Maryland’s 3-foot passing law is unusual. Like the DC law, the general rule is that cars must leave a 3-foot clearance when passing a bike, §21-1209(a)(2). But unlike the DC law, there are several exceptions. And in some situations, bicycles are also subject to the 3-foot rule.
The statute explicitly lists four situations when drivers do not have to leave a 3-foot clearance
- If the cyclist is failing to maintain a steady course.
- If there is an adjacent bike lane and the cyclist is violating the legal requirement to be in the bike lane. The requirement to be in a bike lane has so many exceptions that only a well-versed cyclist who happens to be driving will know whether a cyclist has the legal right to be outside of the bike lane. Nor does anyone know what it means to be outside the bike lane. Does it mean that the car needs to be 3 feet to the left of the bike lane, and if the cyclist’s shoulder intrudes a foot into the bike lane, then the buffer is only two feet. Or maybe it means that as long as the bike’s tire is in the bike lane, one must give the cyclist three feet.
- If the cyclist is violating the legal requirement to ride as far to the right as practicable and safe. This requirement has even more exceptions, so a driver is very unlikely to know if the requirement is met.
- If the highway is too narrow for the driver to legally pass with the required clearance. This probably only applies to narrow highways, such as one-lane bridges and narrow roads where cars must slow and pull partly off the road to pass in opposite directions. But Bike Maryland believes that it also applies to no-passing zones (double yellow lines) on standard 2-lane roadways , because it thinks that the legislature inserted the word “highway” when it meant “lane”. This assumption prompted Bike Maryland to sponsor HB 1397 which would have allowed cars to cross the double yellow line to pass bikes. That way, our Baltimore allies reasoned, the exception to the 3-foot rule will no longer apply because it will be legal to pass with the required clearance. Previous posts on this blog have discussed why many cyclists did not support that bill. MDOT also opposed the bill, albeit for different reasons. After the session, some of the advocates had an email colloquy with MDOT on whether the three-foot bill does or does not apply to the typical 2-lane road. I asked MDOT for its position on that question, but so far, MDOT has not responded,
These four exceptions have been widely publicized, though few drivers probably undestand what they mean and no one knows what the final one means. But the statute also imposes two requirements on cyclists. First, §21-1209(a)(2)(ii) applies to any vehicle passing a bike, so a bike passing another bike is required to leave a 3-foot clearance.
The law also prohibits bikes from overtaking cars on the right within a standard travel lane on a 2-lane road, although they may pass on the left within such a lane. § 21-304 prohibits overtaking on the right if the highway is not wide enough for two or more lines of traffic moving lawfully in a given direction. Given the 3-foot passing law, there has to be room for the cyclist and 3 feet of clearance, for two lines of traffic to move lawfully. Therefore, if the lane is too narrow for cars and bikes to travel side-by-side with a 3-foot clearance, bikes may not pass on the right. This is not an issue for 4-lane (and wider) roads which have room for two lines of traffic. So a cyclist can legally squeeze between the curb and cars slowing for a traffic light on US-1 or Georgia Avenue, but not along the typical 2-lane road unless it is wide enough for side-by-side sharing (i.e. at least 13-14 feet) or has a shoulder into which the cyclist can pass.
Between the ambiguous exceptions, and the exceptions to(the (bike lane and keep right) exceptions, Maryland has a law that is too confusing to explain to student drivers. Fortunately, the Motor Vehicle Administration appears to be sticking to the simplest approach: Drivers should pass cyclists with at least three feet. This was always MVA's recommended best practice, and the fact that a court can not convict a driver for passing with less clearance in some situations does not change the clearance with which a reasonable driver will pass.
(Jim Titus is on the board of directors of WABA from Prince Georges County, The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of WABA.)