Legal Brief: Three Feet Please

According to Joe Mizereck, the driving force behind, 19 states have codified the requirement that drivers overtaking a cyclist must provide three feet of space.

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According to Joe Mizereck, the driving force behind, 19 states have codified the requirement that drivers overtaking a cyclist must provide three feet of space. Pennsylvania requires four feet. My home state, Illinois, passed a three-foot passing law back in August 2007.

Ed Barsotti, executive director of the League of Illinois Bicyclists, helped draft the Illinois threefoot passing law and ran the lobbying effort to push the bill through. According to Barsotti, the three-foot bill sailed through largely because they couched it as a clarification of existing law rather than an addition of new passing requirements. Before August 2007, Illinois law required a motorist overtaking a cyclist to “leave a safe distance.” The amended law now states that a motorist overtaking a bicyclist “shall leave a safe distance, but not less than three feet.”

California’s legislature approved a three-foot passing bill twice, but Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill both times. To explain his refusal to sign the three-foot passing law the first time, the governor said he was concerned about an illusory requirement that drivers slow to 15 mph to overtake a cyclist. The second time around he opposed that the bill expressly “permits vehicles to cross a yellow line,” in order to provide the requisite three feet when overtaking a bicyclist. Gary Brustin, a California attorney advocating exclusively on behalf of bicyclists, suggests that the Governor’s concerns may not be totally unfounded. Brustin points out that double yellow lines are intended to indicate an area that has been determined to be unsafe for passing.

Jim Brown, interim executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates and formerly the Communications Director for the California Bicycle Coalition, was intimately involved in California’s efforts to craft and pass a three-foot passing law. He points out that California, like other states, is moving toward more modern bike facilities, complete streets and separated infrastructure, but such improvements are expensive and will take years. He said change is coming, but “we need to establish reasonable rules for how to share the real estate in the meantime.”

In my practice we often cite a violation of the three-foot law when a bicyclist is hit while being overtaken by an automobile. In such cases, motorists often defend themselves by claiming that the cyclist “swerved suddenly” into the path of the motorist. The three-foot passing requirement helps injured bicyclists overcome such defenses after a collision.

Jim Freeman is a personal injury lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. His practice concentrates mainly on advocating on behalf of the “vulnerable users” of roadways, such as bicyclists and pedestrians.

1 Comment

  • Richard Risemberg

    A California legislator has just introduced a third 3-foot passing law. I suggest that California cyclists sign the petition I put up on (ironically, before the bill was introduced), urging Gov. Brown not to veto the next one:

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