Newsletter December

In the book “City Cycling” Peter Jacobsen describes cycling as “a benign activity that often takes place in dangerous environments” […]

In the book “City Cycling” Peter Jacobsen describes cycling as “a benign activity that often takes place in dangerous environments” and goes on to observe “It is clear that protecting the health of cyclists requires measures to prevent motorists form colliding with them”.

A study in Melbourne that analysed 127 hours of helmet-cam footage concluded that car drivers were at fault in 87% of incidents with cyclists, with sideswiping the most frequent. Based on that study a cyclist using public roads would expect some sort of incident every three hours!

Although only a small proportion of injured cyclists admitted to hospital were involved in a collision with a motor vehicle, they are normally the more severely injured, and about 90% of cyclist deaths involve a motor vehicle. In about a quarter of fatal cyclist accidents in the UK, the front of the vehicle hit the rear of the bicycle.

As a two wheeled vehicle, bicycles are physically unable to travel in a completely straight line. To allow for unexpected directional adjustments, car drivers should leave sufficient clearance when overtaking bicycles. The high percentage of serious injuries and deaths of cyclist being caused by cars driving in the same direction suggests that a legalised safe passing distance would be the first step in alleviating the justified fears of a commuting cyclist when he hears a car approaching from behind, colloquially referred to as “fear from the rear”.

Opponents of a legalised passing distance frequently, gleefully and incorrectly cite a study from Baltimore that examines the effects of a 3-foot legalised passing distance. The authors described their findings as a failure of the 3-foot-law because there was some overtaking of bicycles with less than the legally required distance. A look at the data in the study strongly suggests a different conclusion: in a sample of 586 passes, between 77% and 83% of the cars gave more than 3 feet of clearance when overtaking a bicycle, (depending on the lane markings used). In the remaining cases overtaking was at exactly three feet or so little below that the included graphs show the lesser distance as touching the three foot line. There was not a single case where a car overtook a cyclist with less than 2’6” clearance.

Poor Overtaking Douglas Ave, South Perth

Poor Overtaking Douglas Ave, South Perth


A legalised safe passing distance provides strong foundations to build upon. Such a law would be a first measure to educate and increase awareness of the rights and responsibilities of all road users. A legislated safe passing distance is not the end, but rather part of the means, toward establishing a bicycle and pedestrian-friendly state.

The existing Australian Road Rules do not protect bicycle riders when being overtaken by drivers. Drivers are permitted to make judgement calls regarding a ‘sufficient distance to avoid a collision’.

It is encouraging that in some Australian states the discussion around a safe legalised passing distance has reached parliament, and I hope this will happen in WA as well. I heard the Greens might introduce relevant legislation in 2014, similar to what happened in South Australia a couple of months ago.




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About Heinrich

Promoting everyday cycling