If you’re a bicyclist, you’ve been there—hugging the shoulder of the road as tightly as you can without your tires going off the edge, while a car passes you too closely for comfort. With no specific road rules to persuade them otherwise, motorists do this all too often, whether out of negligence, indifference, or in some cases, a deliberate attempt to intimidate bicyclists and show them which mode of transportation rules New York State’s roadways.
An average of 36 New York State bicyclists died each year from 2012 to 2014 as a result of crashes with motor vehicles (nationally, the number of fatalities averages around 800 per year). Increasing awareness of this danger has led 29 states to pass laws requiring that motorists pass bicycles at a distance of at least 3 feet. However, as currently written, New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law requires only that vehicles pass to the left of a bicycle at an undefined “safe distance.”
In June, David Gantt, the Democratic chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee of the New York State Legislature, placed a “hold” on Bill A2845, meaning that for a second straight year, a 3-foot-passing law will not get out of committee and to the full chamber for a vote. The Assembly bill has been sponsored each year by Assemblyman Phil Steck; an identical bill (S1996), sponsored by Senator Tom O’Mara, already had passed the Senate.
Photo by: Samantha Schaffer
So New York State will go at least another year without a defined safe-distance-passing law. Unfortunately for bicyclists, that means the motorists, and the police enforcing traffic law, will continue to follow highly subjective guidelines and will have little incentive to change their driving habits or crack down on unsafe passing. And for those drivers who aggressively resent sharing the road with bicyclists, they will still be free to pass too closely without consequences—unless their attempt to intimidate goes horribly wrong and actually causes an injury or fatality.
With or without a defined safe-passing law, bicyclists should always use caution by wearing bright colors, keeping themselves and their bikes well lit, and traveling in groups to make sure they are seen by drivers. And of course, they should always obey traffic rules.
And while some states also have adopted the “Bikes May Use Full Lane” rule on designated narrow roadways—complete with official signs—New York has not. In other states, where this sign is posted, bicyclists may move into the center of the lane to establish their right of way and discourage drivers from trying to pass them in a space that is too narrow. In New York State, again, the language of the law is vague, discouraging bicyclists from moving very far to the left, potentially forcing them to ride dangerously close to the gutter as cars pass.