Motorists passing cyclists in the road must give them at least 3 feet of space, if not a whole lane.
That not-so-new state law took effect in 2020, but this spring, members of the Vancouver Bicycle Club are saying that many local drivers never got the news — still leaving whisker-thin margins as they blast by cyclists pedaling right beside them in the street.
“It’s getting to be such a problem,” said Joe Duvall of Ridgefield. “I don’t think motorists have a clue what it’s like to be passed at 50, 60 miles an hour by a car that’s too close.”
Some cyclists are gearing up with cameras and supplying photo or video evidence of infractions directly to local law enforcement but say they don’t hear anything back.
“I never receive any updates regarding my complaints,” said David Barna, the bike club’s president. “I can only hope that at least those drivers are getting a warning that their dangerous behavior is noticed and might get a fine next time.”
Duvall recently asked the Clark County Sheriff’s Office to track down and educate a speedy driver who gave little clearance to five cyclists on a group ride near Battle Ground.
“She kept it at 50 mph and missed me by a foot,” Duvall said. “There was nobody in the other lane but she never crossed over, she stayed right. We had no shoulder.”
Apparently shocked at being flipped off, the driver stopped and confronted the cyclists, Duvall said. When they informed her about the 3-foot law, her response was an obscenity plus the claim that her husband is a police officer, Duvall said.
Duvall reported the car’s license number to law enforcement.
“We have had this happen on many occasions and we are afraid that we will be hit and possibly killed by drivers that show no respect for cyclists,” he wrote to the sheriff’s office.
“Some people know the law and just don’t care,” said club spokeswoman Donna Richardson. “Others have no idea.”
What’s a safe distance?
A previous, 2012 law simply said that traffic overtaking and passing other roadway traffic must do so “at a safe distance,” which was vague enough to be unenforceable, according to Washington Bikes, a political advocacy group that lobbies for the growth and safety of cycling.
The 2020 law added specifics about safely passing “vulnerable roadway users” — defined as pedestrians and people riding in the roadway (not sidewalks or bike lanes) on bikes, e-bikes, motorcycles, assistive personal mobility devices, motorized scooters, non-enclosed farm machinery and animals. It also sharpened enforcement teeth and hiked fines. Here’s what it says:
Two lanes? Give one. When there are two or more lanes traveling in the same direction, the driver must move over completely, at least one whole lane to the left, to pass the vulnerable user.
One lane? Slow down, give 3 feet. When there is just one travel lane, the passing driver must slow down and give the vulnerable user at least 3 feet of space.
One lane, space in the opposite lane? Move all the way over. If there’s just one travel lane but space in the opposite-direction lane, the passing driver must — when it’s safe — move all the way left into the opposite-direction lane, providing an entire lane of space for the vulnerable user.
State law protects bikes’ wiggle room in the roadway, stating that cyclists should avoid blocking faster traffic by staying as far right as possible — except “when reasonably necessary to avoid unsafe conditions.” To avoid broken glass, trash, gravel and even storm drains in roadway edges, shoulders and even designated bike lanes, cyclists may occupy the main travel lane when they must. In that case, they may occupy the center of the lane; they needn’t hug the right.
The law also says that cyclists must only ride two abreast in the roadway, never more. For more specifics about where bikes should be situated in the roadway, check the city of Vancouver’s thorough Bicycle Safety and Laws webpage (www.cityofvancouver.us/ced/page/bicycle-safety-and-laws).
What else is new in state bike law? A “safety stop” for bikes took effect last fall, allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs. You may slow down, look around for cross-traffic and then keep pedaling without coming to a full stop if there’s none. This applies only to bikes — not to pedestrians and certainly not to cars. It does not apply to stop signs on school buses; all vehicles must always fully stop for those.
Safety in numbers is why some local cyclists only join guided group rides with the Vancouver Bicycle Club but never venture out alone, especially on those rural, shoulderless county roads, Barna said.
He said he regularly records license plate numbers of obnoxious or dangerous drivers and forwards them to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.
“My impression is that the Clark County Sheriff’s Office is unaware of this problem or pay very little attention to it,” he said.
Sgt. Alex Schoening of the sheriff’s traffic enforcement branch explained by email that such educational outreach to dangerous or obnoxious drivers is discretionary.
“If there is enough information our deputies have reached out to vehicle drivers and provided education based on the information provided about traffic law and bicycles,” he said. “This contact is discretionary and has never been mandated by our department.”
Unfortunately, Schoening added, law enforcement cannot cite a driver unless they witness an incident live or there is a crash. Video evidence is not sufficient.
“We cannot write a citation based solely on video evidence either, as we were not ‘present’ when the violation occurred,” he said.
The League of American Bicyclists has named Washington the bike-friendliest state 10 times in a row, but according to an October 2019 report by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, pedestrian and cyclist deaths here shot up 41.2 percent (from 233 to 329) between 2015 and 2017. During the same period, serious injuries to pedestrians and cyclists rose 11.1 percent, from 1,165 to 1,333.
Most dedicated local cyclists can tell genuine horror stories about run-ins with traffic, Duvall said.
“In 2013 I had an incident with a truck — nine broken ribs and a punctured lung. That was here in Clark County,” Duvall said. “A few months later, a car ran me off the road in California. Everybody’s got stories like that.”
In Barna’s experience as a frequent road cyclist, he said, the vast majority of drivers are sufficiently courteous and commonsensical, even if they haven’t been aware of the 3-foot law.
A smaller subgroup of drivers simply miscalculates or misunderstands how much space is enough. A tiny minority intend to be jerks, he said.
Whether mistaken or malicious, Barna said he wishes they would slow down and think because it only takes a split second of thoughtlessness or irritation to injure someone or worse.
Barna, a fast-paced bike racer, said he frequently catches up with rude or dangerous drivers at stop signs or red lights, and tries a little gentle conversation.
“I’ve had different responses,” he said. “Some are super-aggressive … but I’ve also had drivers apologize and want to make sure I’m OK.”