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3ft is not enough says CTC as debate about safe passing distances catches fire

So how much room do cyclists need "plenty" says the Department for Transport...

Since first reported on Tom Amos’s petition on Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s official site, the number of signatories has almost doubled from 785 to more than 1,500, but the petition has also sparked a lively debate within the cycling community about whether three feet is actually enough.

CTC, the cyclists’ organisation, believes that setting a three-foot passing rule isn’t sufficient. campaigns co-ordinator, Debra Rolfe told, “three feet is just not enough in this situation, and the Highway Code says to give as much space as you would do when overtaking a car. Of course, it’s very important that drivers give sufficient space when overtaking cyclists, but as to how much space, that depends on how fast the driver and the cyclist are going, and what the road conditions are more generally.”

However, the Highway Code lacks precision when it comes to how much space drivers should leave cyclists, a point made in our original story and in the many comments on it since, and one of the reason's for the 3ft petition in the first place. A spokesperson for the Department for Transport told, “our advice to motorists in the Highway Code is clear that drivers should leave plenty of room when overtaking a cyclist, especially if they are towing a trailer or are driving a large vehicle. ”

Although the specific distance isn’t defined, when asked what constituted “plenty of room,” the spokesperson said that “Rule 163 of the Highway Code adds that a driver should give cyclists ‘at least as much room’ as you would a car,” and that there is a picture illustrating this in the Highway Code.”

The problem is that “plenty of room” is a subjective measure and it suggests that three feet or not, there is a need in the UK to have a minimum passing distance clarified so that all road users know where they stand and so that questions of libability can be more easily settled when cyclists are 'clipped' by motorists.

In Europe there are minimum passing distances set in a number of countries, in France the rule is that motorists need to give cyclists a minimum of 1m in towns (just over 3ft) and 1.5m (just under 5ft) on other roads, Germany and Spain go for 1.5m.

Amos was inspired to start his campaign through the example of a US-based pressure group that has already succeeded in having a three-foot rule introduced in 11 US states, Texas became the latest to do so just a few days ago. In the US many cyclists expressed their support for the initiative by wearing yellow jerseys with the words ‘3 Feet Please’ printed in black letters on the back. Joe Mizereck from Tallahassee, Florida, the man behind the 3ft jerseys started a campaign earlier this year to get as many UK cyclists as possible wearing them. 

Over here news of the petition is starting to make it through to the mainstream with the Guardian yesterday weighing in on the subject. News of the petition prompted Guardian blogger Ben Thomas to recount a near miss he witnessed at London’s Marble Arch, when a cyclist he was travelling behind came close to being sucked under a double-decker coach that left minimal passing room as it overtook him. Thomas says that when the cyclist remonstrated with the coach driver further up the road, he was asked, “how wide are your handlebars?”

If you are a British citizen or resident and haven’t already signed the petition, you can do so here or if you think three feet is not enough you can also start a petition on the Downing St website asking for British passing rules to be brought in to line with those in Germany, France and Spain. The Downing St site will not accept petition on over-lapping points, but when we searched for petitions on 'Minimum safe passing distances for over-taking cyclists" it couldn't find any related petitions.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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The Womble | 13 years ago

Hi folks.
I launched a 3 month Minimum Safe Passing Distance petition here in Queensland Australia about 5 months ago which finished with over 5000 signatures...

This week, I finally got a response from the State Transport Minister. It was eye opening to say the least...

Take this extract:
The introduction of a specific rule to restrict vehicles to keeping one metre from cyclists would
be, in many cases, detrimental to cyclists. The safe distance between a cyclist and a vehicle varies
considerably depending on the speed the vehicles are travelling. For example, where a vehicle is
travelling at 100km/h a distance of one metre is dangerously close, but at very low speeds
distances of less than one meter may be safe. To provide a law making a one metre distance
mandatory would make it illegal for cyclists to move slowly and closely past queued vehicles.
This is not a desired outcome for cyclists.

