How ‘Three Feet to Pass’ Became a ‘Two Feet’ Law in Virginia

The VBF crew have re-told this story countless times, as best as we can.  Here it is straight from Bud, who posted it to a mailing list, with the subject, “Three Foot Passing Being Unenforceable.”

Time has gone by, and I think only Allen Muchnick and I, of the current VBF board were involved back in the 2004 Legislative Session, when Sen. Creigh Deeds was our patron for Senate Bill 252, which had I think 11 items in it, the most important of which was changing “bicyclists must ride single file at all times” to “may ride not more than two abreast, providing that they fall into single file formation when being approached by a faster moving vehicle from the rear.”

Also in that package was “tail lights required after nightfall” (which failed until passing the next year, when it was changed to “on highways with speed limits of 35 mph or higher”, so that kids in neighborhood cul de sacs were not included), permitted to signal a right turn with the right arm extended, overturned the mandatory sidepath ordinances, cyclists not required to wear the slow moving vehicle triangle, and some others I don’t remember off hand.

At that time, the code said “motorists must pass bicyclists at a safe distance and a reasonable speed”. We were happy with that, and were not trying to change it.

Discussion was just getting wrapped up, and the Chair asked Sgt. Steve Chumley representing the State Police, if he was happy with the bill, or if he had any suggestions. Steve said he was fine with the bill, but felt that “safe distance and reasonable speed” was “too fuzzy and non-specific” and the State Police would like to have something more specific in the code. The Chair then asked me what I would suggest that would be more specific and I replied “Three feet”, having given no previous thought to it. Committee member Del. Frank Hargrove asked me, “How many cyclists I knew of who had been injured or killed by being passed by 2 feet?” I replied, “None, but that it was too close and did not leave enough margin for error, etc.” After some back and forth an amendment was then proposed and passed to change safe distance and reasonable speed to 2 feet, and that’s where it came from.

Ever since, when we have tried to change it to 3 feet, I hear that “3 feet is unenforceable”. I then wonder that when the State Police wanted something more enforceable than “safe distance and reasonable speed”, they seemed to think that 2 feet met that requirement. If so, then I would think 3 feet would be even more enforceable than two feet. If its not, then let’s go back to “safe distance and reasonable speed” instead of two feet, which is too close, and is NOT A SAFE DISTANCE.

In any case, that is the background, and my response, to the “UNENFORCEABLE” argument which has become tiresome to me.

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3 comments… add one
  • My rule of thumb is to hypothetically imagine that the cyclist’s arm is extended straight out from their body…if you would have hit that arm then you were too close…that is just under 3 feet for my arm.

  • You must have very long arms, Michael. From shoulder blade (or arm pit) to the end of my fingers, my arm is barely 30 inches.

  • Bud’s account is misleading on one key point: The idea to enact a two-foot minimum gap for passing bicyclists did not arise spontaneously at the legislative committee hearing. Rather, it was instigated by the Virginia State Police prior to the legislative session and filed in a competing bicycling laws bill, HB 552 [ ] , which had passed intact in the House of Delegates and was then combined with SB 252 in the Virginia Senate.

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