What The New 3-Foot Passing Law Means For Dexter Bicyclists And Motorists

Dexter has long been a hub and destination for bicyclists. The Dexter Bakery and Joe and Rosie’s Coffee and Tea are popular stops on weekends as bikers from Ann Arbor, Chelsea, and surrounding areas pass through the City on their routes.

With the development of the Border to Border Trail running through Dexter to Ann Arbor as well as other shared pathways in the area, Dexter’s popularity as a cycling destination is expected to increase. And as cycling activity increases, so does the need for awareness and safety.

The League of Michigan Bicyclists (LMB) has been working with lawmakers on passing laws aimed at improving rider safety out on the roads. As a result of these efforts, the Michigan House and Senate recently passed bills that put into law a three foot minimum distance a motorist must give a bicyclist when passing them. Also included in the bills is a provision to improve driver’s education in Michigan regarding bicycle safety.

The popularity of biking around Dexter is no anomaly. According to the Michigan Comprehensive Outdoor Plan, biking is Michigan’s #1 favorite outdoor sport with 25% of residents participating. Camping is next at 24%. Walking is fourth on the list at 21% and hunting is seventh at 15%.

Here is a synopsis of each bill as they pertain to bicyclists.

HB 4265 was sponsored by Holly Hughes of District 91 and will require a motorist overtaking a cyclist traveling in the same direction to give at least three feet to the left of the bicyclist as they pass until they have safely passed the bicyclist. If three feet is impracticable, the motorist must pass at a safe distance to the left of the bicyclist at a safe speed. The motorist may drive to the left of the center of the highway to pass a bicyclist if it is safe to do so, regardless of if the vehicle is in a no-passing zone.

HB 4185 was sponsored by John Bizon of District 62 and requires motorists attempting to overtake a bicyclist traveling in the same direction to the left of a vehicle give at least three feet of distance to the right of the bicyclist until they have safely cleared the bicyclist.

HB 4198 was sponsored by Julie Alexander of District 64 and will require driver’s education curriculums to include no less than one hour of classroom time devoted to laws pertaining to bicyclists, motorcyclists, and other vulnerable roadway users including pedestrians. The laws of this state pertaining to bicyclists, motorcyclists, and other vulnerable roadway users shall also be incorporated to other parts of the driver’s education curriculum where appropriate.

But how exactly are we, the motorists, supposed to accurately gauge the 3-foot safety gap while driving down the road? It takes a little math.

The roads around Dexter typically have 9-foot traffic lanes, from the white line to the center line. Lanes can vary, but this is the most common width for popular biking roads. A cyclist will typically use about two-feet of the right side of the lane, depending on the condition of the road. Broken up pavement causes the cyclist to ride further out into the lane. A paved shoulder in good repair usually keeps the rider out of the lane altogether.

Using the 9-foot standard traffic lane, the typical 2-foot for cyclist usage, and the 3-foot passing gap law, a little arithmetic can tell us where a vehicle should be positioned on the road for legal and safe passage of cyclists. Typically, a motorist has about 4-feet of their traffic lane to use in passing a cyclist.

There are no cars that are only 4’ wide which means every motorist on the road will have to cross the center line to legally pass a bicyclist.

The question then is, how much does a motorist have to cross over the line?

A compact car, such as a Honda Fit with a 67” (5’7”) width, would have to cross into the oncoming lane to around where the center line is aligned with the driver’s chest. A large vehicle, such as a Ford Expedition with an 83” (6’1”) width, would have to cross over until the center line is aligned with the driver’s right shoulder. Mid-sized vehicles are somewhere in-between.

It must be stressed that there are variables – width of the lane and location of cyclist. It’s the motorists responsibility to adjust accordingly. Err on the side of caution. As a motorist, if I’m already over the center line, I may as well give them a little more space anyway just to be safe.

What about cyclists riding two-abreast? According to Michigan Bicycle Laws, cyclists in Michigan are allowed to ride two abreast. But as with any form of traffic using the roads, cyclists must not impede passing traffic. This means riding single file when cars are passing. Cyclists are responsible for obeying the laws of the road the same as motorists when it comes to stop signs, traffic lights, and right of ways.

Contention between cyclists and motorists is already well-known and the new law could be especially frustrating for areas such as Dexter where both traffic and cycling seems to be increasing. How exactly then is a motorist supposed to get around a cyclist when there is an endless line of commuter traffic coming down the road in the opposite direction? But as Bill 4265 allows, when the 3’ minimum is not available due to oncoming traffic a motorist may pass a cyclist at a slow, safe speed.

Roads are by nature shared pathways used by a wide variety of transportation – recreational vehicles, farm machinery, pedestrians, motorcyclists, even horse and buggy at times, and of course bicycles as well as automobiles. With distracted driving on the rise, more and more bicyclists are resorting to the use of cameras to record the actions of motorists endangering cyclists.

Punishment for non-compliance to the 3-foot passing law is a civil infraction. A civil infraction is a non-criminal offense, such as a speeding ticket. There is no jail penalty for a civil infraction with punishment being in the form of fines, court costs, and fees.

Also a part of this legislative package is SB 330 sponsored by Margaret O’Brien of District 20 after a Kalamazoo motorist struck and killed nine bicyclists. The Bill expands Michigan’s law punishing drivers without a valid license who cause the death or serious bodily injury o f another person.

The passage of this bicycle safety legislation is the result of a long, hard-fought battle by The League of Michigan Bicyclists, a non-profit, tax-exempt statewide membership organization working to improve conditions for bicycling in Michigan. LMB supports many programs and projects and cooperates with state and local agencies and other like-minded groups toward this goal.

As both a cyclist and motorist, I have a few pleas to my peers:

Bicyclists: Obey the traffic laws. Stop at the signs, the traffic lights, yield. If riding two abreast, show some courtesy and get out of the way when cars approach from the rear. Even if you’re legally right, when car meets bike, car always wins and all bikers always lose. Stay humble in the presence of a greater force. Some motorists you irritate will take it out on another biker down the road. We kind of have to work together on this.

Motorists: Make your peace with the fact that bicyclists are not going away. Stop driving distracted. It will catch up to you and unfortunately probably somebody else. You have the advantage of power. If you’re prone to anger, don’t take it out on vulnerable people such as cyclists with your speeding two-ton (or more) vehicle.

Governor Snyder signed the three bills on June 29 putting the three-foot passing law into effect immediately.

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