Rules of the Road: Must cars give cyclists several feet of space when passing?

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDOctober 13, 2013 

Question: On North State Street between Ellis and York streets the road narrows and curves. There is a marked bike lane. I was in my auto lane. At the stop sign, a bicyclist who had been in the bike lane knocked on my window to inform me that I had gotten too close to her, that the law says cars must give cyclists 4 to 6 feet of clearance. Is that correct?

Answer: No. The law as stated in RCW 46.61.110, overtaking on the left, covers overtaking or passing of vehicles traveling in the same direction. According to subsection 2, "The driver of a vehicle approaching a pedestrian or bicycle that is on the roadway or on the right-hand shoulder or bicycle lane of the roadway shall pass to the left at a safe distance to clearly avoid coming into contact with the pedestrian or bicyclist, and shall not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken pedestrian or bicyclist."

There has been discussion about changing the law to mandate a "safe passing distance," but that has not been passed that I am aware of. There have been recommendations by various bicycle advocacy groups for a minimum 3 feet of distance.

Q: When driving up the zig-zagging streets to Lake Padden, is it necessary to signal at every turn, or is the path understood to be one continuous street, as implied by the continuous line of centerline bumps?

A: That is a difficult question to answer. Even if the use of the turn signal isn't "necessary," it is courteous to let the other drivers know what your intentions are. State law says you must signal for a lane change or any turn from a roadway. In looking at those streets, I would think that signals would be appropriate at 36th and Connelly where cross traffic has stop signs and you could go either left or right, at South and 37th street where the cross traffic at the stop sign will be trying to determine which way you are going, and again at Harrison and 38th where you must again go left or right.

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David Wright is a retired officer from the Bellingham Police Department who is now on the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force.

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