It is Bike Month! Steve Magas and I wrote an article for lawyers on Ohio’s and Kentucky’s Three Foot Laws for Cyclists in this month’s Cincinnati Bar Association’s monthly publication, The Report. Here is a link to the SHORT VERSION of that article which starts on page 10.
The following is the longer version of that article for those who would prefer to see the full citation of the laws at issue.
Evolution of Three-Foot Laws for Passing Cyclists
Wisconsin was the first state to recognize the vulnerability of cyclists on its roadways and enacted the United States’ first Three-Foot Law in 1973 to protect riders. Since 1973, several more states have since enacted such measures.
Thirty-three states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia, Utah, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming and the District of Columbia have enacted passing laws that require the motorist to leave at least three feet or more when passing a bicyclist.
North Carolina has a two-foot passing requirement for motorists. However, North Carolina also allows passing in a no-pass zone so long as a motorist leaves four feet of clearance between the motorist and cyclist. [Sidenote: North Carolina is also one of the very few states that maintain a strict “contributory negligence” defense such that if a cyclist is hit by a car the motorist “wins” if the cyclist is even 1 PERCENT negligent].
Two states have laws that go beyond the three-foot zone of protection. Pennsylvania has a four-foot passing law. South Dakota enacted a two-tiered passing law in 2015. South Dakota requires a three-foot passing requirement on roads with posted speeds of thirty-five miles per hour or less and a minimum of six feet separation for roads with speed limits greater than thirty-five miles per hour.
The following five states — Delaware, Kentucky, Nevada, Oklahoma and Washington — require a motorist to completely change lanes when passing a bicyclist if there is more than one lane proceeding in the same direction.
Eight states have general laws that provide that motorists must pass at a “safe distance.” These laws typically state that vehicles must pass bicyclists at a safe distance and speed; Montana’s law, for example, requires a motorist to “overtake and pass a person riding a bicycle only when the operator of the motor vehicle can do so safely without endangering the person riding the bicycle.”
In the E.U., where cyclists account for a higher percentage of total traffic deaths [8%] than the U.S. [2%], France, Spain, Germany, Belgium and Portugal have passed laws requiring motorists to pass cyclists at a distance of 1.5 meters. There are also more aggressive laws and fines in the E.U. for distraction, phone use and other violations that put vulnerable users of roads at risk.
Ohio’s Three-Foot Law: R.C. 4511.27
Ohio enacted its Three Foot Law in 2017. Prior to 2017, Ohio was in the “safe distance” passing law category. Today, Ohio’s Three Foot Law can be found in Revised Code 4511.27 entitled “Rules Governing Overtaking and Passing of Vehicles.”
(A) The following rules govern the overtaking and passing of vehicles or trackless trolleys proceeding in the same direction:
(1) The operator of a vehicle or trackless trolley overtaking another vehicle or trackless trolley proceeding in the same direction shall, except as provided in division (A)(3) of this section, signal to the vehicle or trackless trolley to be overtaken, shall pass to the left thereof at a safe distance, and shall not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle or trackless trolley. When a motor vehicle or trackless trolley overtakes and passes a bicycle or electric bicycle, three feet or greater is considered a safe passing distance.
(2) Except when overtaking and passing on the right is permitted, the operator of an overtaken vehicle shall give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle at the latter’s audible signal, and the operator shall not increase the speed of the operator’s vehicle until completely passed by the overtaking vehicle.
Note the language of the statute’s safe passing standard: “When a [motorist] overtakes and passes a bicycle or electric bicycle, three feet or greater is considered a safe passing distance.” Contrast this statutory language with the United States’ first Three-Foot Law in Wisconsin: “Exercise due care, leaving a safe distance, but in no case less than three (3) feet clearance when passing the bicycle and maintain clearance until safely past the overtaken bicycle.” Wis. Stat. § 346.075. Wisconsin’s three-foot law contains clear and mandatory minimum. Ohio’s three-foot law invites debate over situations where less than three feet could be “considered” safe.
