What does Three-Feet Mean for Cyclists and Motorists?

By Megan Hottman, TheCyclist-Lawyer.com

A few years ago C.R.S. 42-4-1003 was enacted. In pertinent part it states:

§ 42-4-1003. Overtaking a vehicle on the left
The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction shall allow the bicyclist at least a three-foot separation between the right side of the driver's vehicle, including all mirrors or other projections, and the left side of the bicyclist at all times

Megan showing us what 3ft is like

In my opinion, the law really should include the words “when safe to do so.” In other words, if a motorist cannot safely give a cyclist three feet when passing, without interfering with oncoming traffic, the motorist should slow down and wait BEHIND the cyclist, while oncoming traffic passes, and THEN proceed to pass the cyclist with the 3 foot buffer.

I experienced this myself firsthand a few years ago, when a large F-350 truck passed me from behind, giving me in excess of 3 feet. Unfortunately for him, the same make and model truck was approaching from the opposite direction. The truck passing me crossed the centerline to give me space, but in doing so, he crossed the center line and went into oncoming traffic’s lane. The result is that they sheared one another’s side mirrors off. The oncoming truck was driven by an off-duty police officer; he informed the truck passing me in no uncertain terms, that he needed to WAIT BEHIND ME before attempting to pass with three feet. The driver attempting to pass me was obligated to pay for the damage to both trucks and was cited as the at-fault party. I felt terrible because I was so grateful he had given me so much passing room.

But the reality is –the 3-foot law does not override or supersede a driver’s obligation to ensure it is safe to pass or cross the center line. The driver must check for oncoming traffic first. If oncoming traffic prevents passing a cyclist with three feet, the motorist must wait behind the cyclist. Not crowd into them in the lane. Not swerve back over into the lane and knock the cyclist off the road. Wait. Safety first. Then, 3 feet. Many motorists do not realize this is the proper analysis.

As luck would have it, as I was writing this article Jerry N., an avid cyclist and cycling advocate, contacted me. He informed me that very recently, he called Colorado State Patrol (CSP) to report a motorist who passed him too closely and CSP pursued the motorist and issued a 3-foot law violation citation. Jerry asked me not to share his full name, or the complaint and report, since the case is currently pending, but he did offer some advice to cyclists who want to report this type of encounter:

[Megan] Jerry, this is great news that you took the time to place the call and complete a traffic complaint report - and that CSP took it seriously and pursued it!  What advice would you give other cyclists who wish to do the same when a motorist passes them too closely or "buzzes" them?  What number did you call to submit your complaint?  

[Jerry] Well, it takes a moment to collect yourself after suddenly feeling as though you are dazed and confused.  Make sure that you are first able to safely maintain your line and resume your presence of mind to operate the bike within your comfort zone.  Then, as you do so, look up, gain a visual on the license plate.  Recite the number to yourself.  Then repeat the number internally or aloud.  Then associate a date, a month and a calendar day to the numerical portion of the license number.  Use words beginning with the letters that appear on the plate.  Keep repeating these to yourself in order that you can remember it.  Commit the vehicle type, make, model, color and approximate year and try somehow to ascertain a visual on the driver.  Commit the driver's physical features to memory so that you may describe and or visually identify the driver at a later time.

Stop when it is safe to do so and call *CSP or *277.  Tell the Colorado State Patrol dispatcher where you are and why you are calling.  He or she will then patch you through to the local jurisdictional authority. Be prepared to provide a detailed description of the sequence of events and depending on the severity of the alleged transgression you may request an officer or agent respond in person or you may ask, otherwise to create a case file.

If you are unable to physically identify the driver law enforcement may not respond in person but are likely to accept your request to record a driver in the registered vehicle you describe on file as having failed to yield a three foot berth or as having presumably driven intentionally close to you or whatever may be the case in your circumstance.

[Megan] Jerry, as you are probably aware, law enforcement officers do not often cite motorists with a 3-foot violation -- even where a motorist hits a cyclist.  What steps would you like to see us as cyclists taking, to encourage law enforcement to use this statute more often, and to enforce it?  

[Jerry] Call it in whenever the situation arises and as often as you fall victim to the menace, threat, discourtesy, ill will or pure negligence, apathy, disregard or complete ignorance of the law.  A deluge of ongoing reports of this nature will trigger flag words in dispatch recordings being monitored and lead to heightened awareness within agencies which share volumes and frequencies of calls received on specific matters or common subjects.

