‘Tis the Season to Help Motorists and Cyclists: A “Change Lanes and Pass” Rule
I am thankful for all the polite drivers who wait behind me as I ride on two-lane MD-953, which has double yellow (no passing) lines the whole way. I am usually in the center of the 10-ft lane, pulling a trailer with my daughter. Even when I don’t have the trailer, 95% of the drivers wait until the oncoming lane is clear, change lanes, and pass (unless I'm on skates). And when I am riding toward the right side of the lane for some reason, the vast majority still change lanes to pass.
Countless drivers have probably done you the same favor on another road. But they are breaking the law.
So in the spirit of the season, what might we give back to all of those nice drivers? I think Maryland should legalize changing lanes to pass a bike riding in a no-passing zone. Not only are these drivers being safe, they actually enhance safety. 
The Golden Rule is the most fundamental guideline to vehicular transportation. On this blog we have discussed many “rules of the road” that make sense for motor vehicles, but that do not enhance safety when applied to bicycles. We would love to see those laws reformed. But we often lack the political power to make it happen. Let's treat drivers how we would have them treat us. We probably do have the political power to secure for motorists the right to change lanes and pass a bike when there is a double yellow line. I think we should. And if we do it right, it might encourage “good will toward men” [and women] on bikes.
The Scrooge in me says “Let’s Not Go Too Far”: The “Partly-Cross-the-Line and Pass” Rule
Until last week, I thought that I had come up with the perfect gift to the motoring public. The motorists would like it and we should like giving it. But then some friends suggested an even bigger gift, which is making me feel like Scrooge in comparison. They're giving my gift—and then some.
Their idea is to allow drivers to cross the double yellow line to pass bikes, without the requirement to change lanes. This “partly-cross-the-line-and-pass” rule seems to be motivated by the observation that some cyclists ride far enough to the right so that a car barely has enough room to squeeze between the bike and the yellow line, and some drivers try to thread that needle. This rule would allow motorists to move into the adjacent lane by whatever distance makes the driver feel safe, to pass the cyclist in this case.
I’m sure that the proposal would help with drivers who would like to pass with a safe distance, but feel that it is even more important to not wait for a safe opportunity to pass and to stay right of the yellow line. But I am afraid that in more cases, this rule would make cyclists less safe without significantly helping motorists:
1. The drivers at which "partly cross the line and pass" is aimed are more likely to drive safely if they change lanes and pass. Motorists frequently report difficulty in gauging the three feet of space they are required to leave when passing, so why not apply the normal requirement that motorists change lanes? That is an existing behavior with clear rules and expectations; and it's easier to do. There is no need to encourage drivers to pass while occupying parts of two lanes.
2. The State of Maryland will soon start erecting signs that say “Bicycles May Use Full Lane”. I think that “change lanes and pass” better reinforces the message of those signs. Partly crossing the line and sharing a narrow lane actually contradicts that message.
3. Finally, the requirement to change lanes before passing would better discourage “squeezing” between a cyclist and an oncoming motorist, while partly cross the line and pass might encourage such squeezing.
We do not know all of the impacts of these two approaches. (I can think of a few roads where partly crossing the line to pass would not bother me.) But even change lanes and pass is a significant change in the law. If it proves to be too little we can come back and further liberalize the passing rule. (Legislators will always go along when cyclists ask them to give motorists rights that potentially imperil no one but cyclists.)
It would be more prudent to take the smaller step first, and see how it goes.
When you buy a child a toy, don’t you take a pass on some of the accessories, at least for this year?
(Jim Titus is a member of WABA's Board of Directors from Prince Georges County. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the official views of WABA. See the WABA blog for a post that does represent WABA's view on the same topic.)
A few more details on these arguments.
1. The drivers at which this law is aimed are more likely to drive more safely if they cross the line to pass. Most drivers know how to change lanes to pass because it is an essential skill. Why teach drivers how to pass while occupying parts of two lanes? A new skill can become a habit.
· Consider the archetypal driver who will put a cyclist at risk under the current law by squeezing by, but would cross left of the lane and leave more space if it was legal. Shouldn’t this driver be encouraged to stop squeezingv at all?