The consequences of Ohio’s less mandatory statutory language would be more significant in traffic court or a criminal court where defense counsel for the accused could argue that the unique circumstances of his or her client’s case justified a two-foot or one-foot (or less) pass as “safe.”
In fact, the language drafted by the Ohio Bicycle Federation and submitted by was tougher – stating that a “safe distance shall not be less than three feet.” However, one legislator held up the passage of the Three-Foot bill until the langauge was changed to the current language. Current Ohio law states [perhaps less clearly] that a three-foot passing clearance is the minimum distance to be deemed “safe.”
There are no statewide resources available that track citations pursuant to R.C. 4511.27 in Ohio’s eighty-eight counties. Such a task would likely require Public Records Requests to some 900 LEO’s – law enforcement organizations. We have no data as to how often Ohio’s Three-Foot Law is being enforced and with what level of success. One concern expressed at the time of passage was the potential for the law to be used as a pretext to generate a “stop” of someone police simply wanted to hassle or talk to. No such data or research exists on this topic so far as we are aware.
In civil cases R.C. 4511.27 provides a standard to argue negligence per se in a case arising out of a crash where a cyclist is injured or killed by a passing motorist.
A cyclist always “loses” in a crash with a passing motorist. Absent evidence of a dramatic and sudden swerve or change in direction of the cyclist, the fact that the crash occurred as a car was trying to pass a cyclist is damning evidence that the motorist violated R.C. 4511.27 and there is tremendous value in that. The statute sets up a per se safety standard of a three-foot buffer for passing a cyclist. If a cyclist can reach out and touch any part of a passing vehicle, the vehicle is clearly too close.
Although not explicitly stated, there is also a subtle burden shifting to the motorist to prove his or her pass was made at a safe distance when less than three feet was afforded the cyclist. What we typically find is a suggestion by the motorist that she/he was passing “lawfully” at three feet or more when the cyclist “suddenly swerved” into the side or path of the car. These “suicide swerve” suggestions can often be proved, or disproved, through the testimony of an expert in bicycle crash reconstruction.
Tension Between R.C. 4511.27 and 4511.55
AFRAP is short for “As Far Right As Practicable” and is a universal Bike Law term in the United States. Every state has some version of an AFRAP law. Ohio’s Three-Foot Law must be read in conjunction with Ohio’s AFRAP Law for Cyclists which is found in R.C. 4511.55:
(A) Every person operating a bicycle or electric bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable obeying all traffic rules applicable to vehicles and exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction.
(B) Persons riding bicycles, electric bicycles, or motorcycles upon a roadway shall ride not more than two abreast in a single lane, except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles, electric bicycles, or motorcycles.
(C) This section does not require a person operating a bicycle or electric bicycle to ride at the edge of the roadway when it is unreasonable or unsafe to do so. Conditions that may require riding away from the edge of the roadway include when necessary to avoid fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, surface hazards, or if it otherwise is unsafe or impracticable to do so, including if the lane is too narrow for the bicycle or electric bicycle and an overtaking vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.
The word “practicable” is used over 400 times in the Ohio Revised Code… and is undefined throughout.
The word is used many different ways but is always used to reflect an imprecise situation. R.C 4511.36 states that a right turn must be made “as close as practicable to the right-hand curb…” R.C. 1567.39 requires roadways to be maintained “… as free as practicable…” from bottom irregularities and muddy conditions. Phrases like “as speedily as practicable” and determining if something is “reasonably practicable” abound.
Prior to the amendment of R.C. 4511.55 in the “Better Bicycling Bill” of 2006, we used to argue that “practicable” MUST mean “reasonable” and “safe.” We argued that the legislature would never mandate that cyclists behave in a way that was not reasonable and safe.
