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Bike passing lawsThree feet may not seem like much, but it could save somebody’s life and prevent a world of hurt for you, too.

Three feet is the distance that should be between your car and a cyclist you pass on the road.

California is among the latest states to enact a 3-foot bike passing law, requiring drivers to give cyclists at least 3 feet of clearance when they pass them. The California law went into effect in fall 2014.

Most states have some type of bike-passing law on the books. Break the law and you could get a ticket and a fine, which could impact your car insurance rates. Worse, you could seriously hurt or kill a cyclist.

The California law’s sponsor — then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — knows this all too well. Villaraigosa was riding his mountain bike one Saturday evening in July 2010 along Venice Boulevard when a taxi cut him off. Villaraigosa flipped over the handlebars and landed on his elbow, fracturing it.

After the accident he became a bicycling advocate in a city traditionally unfriendly to bikes and he worked on the state level to push for the bike-passing law, promoted by the California Bicycle Coalition as “Give me 3.”

Bike-passing laws gain traction

States with bike-passing laws

Here’s how much room drivers must put between their car and bicyclists.

States requiring minimum of 4 feet of clearance:


States requiring minimum of 3 feet of clearance:







District of Columbia












New Hampshire





West Virginia


States requiring a safe distance:




New York


Rhode Island

South Carolina


West Virginia

Wisconsin became the first state to enact a 3-foot passing rule in 1973, and as of June 2014, 23 other states and the District of Columbia had followed. Pennsylvania has a 4-foot bike passing law, and nine other states have general laws that require drivers to pass at a safe distance, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some cities, such as Austin, Texas, have their own bike-passing ordinances.

Penalties vary. In California the base fine for violating the 3-foot passing rule without causing injuries is $35, which becomes $233 once court and administrative fees are added. The base fine for a violation resulting in a collision that injures a bicyclist is $220, which becomes $959 including fees.

The penalty for violating Arizona’s 3-foot bike-passing rule is a $500 fine if the bicyclist sustains serious injury and $1,000 if the bicyclist dies.

Some locales are taking a proactive approach to enforcement. Last year the Austin Police Department began using undercover officers on bikes to crack down on drivers violating its Vulnerable Road Users Ordinance. Two officers in plain clothes rode single file on roads without bike lanes and then radioed information to waiting patrol cars about drivers who came too close when passing them.

Consequences of cutting it too close

Whether a violation impacts your car insurance rates depends on whether the ticket appears on your motor vehicle record and how seriously your insurance company treats the violation. Insurers vary in their approaches. If the violation results in an accident with injuries, your insurance rates are likely to go up.

Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, based in the Denver area, says her law enforcement contacts say they generally issue careless-driving tickets for motor vehicle violations against cyclists.

“In most jurisdictions here that carries four points on your [driving record] and could very well result in higher car insurance premiums,” she says. “Your insurance company considers tickets and at-fault accidents in determining your risk and insurance premium. The bottom line is driving distracted, aggressively or carelessly when you’re sharing the roadway with cyclists is not only dangerous but can result in insurance consequences.”

So how do you gauge 3 feet?

Here’s a good rule of thumb: “It’s about the same amount of space you’d give a car with the door wide open,” says Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition.

He suggests that drivers take a moment to pause before they pass a bicyclist.

“Tap the brakes, take a breath and relax,” he says. “Wait a moment and think about passing safely. And don’t think you can squeeze by if it looks close.”