The officer I most recently spoke with (who issued the summons I requested against a driver), told me over the phone that he believed the law was limited in its purview only to roads in rural locations such as winding mountain roads.  I asked him to go and review and read the statute.  When I spoke with him the following day he begged my pardon and admitted that he was unaware of the breadth of the law and that is does, in fact, apply to all circumstances of a cyclist being overtaken or passed by a motor vehicle.  This means on all roadways, streets and highways inside the state of Colorado.

So, with this being said, we as cyclists ought to concern ourselves with increasing awareness of the law and its application in as many ways as we can.

Many thanks to Jerry for sharing his success story in this instance!

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Glad this person was able to

Glad this person was able to make CSP do something (according to him, anyway), but I've given up using the *CSP line. The last few times it happened, I had plates, vehicle description, and in one case video (hndlebar cam), yet the operator was unconcerned. 'An officer will contact you.' CSP is not obligated to do anything, and in my experience, unless a cop witnesses an event, or there is a collision+witnesses, don't count on anything happening.

To me, this is another reason why motorists demanding license plates for cyclists are delusional: So a motorist calls CSP to report a cyclist for excessive-abreasting/arrogance/not riding on the sidewalk....guess what the cops are going to do without a witness?

yellow line

The other issue I see repeatedly is motorists not wanting to cross the yellow line to give that 3 feet, even when there is not oncoming traffic. It appears that many drivers think they can not cross over the centerline at any time, including to give cyclists the 3 feet. Came up in the "Erie Honking" case too, with the driver quoted as "not being able to pass bikes without going over the double yellow line".

Not annoyed...

well, not necessarily. Back around '95 or so, I read an article about a study done to determine WHY drivers do what they do around cyclists. The study involved putting drivers in a simulator, then showing various scenarios and gauging their reactions. They were then questioned as to their thoughts at the time.

One thing that stood out: if you ride too close to the edge of the road, making it look as if they can pass easily without crossing the center line, they'll pass without crossing. But, ride 2 or even 3 feet (which isn't much) out from the edge of the road, where it's clear they'll have to cross the line to pass at all, much less pass safely, and they'll cross the center line. In fact, most drivers showed that once they crossed the line, they didn't mind giving lots of room. I don't recall much being mentioned about drivings being annoyed by the presence of cyclists during the interviews.

So, while it may seem counterintuitive, unless the lane is freakishly wide or there's a bike lane, the safest thing to do is ride not too far into the lane, but far enough that any driver coming up behind you knows straight away that they'll have to cross the line to pass you. Hugging the white line is a recipe for disaster.

I have the opposite problem!

I have the opposite problem! I don't mind if a car comes somewhat close, as long as they are consistent and predictable. It seems like a ton of cars cross 10 ft over the double yellow to pass, even when I'm on or to the right of the white line. I've seen a few close calls where a car goes into the oncoming lane in a blind corner and another car is coming, so they swerve back into the proper lane. I'd much rather have them come a little closer to me than risk a head on collision or swerving too far back and hitting me.

Of the group of drivers not

Of the group of drivers not willing to cross the double yellow there are a subset that need to straddle the white line once they get 10 feet past you. Thanks for the tips on remembering the license plate, car and driver details. I never seem to have the presence of mind to catch those details after a close call.

Officer started out against the cyclist.

Officer started out against the cyclist.

"The officer I most recently spoke with told me over the phone that he believed the law was limited in its purview..."

The first hurdle is to get the law enforcers on your side. Cops might not know every law and number but the should know something so basic as giving a cyclist room.

It is OK to ask for another, different, and supervising officer when the one that responded to your case is not doing their job.

Do not add "when safe to do so"

I would just say please don't lobby for adding "when safe to do so" to the law. Saying that motorists should give three feet to pass a cyclist "when safe to do so" will easily and obviously be distorted to mean that motorists DO NOT have to give us three feet if they don't feel it's safe. Such as when they'd have to cross a double yellow line. That would have the opposite of the intended effect.

Eric -I agree with you.

Eric -I agree with you. Sorry, my grammar usage made it sound like I am lobbying for adding "when safe to do so" to read as though giving 3 feet is optional.

I'm saying that language should be added to explain not if or when, but how to pass a cyclist. As in, you MUST ALWAYS give 3 feet, no matter what. The HOW portion would say, you give 3 feet when safe to do so -if not safe to do so, you must wait behind the cyclist until it IS safe to do so. Sorry for any confusion.