In 2006, the section was amended and the “C” section was added as an exception to the AFRAP Rule. In drafting 4511.55(C) our intent was to add these elements of “reasonable” and “practicable” but also to set out some common examples of situations cyclists encounter daily that would necessitate NOT riding “as far right as practicable” – such as parked cars, debris and the like. However, the last sentence of R.C. 4511.55(C) bears special attention. It is, frankly, the exception that swallowed the Rule.
R.C. 4511.55(C) states that one does not need to operate a bicycle AFRAP “…if the lane is too narrow for the bicycle or electric bicycle and an overtaking vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.”
If you think about, and look at, the places that bicyclists ride bikes on Ohio’s roads you realize that virtually EVERY road in Ohio is “too narrow” to be safely shared by a cyclist and a motor vehicle side-by-side.
Keri Cafferty, a Florida graphic artist and bicycle advocate, created the graphic below which shows how a truck and bicycle cannot safely share a fourteen foot wide lane. Even when she allows only 40 inches of space for the cyclist, the truck cannot pass at three feet without leaving the lane. Virtually EVERY road on which cyclists ride in Ohio is less than fourteen feet wide. 4511.55(C) allows you to avoid ANY argument of AFRAP at all.
[SIDENOTE: If a cyclist is charged with violating R.C. 4511.55 there is also a constitutional argument that the traffic prohibition is “void for vagueness” and therefore unenforceable, but that makes for a separate and much longer article. See, e.g., U.S. v. Davis (2019), 139 S. Ct. 2319. (“In our constitutional order, a vague law is no law at all…”)}
Where a cyclist is injured as a result of a passing crash, R.C. 4511.55 can come into play if the crash occurs within the road’s white lines. The motorist in that situation will invariably assert that there was sufficient “roadway” [or “shoulder” or “berm”] for the cyclist to ride more safely or “more practicably” to the right to have avoided the crash.
A cyclist on the “roadway” is required to follow the rules of the road. A cyclist trying to ride “as far right as practicable,” might end up weaving along the right-most portion of the roadway in a dangerous manner, and appear erratic and unpredictable. Fortunately, R.C. 4511.55(C) contemplates this tension and provides that a cyclist is not obligated to ride as far right as possible, or on the “edge of the roadway” when it is unsafe or unreasonable to do so. The safety valve of Subsection (C) offers a bit of definitional depth to what is “practicable” by allowing a cyclist to ignore the “AFRAP” law.
The “too narrow” provision of Subsection (C) is a secret weapon. We argue forcefully that virtually EVERY lane in Ohio on which cyclists are riding is “too narrow” to be shared. Certainly, a fourteen-foot lane does NOT allow “sharing.” Subsection (C) allows the cyclist to “Take The Lane” – a phrase used in teaching “transportation” cycling which means to choose a lane position that is adequately into the lane, and away from the edge, so as to make the cyclist more conspicuous to all traffic. Since virtually every lane in Ohio is “too narrow” to be shared, then virtually every lane in Ohio is a lane in which the cyclist can choose a safer lane position without being in violation of the AFRAP law.
Kentucky’s Three Foot Law: KRS 189.340
Subsection (2) of KRS 189.340 was amended in 2018 to include bicycles and further amended in 2019 to include electric low-speed scooters. In its present form, KRS 189.340(2) states:
(a) Vehicles overtaking a bicycle or electric low-speed scooter proceeding in the same direction shall:
- If there is more than one (1) lane for traffic proceeding in the same direction, move the vehicle to the immediate left, if the lane is available and moving in the lane is reasonably safe; or
- If there is only one (1) lane for traffic proceeding in the same direction, pass to the left of the bicycle or electric low-speed scooter at a distance of not less than three (3) feet between any portion of the vehicle and the bicycle or electric low-speed scooter and maintain that distance until safely past the overtaken bicycle or electric low-speed scooter. If space on the roadway is not available to have a minimum distance of three (3) feet between the vehicle and the bicycle or electric low-speed scooter, then the driver of the passing vehicle shall use reasonable caution in passing the bicyclist or electric low-speed scooter operator.
