Rules of the Road

Here’s why you shouldn’t pass a bicycle – or most anything else – in a no-passing zone

The Revised Code of Washington states drivers may not drive on the left side of the roadway within a no-passing zone, even to pass cyclists.
The Revised Code of Washington states drivers may not drive on the left side of the roadway within a no-passing zone, even to pass cyclists. McClatchy

Question: Is it legal to cross the centerline while passing a cyclist in a no-passing zone (assuming there are no oncoming cars)?

Answer: Let’s start this one out by looking at the no-passing zone law. The Revised Code of Washington (RCW) states that “no driver may at any time drive on the left side of the roadway within the no-passing zone.” That would seem to answer the question. But it’s never that simple, is it?

The next paragraph says that this section doesn’t apply under conditions found in RCW 46.61.100(1)(b). If you’re not familiar with finding things in the RCW, don’t be intimidated by that jumble of numbers, letters and punctuation. It’s just a way of organizing all the chapters and sections.

If we jump to the information about when the no-passing rules don’t apply, we’ll find that it’s legal to cross into the left lane in a no-passing zone to avoid an obstruction. Note that the driver still needs to yield the right-of-way to oncoming traffic; an obstruction doesn’t give a driver a free pass to use the entire width of the road.

We can agree that if a couch falls out of a moving truck and lands in the center of the lane, that’s an obstruction. Here’s the question: Should a cyclist be considered an obstruction? In some parts of the county you could add other slow moving road users as well, such as farm vehicles and people on horses.

I wasn’t sure so I checked with several local law enforcement officers, and the unanimous response was, “No.” The law considers a bicycle a vehicle, not an obstruction, and other drivers should treat a cyclist the same way they would any other slow-moving vehicle.

Maybe you’re thinking that if it’s a no-passing zone you can just pass the cyclist without leaving your lane. On the widest roads that might work, but a lot of roads don’t leave enough room.

The RCW states that a person riding a bike and traveling slower than the speed of traffic is required to ride as far to the right as is safe. Notice that the law doesn’t require cyclists to ride as far to the right as possible. On roads without shoulders, (many of our county roads) “safe” might mean a few feet into the lane.

The law also says that drivers shall pass cyclists and pedestrians at “a safe distance to clearly avoid coming in contact.” I’d understand that to mean that you’re leaving room for the unexpected; things like a cyclist swerving to avoid a pothole or other road debris. The Washington Driver Guide advises that drivers should leave at least three feet of space when passing cyclists.

If we add up a couple feet between the edge of the road and the cyclist, a couple more feet for the cyclist, and then three feet between the cyclist and the car we have a total of seven feet. Subtract that from the width of the lane, which varies between nine and 14 feet, and you can see that there often isn’t enough room for a car.

Often the best solution is to wait to pass a cyclist until you have plenty of room and a legal passing zone. It’ll add a few seconds on to your drive time, but that’s an easy trade compared to a collision with a cyclist.

If we expect drivers to treat cyclists like other slow-moving vehicles, we should also expect cyclists to follow the same rules. The law requires that if five or more vehicles stack up behind a slow-moving vehicle (and as I mentioned earlier, a bicycle is a vehicle), that vehicle operator shall pull safely off the roadway and allow the cars to pass.

No matter what kind of slow-moving vehicle you might be stuck behind, remind yourself that getting there safely is a higher priority than getting there fast, and wait for a safe opportunity to pass and continue on your drive.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.