What this means is that a motorist in this state, and by their reasoning any state or territory in Australia, is not compelled to give a cyclist 1m in any direction, whether that be from behind, to the left - which prevents us from riding wide enough so as to avoid obsticles such as car doors or road furnature, and to the right. They actually say in their response that less than a metre is safe when overtaking on any road other than that which has an open posted speed limit.

In citing their reasons for rejecting this petition, they
use a cycling safety campaign from 10! years ago in order to show that they have made efforts to raise driver awareness. this campaign was launched based on a driver survey conducted which canvassed motorists views on cyclists on Queenslands roads. Here are some of the findings...

Queensland Transport market research provided specific data about driver interaction with cyclists. The market research found 20 per cent of motorists surveyed admitted to failing to move over for cyclists, with males aged under 30 years the least likely to move over. In Wave 3 research conducted in September 1998, 21 per cent of motorists said they would not move over for a cyclist if there was lots of traffic in the next lane prohibiting them from moving over. A further 15 per cent of motorists would fail to move over if the road wasn’t wide enough.
Queensland Transport’s SafeST research in July 1999 also surveyed motorists’ attitudes towards cyclists. The survey found one in five motorists did not regard cyclists as legitimate road users. People residing in regional Queensland (82 per cent) were more likely than residents in south-east Queensland (67 per cent) to feel that cyclists have a legitimate right to be on the road. Also, men (43 per cent) were more likely than women (21 per cent) to regard cycling as a legitimate means of transport.
Motorists who do not regard cyclists as legitimate road users (19 per cent) believed that:
It was too dangerous for cyclists to ride on the road (54 per cent).
The road isn’t wide enough (24 per cent).
Cyclists cause traffic congestion (16 per cent).
Share the road public education campaign 1
One in five motorists admitted to not always making room for cyclists on the road and one in four motorists admitted to never checking for cyclists before opening the car door.

I can tell you that much has changed in this state in the last 10 years, not only has congestion on our roads doubled, but the incidence of road rage towards cyclists has increased far beyond that.
That a government can reject such a proposal out-of-hand is bordering on criminal considering the views of Queensland motorists that they themselves admit to being aware of.
The state government has in a press release within the last 2 weeks, commited (apparently) to a 30 year plan for the construction of a comprehensive cycle pathway network. We take this with a grain of salt with a state election looming for a government trying to cover its bases when they are widely tipped to be ousted for various reasons.
Even if they are re-elected, how many more cyclists will be hospitalised or killed over the next three decades.
The action is now set to go national in the next few weeks to target the Federal Road Rules

Tony Farrelly | 14 years ago

Thanks John

reohn2 | 14 years ago

My name is John Wood and I have started a petition for a minimum 5ft clearance when motor vehicles overtake cyclists, it is to reinforce the Highway Code's recommendation,I hope you'll sign it here:-

John Wood

Tom Amos | 14 years ago

All I can say, is that some people really don't seem to "get it"!

Iain Mackay - you may leave 6 feet when you pass a cyclist, enough for him to fall off etc. BUT the average motorist does not! And that is the point of the campaign. If cyclist-motorists leave plenty of room, that's great. But the rule is aimed at the motorists who have no understanding of what it is like to be passed with less than 1 foot in distance whilst on your bike.

Each time I cycle to my gym, I regularly experience motorists who pass literally within inches of my handlebars. It freaks you out because you always think "what if the next guy who does it clips me?" And what is frustrating is that I could be as good as Lance Armstrong in my skills but I can't influence how someone else drives. That's why we need the law.

And to all those who don't think that 3 feet is sufficient, sign the petition and we can argue over the distance later! Remember, it is a minimum requirement, NOT a recommendation to drive within 3 feet of a cyclist. If we ever do manage to get a meeting with Lord Adonis, we will ask for 1.5m as a starting point!

voujan replied to Tom Amos | 14 years ago
Tom Amos wrote:

you may leave 6 feet when you pass a cyclist, enough for him to fall off etc. BUT the average motorist does not!