(b) The driver of a motor vehicle may drive to the left of the center of a roadway, including when a no-passing zone is marked in accordance with subsection (6) of this section, to pass a person operating a bicycle or electric low-speed scooter only if the roadway to the left of the center is unobstructed for a sufficient distance to permit the driver to pass the person operating the bicycle or electric low-speed scooter safely and avoid interference with oncoming traffic. This paragraph does not authorize driving on the left side of the center of the roadway when otherwise prohibited under state law.
Unlike Ohio’s Revised Code 4511.27, Kentucky’s Three-Foot Law includes a very clear prohibition on overtaking or passing a cyclist: “Vehicles overtaking a bicycle . . . proceeding in the same direction shall: . . . If there is only one lane for traffic proceeding in the same direction, pass to the left of the bicycle . . . at a distance of not less than three feet between any portion of the vehicle and the bicycle or electric low-speed scooter and maintain that distance until safely past the overtaken bicycle or electric low-speed scooter.” KRS 189.340(2)(a).
Simple and straightforward, right? Yep. Whether in traffic court or a civil suit arising from an injured or killed cyclist, the minimum standard is three feet, period. End of story. A motorist is prohibited from passing a cyclist any closer than three feet.
Unlike Ohio, Kentucky does not have an AFRAP statute like Ohio’s Revised Code 4511.55 specifically addressing cyclist. Rather, KRS 189.300 broadly states that “any vehicle when upon a highway shall travel upon the right side of the highway whenever possible[.]” As discussed below, the “keep right rule” as applied to cyclists is set forth in 601 KAR 14:020 Section 7(3)(a) through (i). The Administrative Regulations do not regulate “practicability” as seen in R.C. 4511.55.
So, the question of where the cyclist is riding on a Kentucky highway is of paramount importance. A strict reading of KRS 189.340(2)(a) would require a three-foot buffer under all conditions when passing or overtaking a cyclist. Although untested, there is an argument that if the cyclist did not have a right to be on the roadway in the first instance, then KRS 189.340(2)(a) might not apply. If there is a crash with injuries or death as a cyclist is overtaken and struck by a motorist, the motorist may argue contributory negligence on the part of the cyclist for riding in an area where he or she did not have a legally protected right to ride.
For example, a cyclist is prohibited from riding in a roadway where there is a “designated bike lane” in Kentucky. This is a strict prohibition. 601 KAR 14:020 Section 7 states as follows:
Section 7. Operation of Bicycles. (1) A bicycle shall be operated in the same manner as a motor vehicle, except that the traffic conditions established in paragraphs (a) and (b) of this subsection shall apply.
(a) A bicycle may be operated on the shoulder of a highway unless prohibited by law or ordinance.
(b) If a highway lane is marked for the exclusive use of bicycles, the operator of a bicycle shall use the lane unless:
- Travelling at the legal speed;
- Preparing for or executing a left turn;
- Passing a slower moving vehicle;
- Avoiding a hazard;
- Avoiding the door zone of a parked vehicle; or
- Approaching a driveway or intersection where vehicles are permitted to turn right from a lane to the left of the bicycle lane.
Simply stated, unless one of the six exceptions in Section 7(b) applies, 601 KAR 14:020 Section 7 makes the use of bike lanes mandatory.
Similarly, a cyclist is prohibited from riding within the right-of-way of a “fully controlled access highway” (603 KAR 5:025 Section 4) which is, in laymen’s terms, a highway that provides an unhindered flow of traffic, with no traffic signals. 601 KAR 1:019(3) defines a “fully controlled access highway” as “a highway that: (a) gives preference to through traffic[.]”
So long as the foregoing prohibitions (use of available “designated bike lane” and nonuse of right-of-way of a “fully controlled access highway”) are not at issue and the cyclist, at worst, is in the shoulder of a highway, Kentucky’s protective three-foot buffer would apply.
