Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have safe passing laws that require motorists, when passing bicyclists, to leave a specified distance between the car and the cyclist. Additionally, nineteen states have "general passing laws," which specifically require vehicles to pass bicyclists at a safe distance and speed, but do not provide a specific minimum distance. Currently, State Representative Peter Pettalia is working to draft a safe passing legislative bill package in the House.
Michigan is one of only seven states that have not enacted any type of law requiring motorists to pass bicyclists safely. The Michigan Vehicle Code currently states, "The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass at a safe distance to the left of that vehicle, and when safely clear of the overtaken vehicle, shall take up a position as near the right-hand edge of the main traveled portion of the highway as is practicable." Since a bicycle is not considered a "vehicle" in Michigan, but rather a bicyclist has "all the rights and is subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle," it is left to interpretation if bicyclists are actually protected under current standards.
Regardless, the current "safe distance" language is difficult for the average motorist to understand and even more difficult for law enforcement to enforce. "Safe distance" is often a matter of perspective. To a motorist, "safe distance" often means simply avoiding contact with a cyclist, especially since this subject is rarely covered in driver's education. For law enforcement, the current "safe distance" language is difficult to enforce and provides no clearly articulable standard that patrol officers can use to educate motorists or cyclists.
Michigan bicyclists face significant risks from motorists passing too closely, even when riding as far to the right in accordance with state law. Motorists who pass too closely can startle bicyclists, causing them to lose control; large vehicles produce strong air currents that can knock cyclists off course; and motorists often overestimate the distance between themselves and bicyclists, which can lead to direct impacts. One of the most common type of bicycle/auto crashes involve collisions where a motor vehicle strikes a bicyclist while attempting to pass when traveling in the same direction. The Office of Highway Safety Planning reports that 60% of bicyclists involved in crashes were "going strait ahead" prior to the crash.
Michigan bicyclists commonly complain that drivers pass dangerously close, but in fairness, many motorists are unaware of the dangers posed by their actions. Others, sadly, pass closely to intentionally intimidate or harass bicyclists.
A five-foot passing law will delineate the legal standard for "safe distance" and provide clear guidance to motorists, bicyclists, and law enforcement, alleviating confusion and frustration.
A five-foot standard is supported by both the Michigan Department of Transportation and Michigan Department of State who recently published a joint PSA recommending drivers pass bicyclists with five feet of clearance.
Obviously, cyclists are extremely vulnerable to serious injury caused by motorists passing unsafely. Accordingly, it only makes sense that Michigan afford the same protections for bicyclists that are being passed by motor vehicles as it does to motorists. An objective, tangible distance, as opposed to a nebulous "safe distance" standard, will help reduce bicyclist injuries and deaths and benefits education and enforcement programs by establishing one uniform standard across jurisdictions