Well the average motorist is ill-informed and does not realise that in this country they should leave the same distance as they would when overtaking a car (more than 3 feet). Because they don't know this we will compromise on the safe distance and just say 3 feet because dangerous drivers might not complain too much about that. No, your right, I don't get it.

Tom Amos wrote:

And to all those who don't think that 3 feet is sufficient, sign the petition and we can argue over the distance later!

I don't think so. It will be very difficult to have 3 feet made law then try to change it. If you put it in people’s heads that 3 feet is a safe distance it will be almost impossible to persuade anyone we need more. Go with what the Highway Code recommends and what is law on mainland Europe. Why do you think 3 feet is safe? Why do you think the distance for overtaking cyclists should be reduced to 3 feet? Why do you think the experts in road safety have got it wrong? What are you basing this 3 feet distance on? What research, what methodology? Signing this petition is throwing away the recognition of a safe overtaking distance.

Tom Amos wrote:

Remember, it is a minimum requirement, NOT a recommendation to drive within 3 feet of a cyclist.

Minimum for what size of vehicle on what type of road in what weather conditions and driving at what speed? The campaign is not clear and therefore dangerous. What is the distance that you recommend for overtaking in 70mph zone. I hope it is more than 3 feet, and I hope there is a shirt for campaigners to wear on such a road, because anyone who advertises three feet in such conditions is misinforming road users and must accept responsibility for encouraging dangerous driving.

If you say 3 feet is law but we recommend more, that will have the same effect as telling motorists to reduce speed considerably in bad weather conditions, but it is not illegal to drive at the speed limit.

Why don't you sign the petition for the 5 feet limit since this is a more credible proposal in a European country, then we can negotiate on reducing it in certain circumstances. I can see good reason for people who want 5ft not to sign the 3 feet one, but not vice versa.

joemizereck | 14 years ago

All good. Then here is what I would like to suggest. Given the precedents set in other European countries, that UK cyclists agree to pursue the adoption of a law that requires motorists to give cyclists 1.5 metres clearance when passing from the rear. Get everyone on the same page and make it happen. And I would hope that the CTC will lead the charge in securing this protection for UK cyclists.

What do you think?

Joe [at]
joe [at]

jobysp | 14 years ago

I was given less than 3 inches by someone yesterday and he laughed as he did it, until he realised that I could cycle as fast as he could legally drive on that road  19


"leave 6 feet - enough room for the cyclist to fall off".

Thats the best rule yet!

iainmackay | 14 years ago

I learned to drive a car in the 60s and an articulated truck in the 70s. My HGV driving instructor set down 4 feet as the minimum passing space to leave a cyclist, but the best advice I ever heard was to "leave 6 feet - enough room for the cyclist to fall off".

3 feet is way too close for a long vehicle passing a cycle with any significant speed differential. Speaking personally, I would always leave the full 6 feet (1.7m) unless the passing speed is low and very close to that of the cyclist. Even then, you only go past when you're sure it's safe.

As a cyclist, I definitely feel uncomfortable if a vehicle passes me at speed with only 3 feet to spare. Congratulations to the instigators for a very eye-catching campaign, but what a shame it's targeted at such an unambitious outcome. How did that happen??

TiNuts | 14 years ago

Thanks for the heads up on the 5' petition. I definitely think that, although 3' is better than nothing, if a 1.5 m distance has been legislated for in Germany, Spain, France and other EU countries it should be law here too. The main barrier to effecting such implementation in the UK is that there will be considerable opposition from the largely anti-cyclist motorist lobby in this country. My (and many other cyclists') experiences have convinced me that we desparately need legislation in this country.

louscannon3 replied to TiNuts | 14 years ago

I agree with many of the above comments
When I passed my driving test in the 70s it specifically said 4ft for passing cars and 6 FEET for passing cyclists (as was said "enough to fall off" (which is of course quite possible given the crumbling state of our roads particularly at the edges).
As many have said we may have a problem with those that refuse to get out of their cars and just give them ammunition if we ask for more. The argument would be along the line of "They hold up the traffic because you cannot overtake them due to not having 6 feet". My personal response would be "Tough, you will not get there much quicker anyway as usually cars squeeze by and you still catch them at the next junction / set of lights etc".
We would do well to ask the department of transport:
1. Why these guideline distances were dropped ?
2. Why we do not like the rest of Europe have a distance set?
3. When we are going to harmonise with the best safety guidelines in Europe. e.g. Why have we not got as many dedicated cycle lanes / shared pavements as say Denmark.