Even before the passage of KRS 189.340, the Kentucky Supreme Court recognized that a motorist can be guilty of negligence per se when overtaking a cyclist on Kentucky roadways. In Previs v. Daily (2005), 180 S.W.3d 435, 436 the defendant approached the plaintiff cyclist from behind “driving a pick-up truck with an eight-foot bed and camper top [and] was pulling two flatbed wagons, making the total length of the vehicle approximately forty-eight feet.” The Supreme Court noted that defendant admitted that he did not look in his rearview mirror when returning his pickup truck and trailers to the right lane as he was passing the plaintiff. Id. at 438. The Supreme Court was not sympathetic to defendant’s excuse for returning to the right lane to “avoid a potential collision with oncoming traffic” finding “[i]f the terrain was such that Dailey could not see oncoming traffic, then he certainly was in violation of his duty to exercise ordinary care for the safety of other persons using the roadway. See KRS 189.340(4).” Id. at 438.
The Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s failure to grant the plaintiff’s motion for directed verdict against the defendant and the case was remanded for a new trial. Id. at 439.
However, when the case was tried on remand the entire focus of the new trial was the conduct of the cyclist and the Supreme Court held that a directed verdict against the motorist was proper. Further, new jury instructions were utilized by the trial court that placed duties of care on plaintiff based on KRS 189.350, entitled “Assistance in passing or overtaking” between vehicles. The trial court instructed the jury that where the plaintiff cyclist was being overtaken, she had duties to:
[A] To keep lookout to the rear for other vehicles near enough to be affected by the intended movement of her bicycle;
- If she was about to be overtaken and passed by the Defendant’s vehicle, to give way to the right in favor of the Defendant’s vehicle;
- If she became aware that the Defendant’s vehicle was passing or attempting to pass, to give the Defendant such assistance and cooperation as the circumstances reasonably demanded in order to obtain clearance and avoid an accident; and
- To exercise ordinary care generally to avoid collision with other persons or vehicles on the highway.
The second jury found plaintiff to be 50% contributorily negligent. Some cyclists in Kentucky will refer to the Previs II case as giving rise to a cyclist’s “duty to give way” to passing motorists.
Neither Previs I, supra nor Previs II, 2006-CA-002243 have been cited in any cases since KRS 189.340 was amended to include three-foot buffers when passing cyclists in Kentucky in 2018. One could argue that KRS 189.340 (a)(2) controls as the more specific regulation of vehicular passing (between motorist and cyclist) rather than the general regulation of vehicular passing (simply between “vehicles”). “[W]here there is both a specific statute and a general statute seemingly applicable to the same subject [the rule] is that the specific statute controls.” Bevin v. Beshear, 526 S.W.3d 89, 91 n.6 (Ky. 2017) (citations omitted). This argument is further buttressed by the fact that KRS 189.340 was amended in 2018 as compared to the 1994 amendment of KRS 189.350.
Previs I, supra still stands for the proposition that the contributory negligence of a cyclist may be at issue in a passing or overtaking crash between a motorist and a cyclist. However, KRS 189.340(2)(a) should govern over KRS 189.350’s “duty to give way” where the overtaken vehicle is a bicycle.
Cyclists are vulnerable users of Kentucky and Ohio roadways.
Kentucky’s 2021 numbers are still being tabulated. Per Kentucky’s Annual 2020 Traffic Collision Facts Report, 337 cyclists were involved in crashes with motor vehicles. The 2019 Report documented 330 cyclist-motor vehicle crashes.
Ohio averages about 1500 cycling accidents per year. 2020 and 2021 were not good years for cycling fatalities. Ohio usually averages 16-17 cycling fatalities per year, but those numbers are skewing up. In 2020, 21 cycling fatalities occurred. This unfortunate figure is up further in 2021 with 28 cycling fatalities.
Both R.C. 4511.27 and KRS 189.340 are designed to do one thing: protect a vulnerable user of Ohio and Kentucky Roadways. Each State’s legislature went about affording the three-foot differently, but the aim of the public policy is the same, and application of each statute should be made by judges and juries with the protection of vulnerable users in mind.