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Utah has a three foot passing law that states:

Title 41 Chapter 6a Section 706.5

Operation of motor vehicle near bicycle prohibited.

An operator of a motor vehicle may not knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly operate a motor vehicle within three feet of a moving bicycle, unless the operator of the motor vehicle operates the motor vehicle within a reasonable and safe distance of the bicycle.

Are three foot passing laws in other states worded similarly to this?

This particular phrasing seems to legitimize excuses such "I didn't know you were there" or "I didn't mean to pass so close" or even "three inches seemed like a reasonable and safe distance to me."

Is there something about the specific legal meaning of the words that makes this law more concrete than it seems?

See also: What is the 3 foot law and which states have it?

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2  
While laws like this encourage education and safer passing, citation and enforcement typically only occurs if there has been a collision. –  Gary.Ray Oct 25 '12 at 15:30
    
By the way, Utah SB0104 passed in 2013, removing the "reasonable and safe distance" langauge: le.utah.gov/~2013/bills/static/SB0104.html –  amcnabb Apr 18 '13 at 5:03

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

This may not seem very concrete to you, but if you think about it, it is very powerful indeed.

Imagine a collision between a car and a bike. With no such law in place you might expect there to be some argument about whose fault it was etc. etc. and as cyclists we all know from experience who's likely to come off worst...

However you put such a law in place and when you have a collision, the motorist has broken the law by default because they couldn't have been the required distance. I'm sure there would be circumstances where the motorist could argue that the cyclist was riding like a dick, but they would be forced to make that argument, you wouldn't start from a 50/50 position.

People have been talking about this kind of thing in the UK for years in order to make cycling safer, but nothing has ever been done. In fact I think this is the first form of words I've seen that achieves this goal.

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+1 This appears to me to be the primary reason for this and similar laws - enforcement after a collision. Absent a collision the "reasonableness" of a particular passing distance becomes subject to argument. –  Gary.Ray Oct 25 '12 at 15:25

It's more concrete than it seems, I assure you. The operator can't do it knowingly or recklessly: so whether you the operator are aware of your position or unaware, you're in violation of the law if you are within 3 feet of the bicycle. It's you're responsibility to be aware of your own vehicle.

Unless within a reasonable distance, this part sort of leaves the end open so that each individual scenario can be evaluated. Less than 3 feet probably isn't reasonable unless you're going under 5 mph. So the bottom line is keep a reasonable and safe distance.

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Minnesota:

the operator of a motor vehicle overtaking a bicycle or individual proceeding in the same direction on the roadway shall leave a safe distance, but in no case less than three feet clearance, when passing the bicycle or individual and shall maintain clearance until safely past the overtaken bicycle or individual.

Seems fairly clear, and I read it to mean that 3 feet is the minimum.

Keep in mind that several western states (dunno about Utah) have "safe and reasonable" escape clauses for many of their traffic laws. Eg, you can drive 100mph if it's "safe and reasonable under the circumstances", regardless of posted speed limits. That just the way the "wild west" is.

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