The 1 metre passing rule is the law in much of Canada, but is it enough?
Passing laws have "served to educate drivers," but charges remain few and far between
According to the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, bicycles are classified as vehicles, which means cyclists in that province are entitled to the rights, and subject to the responsibilities of, users of all vehicles, save where expressly exempted.
There are numerous provisions within the Act relating specifically to people on bikes, and the equipment that is required to be used when riding a bicycle. These can relate to safety equipment, such as lighting and sound devices, and use, for example the prohibition against riding a bicycle across a roadway within a pedestrian crossover. More recently, the focus of legislators has turned to the manner in which cyclists interact with other highway users.
Safe passing laws turn 50
In 1973, Wisconsin was the first jurisdiction in North America to enact a safe passing distance law. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, as of Sept., 2021, 35 states and the District of Columbia have legislated the requirement for motorists to leave at least three feet of space or more when passing a cyclist. Other states have higher thresholds to protect cyclists, including six requiring motorists to completely change lanes when passing a person on a bicycle if there is more than one lane proceeding in the same direction. Only six states lag behind by failing to pass any specific law relating to the safe dirastance to allow when passing a cyclist.
In the wake of the 2012 Chief Coroner of Ontario’s Cycling Death Review, years of advocacy by the Share the Road Cycling Coalition (www.sharetheroad.ca) and a number of other not-for-profit actors and dedicated volunteers enabled amendments to the Act. Those amendments were passed and proclaimed in 2016 and included Ontario’s adoption of a “One Metre Passing Law” – Ontario became the second jurisdiction in Canada to do so after Nova Scotia.
They have subsequently been joined by Quebec (1.5 m on streets with speed limits of 50 km/h or greater and 1 m on those below), New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador. Similar Acts in other provinces and territories provide “recommendations” to drivers to maintain one metre of space when passing a cyclist (British Columbia), or ambiguous entreaties to drivers to overtake cyclists to the left at a “reasonable distance.” Other provinces are silent, leaving municipalities to weakly address this fundamental safety issue through by-law enforcement.
Related: Garmin rear-view Varia radar
Charges few and far between
The figurative jury remains out on the effectiveness of these laws, given that it seems charges against motorists under one metre passing laws are few and far between. In Every Cyclist’s Guide to Canadian Law (2nd ed.), Professor Christopher Waters cites a 2012 study conducted in Maryland assessing video footage of passing distances between motor vehicles and bicycles. Cyclists in Baltimore were observed to be “routinely passed at a distance of three feet or less while cycling during morning and evening commutes, which indicates that the three-foot law is not being followed and cyclist safety may be compromised.”
The effectiveness of one metre passing laws in Canada merit close study. However, no such study could quantify and analyze the crashes avoided due to enhanced driver awareness of the need for space and care when overtaking cyclists, nor the fatalities and serious injuries averted as a result. Unfortunately, there will always be outliers who live and drive in ways that are dangerous and inconsiderate of the well-being and lives of others, including cyclists. The public discussion of the merits of one metre laws both prior to, and following, their adoption has served to educate drivers, the vast majority of whom do seek to drive with courtesy, due care and attention.
One-metre laws are not a panacea. As welcome as they may be, they serve as imperfect protection for cyclists in urban areas without adequate, physically separated cycling infrastructure, and in rural areas where such facilities are impractical.
Make no mistake. Despite considerable progress in the fifty years since the first one metre/three-foot law was passed, as cyclists we must continue to advocate for our safety. Doing so includes working to identify and elect representatives who take the safety of those who choose activity for both transport and recreation seriously. Our lives and those of our families, friends and neighbours depend upon it.