In April, 2012, a new law went into effect in Pennsylvania requiring a driver overtaking a bicyclist to provide at least four feet of space between their car and the bicycle. The "safe passing" law, which can be found at 75 Pa.C.S. § 3303, states that drivers must also pass at a careful and prudent reduced speed. Drivers are permitted to cross the center line, even in a no passing zone, if it is safe to do so and necessary to overtake a cyclist while providing the necessary buffer zone. (See 75 Pa.C.S.§ 3307.) Violation of the law is a summary offense that carries a whopping $25.00 fine.
With the enactment of the safe passing law, Pennsylvania became one of 34 states to have enacted "safe passing" legislation. Pennsylvania's four foot buffer zone is the largest among all of the "buffer zones" created by states' safe passing laws. Many states require only three feet, while some other state's laws simply provide that a motorist must pass at a safe distance and speed. But, those laws do not define what is a "safe" distance or speed. To read more about the different states' safe passing laws, click here.
The enactment of a safe passing law in Pennsylvania is a great idea and a nice step towards rider safety. Indeed, I believe that it's absolutely necessary. But, is the passage of a safe passing law, alone, enough? I don't think so.
One reason that the enactment of the safe passing law, alone, is not sufficient to curb accidents between bicycles and cars is that the law is virtually impossible to enforce. Out on the road, there is nearly no way to accurately analyze how much distance exists between two moving vehicles. Sure, you can eyeball it. But a police officer would need to be sitting in the perfect location, at the perfect time, in order to actually observe a violation of this law. And, if a motorist knows that an officer is nearby, he or she is unlikely to attempt an unlawful pass.
According to an article published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, over one year after the safe passing law was enacted, police in the City of Pittsburgh had yet to issue even a single citation! In the first 13 months after the law was passed, there were only 15 citations in the entire state of Pennsylvania - with none being issued in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. A cyclist quoted in the Post-Gazette's article stated that she collected helmet camera footage of a vehicle failing to safely pass. She took the footage to the police and the charges discussed included harassment and endangering a person with a vehicle. She claimed that the police did not even discuss the driver's alleged failure to pass at a safe distance. This example highlights one of the other problems associated with safe passing laws: lack of awareness.
After a law is newly enacted, it takes time for people (and police) to become aware of the law and its application. You may not even know that you have violated a traffic law until you are pulled over and issued a citation. Ignorance of the law is no defense to a criminal citation. But that fact does not help to prevent the incident from occurring in the first place. Thus, the key to the effectiveness of any law is informing the public about its existence and application.
Too many motorists do not even know about the four foot law and, worse, think that cyclists do not belong on the road! There are no signs on the roads advising of the four foot law and no postings. Until recently, Pittsburgh barely had any bike culture to speak of. Organizations like Bike Pittsburgh are helping to improve cycling awareness in the City. But, until drivers and cyclists learn to respect each other and understand the interplay of the Rules of the Road, the safe passing law is not likely to have much effect. To read more about Pennsylvania's Bike Laws, click here.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ("PennDOT"), the number of bicycle crashes and injuries actually increased in the year following enactment of the safe passing law. Statistics regarding bike crashes can be deceiving, though, as police are only required to disclose to PennDOT reported crashes that involve death, injury, and/or damage to a vehicle requiring a tow. To read more about crash reporting, click here.
Since damaged or destroyed bicycles are not capable of being towed, an accident that destroys a bicycle, but not the car, may not generate a report that will be published to PennDOT. Rather, only an accident involving serious injury will generate a report. In any event, the take home message here is that there needs to be greater education of motorists and police regarding the enactment and application of Pennsylvania's four-foot safe passing law.
Also, in order to have any impact, the safe passing law must carry a stiffer penalty. A $25.00 fine and summary offense is simply insufficient. As noted by Pittsburgh Police Commander Scott Schubert in the Post-Gazette article, officers are not inclined to enforce the safe passing law because they are "busy with more serious matters." Until this law gets some real teeth, it is not worth an officer's time to make a stop and issue a citation. Likewise, a summary offense is not worth the District Attorney's time to prosecute. So, many violations of the safe passing law may simply be ignored.
If a violation of the safe passing law carried a felony charge, subject to a hefty fine and a prison sentence, then it might become a "more serious matter" worthy of the attention of motorists and police.
Some states have passed "vulnerable road user laws." According to the League of American Bicyclists, vulnerable road user laws seek to "raise the legal stakes for a motorist who injures or kills a bicyclist or pedestrian." Such laws increase the penalty if a motorist carelessly strikes and either kills or injures a vulnerable user of the road. Some examples of vulnerable users include cyclists, runners, walkers, skate boarders, highway construction workers, and horse-drawn carriage riders. A violation of the vulnerable road user law could result in the suspension of driving privileges, heavier fines (than a summary offense), and jail time.
Here is the text of the League of American Bicyclists proposed legislation:
Vulnerable Road User Law
INFLICTION OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH TO VULNERABLE ROAD USERS
Section 1: As used herein, the term “vulnerable road user” includes:
(a) a pedestrian, including those persons actually engaged in work upon a highway, or in work upon utility facilities along a highway, or engaged in the provision of emergency services within the right-of-way; or
(b) a person riding an animal; or
(c) a person lawfully operating any of the following on a public right-of-way, crosswalk, or shoulder of the highway:
1. A bicycle;
2. A farm tractor or similar vehicle designed primarily for farm use;
3. A skateboard;
4. Roller skates;
5. In-line skates;
6. A scooter;
7. A moped;
9. Horse-drawn carriage drivers;
10. a person on an electric personal assistive mobility device; or
11. a person in a wheelchair.
Section 2: A person who operates a motor vehicle in a careless or distracted manner and causes serious physical injury or death to a vulnerable road user shall be guilty of infliction of serious physical injury or death to a vulnerable user.
Section 3: A person issued a citation under this section shall be required to attend a hearing before a court of appropriate jurisdiction.
Section 4: A person found to have committed an offense under this statute shall be required to
(a) have his or her driving privileged suspended for a period of no less than 6 months; and one or more of the following:
(b) pay a monetary penalty of not more than two thousand dollars; or
(c) serve a period of incarceration which may not exceed thirty days; or
(d) participate in a motor vehicle accident prevention course; or
(e) perform community service for a number of hours to be determined by the court, which may not exceed two hundred hours.
Pennsylvania has not enacted any vulnerable road user laws, yet.
Do you believe that the safe passing law, alone, is sufficient to deter accidents with cyclists? Should Pennsylvania enact vulnerable road user laws, too?
Until Pennsylvania passes such legislation, be safe out there and please obey all of the traffic laws. Thank you for reading.
Matthew F. Dolfi
Robb Leonard Mulvihill
BNY Mellon Center
500 Grant Street, Suite 2300
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15219
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