· Some drivers seem to honor lanes but just don’t have the lane-sharing skill. So they’ll pass you too closely if you hug the curb with an 11-ft lane; but they’ll wait if you take the lane. If they can partly-cross-the-line-and-pass, they may pass a bike taking the lane with the same clearance that they now provide a bike hugging the curb. If they had to change lanes, they would leave plenty of room.
2. “Partly-Cross-the-Line and Pass” could undermine the emerging right to “use full lane” when the lane is narrower than 14 feet.
· Right now, if a lane is too narrow to share side-by-side, a cyclist need not ride as far to the right as practicable. The law does not actually say that the bike can use the full lane.
· But “taking the lane” is coming to mean that you are not sharing the lane side-by-side: What is the point of giving us a right to ride in the center of lanes that are too narrow to share side by side within the lane, and then still having us share the lane with a car that is half in, and half out? If we really thought that the 3-foot rule protects us, we would have no need to take the lane because cars would always give us 3 feet. If a driver is going to give us exactly three feet no matter where we ride, there is no benefit from using the full lane. We take the lane because it provides us better protection.
· The new signs that say “Bicycles may use full lane” communicate that we are not sharing the lane side-by-side. The signs don’t say it, but the implicit message is “Change lanes to pass”. New laws should reinforce that message, rather than encourage drivers to partly share a lane that it too narrow to share side-by-side.
· Today, riding two abreast on a narrow lane does not illegally impede traffic, because a single-file line of cyclists using the full lane would be twice as long, and thus hold up cars that want to pass more than the shorter line of cyclists riding two abreast. But if drivers are allowed to share the lane with a cyclist while passing wherever we have a “use full lane” sign, then riding two abreast may prevent some drivers from passing.
· When people pass motorcycles (in a passing zone) they give the motorcycle the entire lane, rather than simply passing with a 3-foot buffer. Why should it be any different with bikes, where the relative speed difference is greater?
· One of the key benefits of using full lane is that one gets a buffer greater than three feet, when the cyclist thinks it is necessary. The cyclist may know something the driver does not know.
3. A requirement to change lanes before passing would discourage the idea of “squeezing” around others—whether the cyclist or a potential oncoming motorist. Otherwise, some drivers would decide to pass even though there is oncoming traffic, because with 12-foot lanes, there is room for the overtaking vehicle to be a few feet accross the yellow lines, and pass an oncoming car, as long as that oncoming car moves to the right to get out of the way. With “change lanes to pass”, people must not pass if there is oncoming traffic.
In Ohio, the statute allows a driver to cross the double yellow line to pass any vehicle whose speed is less than half the speed limit. The statute also explicitly addresses the problem of the oncoming vehicle, by stating that one must be able to overtake the slower vehicle and get back into the lane while the oncoming vehicle is still 200 feet away. It has no requirement to change lanes to pass.
4. “Partly cross the line and pass" appears to be a part of a package to strengthen the 3-foot rule, but it doesn’t strengthen the 3-foot rule so much as weaken the right to take the lane.
The main limitation of the 3-foot rule is that some drivers always ignore it, and some drivers ignore it when they execute particular maneuvers (e.g. over take or turn right), even though there is no exception for executing a maneuver. Contrary to a common misconception: There is no exception for narrow lanes, so people who pass within 3 feet in a narrow lane are already violating that law. There is an exception is for “highways [that are] not wide enough,” but that refers to roads with no center line that are so narrow that one driver has to pull off the roadway to allow another to pass.
So partly cross the line and pass makes it more convenient for a driver with the skill to leave three feet but lacking the motivation to do so, under one set of circumstances, at the expense of encouraging side-by-side lane sharing in no-passing zones. There should be a better way to motivate drivers to pass with a safe distance.
 The Maryland code has no exceptions to the no-passing rule, not even for passing a stopped vehicle. See Maryland Transportation Code §21-307 (c–d)
(c) Driving on left prohibited -- Left side of pavement striping designed to mark no-passing zones. -- Except as provided in subsection (d) of this section, where signs or markings defining a no-passing zone are placed as provided in subsection (a) of this section, a driver may not drive on the left side of any pavement striping designed to mark the no-passing zone throughout its length.
