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How much passing distance should you give bicyclists in Michigan?

MI Senate Judiciary Committee approves MI bicycle law bills requiring motorists to allow a 5-foot “safe distance” when passing bicyclists

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How much space should motorists give to bicyclists when passing? Two Michigan state senators and a Senate Committee have recently reached this conclusion:

The “safe distance” for passing should be “at least 5 feet to the left [or right] of th[e] bicycle,” according to a package of Committee-approved bike-safety bills.

I love to take my own bike out on the roads, but I also wonder if most people know just how dangerous bicycling can be. As an injury attorney, I’ve helped several bicyclists seriously hurt by cars, including one of the most famous triathletes in the state. Many of these cases involve motorists who simply don’t see the bicyclist because they’re looking for cars. The second highest cause of these bike crashes involve motorists clipping the bike as they pass.

Motorists must be more careful about safely sharing the road with bicyclists. This will happen over time as biking to work becomes more and more a part of our culture and lifestyle, with designated bike lanes and changes to roads to accommodate bicyclists now in many cities in Michigan. But safety is still a major issue, and for now, these bills are a smart stopgap measure.

We’ve seen far too many tragedies and, since some drivers persist in refusing to exercise basic common-sense when it comes to sharing the road with bicyclists, it’s time for the law to provide more protection. 

The new 5-foot safe distance for passing bicyclists

In a unanimous vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bills 1076 and 1077 – which were sponsored by Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage) and Sen. David Knezek (D-Dearborn Heights), respectively – that would create a 5-foot “safe distance” that drivers of cars and trucks must maintain when passing bicyclists. Specifically, SB 1076 and 1077 provide:

  • “The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass at a safe distance of at least 5 feet to the left of that bicycle, and when safely clear of the overtaken bicycle shall take up a position as near the right-hand edge of the main traveled portion of the highway as is practicable.”
  • “[I]f it is safe to do so, the driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a bicycle proceeding in the same direction may overtake and pass the bicycle in a no-passing zone.”
  • “The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a bicycle shall, when [conditions exist under which “the driver of a vehicle may overtake and pass upon the right of another vehicle …”], pass at a safe distance of at least 5 feet to the right of that bicycle.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved several other bills related to bicycle safety (which I’ll discuss below), sending them to the Senate floor for consideration and “with recommendation that [they] pass.”

Significantly, the day after the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing, Rep. John Bizon (R-Battle Creek) introduced House Bill 5918 which largely mirrors the proposals contained in the pre-Committee versions of SB 1076 and 1077.

States and ‘safely passing bicyclists’ laws

As Michigan considers whether to enact a 5-foot “safe distance” law to protect bicyclists from passing motorcyclists, lawmakers may do well to consider the bike-safety measures taken by other states. In particular, many other states have passed “safely passing bicyclists” laws that impose a minimum “safe distance” that drivers must allow bike riders when they’re passing.

Here are the stats and details of various states’ “safe passing” laws, based on information gathered by the National Conference of State Legislatures:

  • 3-feet when below 35 mph/6-feet for above 35 mph: 1 state (South Dakota)
  • 4-feet minimum passing distance: 1 state (Pennsylvania)
  • 3-feet minimum passing distance: 27 states
  • 2-feet passing law/4-feet in a no-passing zone: 1 state (North Carolina)
  • General “safe distance” passing requirement: 8 states

3 or more hours of bicycle safety as part of drivers ed

In Senate Bill 1078, which was sponsored by Sen. O’Brien and joined by Sen. Knezek, it’s proposed that the classroom instruction portion of the “segment 1 curriculum” for drivers education “shall include 3 or more hours of information concerning the laws pertaining to bicycles … and shall emphasize awareness of their operation on the streets, roads, and highways of this state.”

Under Michigan’s “graduated licensing” law, one of the requirements for a teen driver who wishes to obtain her or his Level 1 “graduated licensing status” is that she or he has “[s]uccessfully completed segment 1 of a driver education course …” (See MCL 257.310e(3)(b); 256.657(1)(a)(iv))

Criminal penalties for killing or injuring a bicyclist

Under Senate Bills 1029 and 1030 – again, sponsored by Sen. O’Brien and Sen. Knezek – a driver “who commits a moving violation that has criminal penalties and as a result causes injury … [or] death” to a bicyclist is “guilty” of the following:

  • For causing “injury to a vulnerable roadway user,” such as a bicyclist, the driver “is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 1 year or a fine of not more than $1,000.00, or both.”
  • For causing “death to a vulnerable roadway user,” such as a bicyclist, the driver “is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 15 years or a fine of not more than $7,500.00, or both.”

Here’s another review from a bicyclist that Michigan Auto Law trial attorney Tom James was able to help. He was seriously injured by a semi-truck:

“I was riding a bicycle and a commercial F-350 hit me head on. I’m lucky to be alive. I was seriously injured and while I was rehabilitating to return to the highest quality of life possible, I always had the confidence that my lawyer Tom James and Michigan Auto Law were going to protect my family’s  interests to the fullest. Tom is warm and engaging. There was frequent and clear communication on the process, what they’re doing, what my expectations should be, and preparing me for what was coming next. When it came to negotiating my settlement, Tom held our ground and forced the highest settlement possible. Without hesitation, I would recommend Tom. Settling the case expediently has helped me move forward with my life and my pursuits.”

 – Randall McElwain, Lake Orion

Related info:

Who pays for bicycle damage caused by a Michigan auto accident?

Six most common bicycle accidents

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