Ben Lounsbury: Making bicycling safer for everyone

Have you ever been standing on the side of the road and had a car go by you at 50 mph just a foot from your body or head? It is a scary experience. It happens to me several times per year, but not when I am standing on the side of the road.

Using a yardstick mounted on handlebars to measure the distance between a bike and a passing truck, the above illustration shows the proper passing distance under Maine's 3-foot rule between cyclist Leslie Shields and motorist Noel Smith, who is president of the Maine Cycling Club. To watch a video of this demonstration in motion, go to:

Using a yardstick mounted on handlebars to measure the distance between a bike and a passing truck, the above illustration shows the proper passing distance under Maine's 3-foot rule between cyclist Leslie Shields and motorist Noel Smith, who is president of the Maine Cycling Club. To watch a video of this demonstration in motion, go to:

It happens when I am riding my bike.

By state law, that shouldn’t happen.

Five years ago the Legislature passed a law to make Maine roads safer for bicyclists and roller skiers. It is the 3-foot rule (Title 29-A, Chapter 19 (1), Section 2070) and it states that a motorist must come no closer than 3 feet when passing a bicyclist or roller skier.

That is common sense and common courtesy.

Most of us instinctively stay more than 3 feet from a cyclist. But some do not, thereby breaking this little-known law. Cyclists need to inform the public. The police need to inform violators, but they cannot do it without cyclists’ help.

A surprising number of drivers feel they have the right to continue going at speed despite the presence of a cyclist in the road and under dangerous conditions. They pass the cyclist when there is a car coming the other way. The result is three vehicles pinched into a space wide enough only for two, with the cyclist and probably the oncoming driver feeling threatened.

The pavement of the travel lanes of most roads in Maine, including the road in the picture that accompanies this column, is 11.5 feet. A vehicle — with rear view mirrors — measures 7 or more feet wide. Add 3 feet to satisfy the law and only 1.5 feet remain for a bicyclist, nowhere near enough.

A bicycle is about 2 feet wide, and often needs to travel at least 3 feet from the edge of the road to avoid potholes, cracks and other obstacles that would not bother a car. Total footage needed for a safe pass equals 14 feet. Thus, it is illegal to pass a bicycle without going well over the center line.

In the accompanying picture, the passing truck is a foot over the center line even when the bicycle is dangerously close to the shoulder and the truck is the minimum 3 feet from the bicycle.

I have been biking in Maine for 30 years. I am fortunate to live where I can bike on rural roads with few cars. I typically encounter only about 100 cars during a ride.

Most drivers are very considerate, going all the way into the opposite lane to pass me. But once or twice per season I get “buzzed” by a driver who is uninformed, reckless, rude, or all three. For those occasions I have developed a quick reflex to see and memorize the vehicle’s license number. I report the driver to the police as soon as I can. The police are very receptive to my calls. They contact drivers to inform them of the law.

Sgt. Gary Boulet, public safety officer of the Auburn Police Department, recommends that bicyclists hone their license grabbing reflexes. You have only a few seconds in which to do it, so you must maintain your cool and focus quickly. Try also to note the make and color of the vehicle. That information will help if you did not get the license number perfectly.

The police are sympathetic to your plight, but they cannot do much if you do not give them a license number.

The 3-foot rule can make Maine a safe and pleasant place for biking, but it needs the public’s help. With the Dempsey Challenge coming up (Oct. 13-14), we want all those visiting cyclists to think that Lewiston-Auburn and Central Maine are great places to ride.

Drivers need to be considerate and law-abiding, and not just on Dempsey Day.

Ben Lounsbury of Auburn is a doctor and amateur athlete who is trying to age gracefully, not all at once. He is a member of the Maine Cycling Club.

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John Brooking's picture

Respond to Allisa

Thanks for asking those questions, Allisa. Traffic cycling best practice is widely misunderstood by many road users, not only motorists but also many cyclists themselves.

I have no problem with a cyclist riding in the dead center of a country road (lane, I presume you mean, not actually on the yellow centerline), provided they are considerate about allowing passing when it is safe, which is to say basically when there is no oncoming traffic. My advice to cyclists is be to monitor for traffic behind them, and if it unsafe for overtakers to pass, indicate that with a "hold back" hand signal. This acknowledges that the cyclist knows the motorist is there, and confirms that passing should not be attempted. When it is/becomes safe to pass, the cyclist can confirm that by a polite wave and/or moving slightly to the right. This is what we teach in the cyclist education program with which I am a certified instructor. It is legal, and it is at least as safe, and we believe more safe, than staying squeezed to the side all the time, especially when there is not enough room to be passed safely. Wide experience has shown us that too many motorists will attempt passing even in the face of oncoming traffic, either through impatience or simple misjudgment, if they even THINK there might be room. This can and does lead to sideswipe crashes. By discouraging unsafe passing with their lane position, a cyclist controlling their space IS actually "sharing responsibility for their own safety", to use your words.

