Houston Adopts Safe Passing Rule

Houston, TX – May 13, 2013

The side of the car which bears the imprint of Janet Martinez when she was struck in June 2012 by Denise Patarawan who came too close.

By Jen Benepe

A town in the deep South has adopted a three-foot passing rule for cyclists and other vulnerable users.

The move adds Houston, Texas to a growing list of states, cities and towns that now require motorists to give three feet of space to cyclists, pedestrians, and road workers among others, when they pass reported the Examiner.com.

Trucks and other large vehicles will be required to give six-feet to the vulnerable road users.

It’s the fourth city in the state to pass such a law: the others are Austin, San Antonio, and Fort Worth. Besides requiring that minimum safe space, the ordinance prohibits motorists from throwing objects at vulnerable users. The ordinance calls for a fine of up to $500 for a violation.

Still the passage of these ordinances by the Texans towns points to the irony that the state itself has refused to pass such measures. An attempt to get a bill passed into law was thwarted by Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Yet big states with dense populations and roads and dismal fatality records for cyclists and pedestrians like New Jersey, have refused to pass safe passing laws.

This fact boggles the minds of residents who routinely feel threatened by drivers who suffer little or no penalties for striking and killing cyclists and pedestrians.

Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-29) who represents Newark and Belleville, along with several other lawmakers NJ, introduced  a safe-passing rule in May 2009 to the New Jersey Assembly, where it was passed, but the bill has been stalled in the State Senate.

Ms. Spencer was hit by a car while riding near Morristown, NJ several years previous, and suffered serious injuries. The driver who hit her cut her off and turned in front of Ms. Spencer.

In other large states like New York, where a safe-passing law exists, it is rarely enforced. New York State passed its three-foot law in 2011 after Merrill Cassell, a United Nations employee, was killed in 2009 in Greenburgh, NY by a passing bus.

But in 2012 right across the Tappan Zee Bridge and barely 5 miles away, cyclist Janet Martinez was passed so closely by a speeding 25-year-old driver, that she died almost instantly. Driver Denise Patarawan never received a ticket for killing the 53-year-old mother of two, and though she was suspected to be either texting or using her phone, no criminal charges have ever been filed against her.

In 2007, Camille Savoy was struck and killed by a driver on Route 9W in New Jersey, a popular cycling route. Despite evidence presented in court showing that Wha S. Kim, 72, had traveled over the white line into the shoulder where Savoy was traveling, and was speeding in teh 40 mph zone, she never even received a ticket for killing him and still has a license to drive. Wha Jim’s previous poor driving record which was “almost a mile long” according to one law enforcement personnel who spoke off the record, was not admissible in court.

Twenty-two states so far have passed three-foot and safe-passing laws. In a study conducted by Charles Brown of the Rutgers University Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Wisconsin was the first state to adopt such a statute in 1973, but not another state did so until Minnesota lawmakers adopted a similar measure in 1995, followed by Arizona in 2000.

But even a 3-foot passing law is considered inadequate by cyclists and urban planning professionals who often ride bicycles on the road.

“The standard 3-foot bicycle passing law found in most states is an inadequate minimum distance to pass a bicyclist at any speed,” said Andy Besold, an urban planner who studied at the Rutger’s Bloustein School and is now a planner in Boise, Idaho.

“Imagine if someone swung a baseball bat with the end passing only three feet from your head, ” continued Besold. “Now imagine that bat weighed 2 tons!”

The lack of protection for cyclists and other vulnerable road users continues to point to the almost class based distinction that car owners make when they take to the road. Many believe cyclists do not “belong,” on the road, a statement that is only all too familiar when screamed out of a window by a passing driver.

In Houston, where the law was just passed, ignorance proves not to  be the sole domaine of New Jersey and New York drivers:

In comments to a story about the ordinance in the Houston Chronicle, one writer opined that, “The cyclists wonder why we hate them”; while another observed that “…bicyclists make their own lanes and follow their own rules.”

Cycling groups in Houston, like BikeHouston  heralded the new law, while the Mayor Annise Parker said, “As a city, we need to protect everyone and anyone who uses our roads. This ordinance will make our city even more attractive to those who want to enjoy traveling in forms other than by car.”

Even the writer for the Examiner, Rex Knepp expresses skepticism about the new measure, and offers a warning to cyclists that they should not expect compliance from drivers, a breach of journalistic integrity when he writes, “Cyclists should take note: this may be one rule that is more honored in the breach than in the observance.”

List of States That Have Safe Passing Statutes

State, Date of Legislation

Arizona 2000

Arkansas 2007

Colorado 2009

Connecticut 2008

Florida 2006

Georgia 2011

Illinois 2007

Kansas 2011

Louisiana 2009

Maine 2007

Maryland 2010

Minnesota 1995

Mississippi 2010

Nebraska 2012

Nevada 2011

New Hampshire 2009

New York 2011

Oklahoma 2006

Pennsylvania–the only state to enact a 4-foot law–2011

Tennessee 2007

Utah 2005

Wisconsin 1973


Towns that have enacted Safe Passing Ordinances (Source: BikingBis.com)

Boise, Idaho:  City Council passes law requiring that cars leave 3 feet of space when passing a bicycle (also must yield to bicycles in intersections and cannot cut-off cyclists when turning) Also illegal to throw objects at bicyclists or otherwise harass them. (added Jan. 13, 2010)

Mobile, Alabama: City Council requires motorists give bicycle riders a 3-foot gap when passing. (news reports Oct. 25, 2011)

Other cities with 3-foot laws include Oklahoma City and Edmond, Oklahoma, as well as Austin, Fort Worth, Edinburgh, Beaumont, El Paso, Helotes, New Braunfels, San Antonio, and Denton, in Texas.


States of Shame –that failed to enact Safe Passing Legislation

California, Governor Edmund G. Brown of California vetoed a similar measure in September 2012

New Jersey, the Senate Transportation Committee just wants people to keep dying before they decide on the measure

Virginia, the state lawmakers have dithered their chances to pass this legislation for years


North Dakota


Rhode Island

And all of the other states not mentioned in either of these lists are States of Shame


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