
If you can’t pass the person by a safe distance because of oncoming traffic or the inability to change lanes, then you don’t pass them. It’s really that simple! Slow down and remain behind the person cycling until you can pass them safely. “But that’s absurd and sickening and disgusting,” many may think, but in reality it’s actually not that ludicrous. Sure, you might have to drive pretty damn slowly for a bit there, but hey, it just means you’ll only be around 32 seconds later in arriving at your next red light. Was that really so bad? And on the bright side, you didn’t kill anyone! A job well done.
5. Don’t honk or yell
This last step is not so much a “how-to” as a “how-not-to.” When you’re passing a person riding a bike, even by a metre and even going slowly, it’s generally appreciated if you don’t lay on your horn and yell obscenities at them. Not least because that’s rude and discouraging, but also incredibly startling. If you startle somebody biking, it could lead them to momentarily wobble which, in traffic, could be dangerous.
If you really feel the need to yell “Great bike, you’re awesome!” we’ll be more than happy to accept the compliment at the next intersection 😉
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