For those who ride recumbent bicycles, their lower profile to the ground makes it even MORE necessarily that they protect their space and maintain a buffer around them to make them easier to see.

Many motorists probably don't know that it is actually legal to cross the double yellow line to pass a cyclist, again provided that it is safe. No-passing zones are marked based the distance required for a car to pass another car, but it takes much less time and distance for a car to pass a bicycle. Plus you can see around the bicycle for oncoming traffic better than you can see around a car or truck. Once again, you still need to verify that it can be done safely, but if so, you are allowed and urged to cross over the centerline to give the bicyclist enough space.

If oncoming traffic means there is no room to pass a single cyclist, then there is also no room to pass a group, so cyclists riding double when there is oncoming traffic is no different than the single cyclist situation. There is not universal agreement on whether cyclists in a group should single up to facilitate passing when passing would be safe. It would seem like common sense, but consider that a group singling up creates a longer line of cyclists to pass than if they stayed doubled-up. The single file line is twice as long. During that longer passing time required, it is more likely that a pass that is begun when there was no oncoming traffic present may not be able to be completed by the time oncoming traffic appears. Then what happens? Note that it is actually illegal to begin a pass if you can't see that it can be completed safely, yet many motorists often do not consider this, and a cyclist or a group squeezing to the side single file can encourage that mistake. Now that you know you are allowed to cross the yellow line, it is not much more of an effort for you to move over more completely into the other lane than to just straddle the centerline, and the shorter distance created by the cyclists doubling up will allow you to move back to your lane sooner. Of course the cyclists should all stay on the right half of the road, no matter how many are riding side by side.

One recommendation we have for large groups is to divide into smaller groups, so the smaller groups may be passed one group at a time, but this is not universally known or done.

Other cyclist behavior you mention -- riding the wrong way, wearing head phones and not paying attention, I'll add talking on a cell phone or smoking a cigarette -- are indeed behaviors we strongly discourage. But we can't control these riders, nor even reach all of them with education. No matter how much they give all of us a bad name, the fact is that we all have an obligation to not harm other people in our travels, no matter how bone-headed or illegal their behavior may be. I know they can make it harder to not hit them. :-(

Better enforcement of illegal behavior by cyclists, such as riding the wrong way, blowing through red lights, and riding at night without lights, might help, and I definitely support that. Unfortunately, ticketing scofflaw cyclists is usually a very low priority for most police departments, which only enables it more. Also, law-abiding cyclists are sometimes hassled by law enforcement for behavior that looks illegal and dangerous but actually is not, such as controlling their lane when safe passing is not possible.

Lastly, while many cyclists on rural roads, especially those in groups, are indeed recreating, remember that some are also traveling for transportation. This is even more true in town. But regardless, the bottom line is that the purpose of one's travel does not make a speck of difference to how that person should be treated, nor does the vehicle they are using. We don't think motorists who are merely going to dinner or the movies are less important than those going to work, do we? We're all equal.

Thanks again for asking.

 's picture

so what is your advise to

so what is your advise to bicyclists who ride in the dead center of the country road because there is no bike lane and the sides are "too dangerous" to ride too close to? how about those heroes that ride in the middle of the lane facing the wrong way for traffic, wearing head phones, and are actually surprised when a car comes around the bend? how about those groups that will daily block entire roads by riding side by side? ya those are the reality on country road scene, bicyclists tune out the world and expect us to handle their safety for them, even if it means putting myself at risk. don't even get me started on the brainiac that rides that bike where you are not only reclined, but also about 4 inches from the ground. that guy likes to ride around those big, traffic heavy intersections in topsham. bicyclists need to share the road and use common sense when riding, many do not. i walk and jog along country roads, and when i hear a car coming i step off the road and onto the soft shoulder in order to share in the responsibility for my safety. public roads are not designed for recreation only, and when recreationalists can accept that and take responsiblity for themselves, they may find their play time more enjoyable.


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