(d) Left turns. -- The driver of a vehicle may drive across the left side of the roadway in a no-passing zone while making a left turn, but only if it is safe to do so.
 Other drivers who never wait patiently behind me see how to pass safely: change lanes and pass. Less experienced drivers who might wait behind me in fealty to that double yellow line, but eventually become impatient and try to pass while staying within the lane, have been taught a safer (albeit illegal) way to proceed. Some drivers still do not follow this practice: But if “change lanes to pass” was legalized, then presumably a lot of those drivers would choose to legally pass with a wide margin, rather than illegally pass with a narrow margin, since the law seems to be what is constraining them now.
 Of course, if the Christmas spirit leaves us, we might also prepare a bill that both allows drivers to change lanes to pass a bike in a no passing zone and relaxes the requirement that bicycles come to a complete stop in a no passing zone. The approach taken in Jackson Hole, Wyoming would be a good place to start.
 For example, a road along the ocean with no shoulders or sidewalks, with relatively few cars but many bicycles and drivers. A car cruising up the middle of the road does not bother me in that case. But for these relatively rare roads, it might make more sense to change the striping than to pass a statute that applies to all roads.
 See Maryland Transportation Code § 21-1205 (a)
(a) Riding to right side of roadway. -- Each person operating a bicycle or a motor scooter at a speed less than the speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing on a roadway shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable and safe, except when… (6) Operating in a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle or motor scooter and another vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.
 See Ohio Revised Code §4511.31 Establishing hazardous zones.
(A) The department of transportation may determine those portions of any state highway where overtaking and passing other traffic or driving to the left of the center or center line of the roadway would be especially hazardous and may, by appropriate signs or markings on the highway, indicate the beginning and end of such zones. When such signs or markings are in place and clearly visible, every operator of a vehicle or trackless trolley shall obey the directions of the signs or markings, notwithstanding the distances set out in section 4511.30 of the Revised Code.
(B) Division (A) of this section does not apply when all of the following apply:
(1) The slower vehicle is proceeding at less than half the speed of the speed limit applicable to that location.
(2) The faster vehicle is capable of overtaking and passing the slower vehicle without exceeding the speed limit.
(3) There is sufficient clear sight distance to the left of the center or center line of the roadway to meet the overtaking and passing provisions of section 4511.29 of the Revised Code, considering the speed of the slower vehicle.
 See Ohio Revised Code §4511.29 Driving to left of center of roadway in overtaking and passing traffic proceeding in same direction.
(A) No vehicle or trackless trolley shall be driven to the left of the center of the roadway in overtaking and passing traffic proceeding in the same direction, unless such left side is clearly visible and is free of oncoming traffic for a sufficient distance ahead to permit such overtaking and passing to be completely made, without interfering with the safe operation of any traffic approaching from the opposite direction or any traffic overtaken. In every event the overtaking vehicle or trackless trolley must return to an authorized lane of travel as soon as practicable and in the event the passing movement involves the use of a lane authorized for traffic approaching from the opposite direction, before coming within two hundred feet of any approaching vehicle.
 § 21-1209. Throwing object at bicycle, motor scooter, or EPAMD
(a) Drivers to exercise due care. -- Notwithstanding any other provision of this title, the driver of a vehicle shall… (2) When overtaking a bicycle, an EPAMD, or a motor scooter, pass safely at a distance of not less than 3 feet, unless, at the time… (iii) The highway on which the vehicle is being driven is not wide enough to lawfully pass the bicycle, EPAMD, or motor scooter at a distance of at least 3 feet.
Highway is defined in the code as the entire width of the right of way owned by the public for transportation purposes. Had the legislature meant narrow lanes, it would have said so: Compare with the phrasing in §21-1205 where the statute refers to lanes too narrow to travel side-by-side. Note: § 21-302 uses the term “narrow roadways” to address roads where drivers have to pull off the road to pass.