A Win-Win for Both Motorists and Bicycle Riders
Today we welcome guest blogger Hugh Aaron. Hugh is a retired regulatory lawyer from Virginia who now lives in Vero Beach. He currently serves as the volunteer Director of Safety and Education for Bike Walk Indian River County, Inc. He is also a member of the Florida Bicycle Association Advisory Board.
Arguably, the most dangerous roads for bicycle riders in Florida are two lane roads (one lane in each direction) with little or no shoulder. Unfortunately, we have a lot of those roads. To make matters worse, the speed limit on two lane roads is often 35 mph or higher.
Common motorist and bicycle rider behavior makes these roads particularly dangerous. Bicycle riders tend to hug the right side of the road presumably because they think that they are legally required to do so, or because they feel it is more courteous to motorists. Motorists, on the other hand, try to squeeze by bicycle riders without crossing over the center line of the the road presumably because they think it is safer to stay in their lane or they think it is illegal to cross over into the opposing lane. The end result of these behaviors is that motorists often pass very close to bicycle riders on two lane roads. These close passes provide little room for error and can have disastrous consequences.
For many years, two aspects of Florida bicycle law have, at least in theory, provided bicycle riders with some protection against close passing vehicles.
Florida law generally requires bicycle riders to ride “as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.” However, this requirement does not apply if the lane “is too narrow for a bicycle and another vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.” Since the travel lanes on most two lane roads are typically not wide enough for a bicycle and another vehicle to be able to travel side by side, a bicycle rider is generally permitted to“claim the lane.” At least one study has shown that this discourages motorists from making close passes. Florida has also had for many years a 3 foot passing law, which requires motorists to stay at least 3 feet away from a bicycle rider when passing.
In theory, one might think that this combination of laws would provide a lot of protection for bicycle riders. A motorist trying to pass a rider on a two lane road could simply wait until the opposing lane is clear and then cross over the center line in order to pass the rider with the required minimum 3 feet of separation. However, up until now, such passes have been problematic for motorists in a “no passing zone” (such as a double yellow line) because the law was not clear as to whether motorists could lawfully leave their lane to pass a bicycle rider.
Fortunately, the Florida Legislature recently resolved this uncertainty. Effective July 1, 2021, Florida’s revised “no passing zones” statute provides that a motorist in a no passing zone may drive “to the left of the center of the roadway” to “overtake and pass a bicycle” subject to three limitations. First, the motorist may only cross the centerline when it is safe to do so. Second, the motorist may cross the centerline “only to the extent necessary.” Finally, the motorist is only permitted to cross the centerline “briefly.”
This new law is a “win” for motorists because they no longer have to wait behind a bicycle rider or try to squeeze past the rider. Rather, they can now cross over the center line of the road when it is safe to do so in order to give the bicycle rider 3 or more feet of passing clearance. This is a “win” for bicycle riders because it has the potential to minimize close passes by cars and trucks. Of course, this all assumes that both motorists and bicycle riders understand and follow the new law. Hopefully, over time both motorists and bicycle riders will become more familiar with the new law and will understand how following the new law will allow everyone to travel more safely on narrow two lane roads.