Lets not just stop at asking for a separation distance where no cycle way exists. Lets ask for more paths!

Denzil Dexter | 14 years ago

Agree about the united front, but I'm with the CTC 3ft is simply not enough, I'd rather have no law than a dumb one.

Surely what we should be pressing for is the UK law to be clarified along the lines of what already exists in Europe - first off it's more generous to cyclists and second it's probably more likely to get done because it should be presented as a simple harmonisation of the rules rather than creating a new rule.

Maybe as the story suggests another petition on the Downing St website.

bike ie replied to Denzil Dexter | 14 years ago

I agree with Denzil and the CTC. If 1.5 meters (5ft) is law in Germany, Spain, France and other EU countries it can be law here too. The Highway Code says "same distance as a car”, which is about five feet. For people who are always cycling in 30mph zones, they me feel ok with 3feet, but that’s not enough in general road conditions. I do not buy the idea that if we get 3 feet in law that means we will eventually get more. Quite the opposite!

I do not like the idea of motorists having it in their head that the law says 3 feet and that’s that. That is the impression that this campaign is giving. 3 feet is certainly not enough in 40+mph roads. I hope the campaigners are putting out the message that the 3 feet shirts should never be worn outside 30mph zones, otherwise they are encouraging dangerous driving and putting cyclists at risk. I favor having 5 ft as the law, then make exceptions to lessen it. For example, 5ft except when overtaking at less than 30 mph where 3 feet is the minimum. This means motorists have it in their heads that 5ft is law unless you slow down.

As with speed limits, to a motorist 3 feet will mean 2.5 feet and if there is an accident it will be difficult to draw a conclusion. When the law is 5 feet, there is no doubt. Ireland’s cyclists have been campaigning for the 1.5 meter law for well over a year. Lets not jeopardize what the experts say is safe in order to easier win approval.

There is already a petition for the 5ft minimum. Please sign it and inform others:

mr-andrew | 14 years ago

I lack Mr Mizereck's eloquence, but I find myself agreeing with his sentiments. CTC are simply muddying the waters here. Cyclists should present a united front and hang in for the 3 feet. Once that is passed into law, we can begin to petition for more.

As it stands, there is going to be a fair amount of opposition from motorists, and the wider the passing distance requested, the more ammunition we will give them to counter the proposal.

joemizereck | 14 years ago

First, I want to commend Tom Amos for sticking his neck out in initiating the 3 foot law petition and igniting this healthy discussion. It takes a special person to enter the public fray and hang in there for the ride, a ride that is often times unpleasant. With all of the negative contributions being offered a weaker person would have already said "I don't need this", but Tom has a vision and his vision is spot save cyclists' lives by securing a UK law requiring motorists to give cyclists at least 3 feet clearance when passing them from the rear. That's what Tom wants. To save cyclists' lives. And that's what we should all be focused on...saving lives and reducing injuries. Can a law requiring at least 3 feet clearance save lives? Indeed it can and will. Would it be better to have a law requiring more space, 4 or 5 or more? Of course it would. The more space the better...but, here's what we need to keep in mind. Getting those additional feet will not be easy...or likely. And I am reminded of an important lesson from a state leader; "You can try and eat the whole apple and choke or you can eat it one bite at a time". Ben Thomas asks, "Is a legal minimum of three feet better than nothing – or should we be rejecting that and asking for more?" The answer is get the three, and start using it as a tool to educate motorists on the need to give cyclists at least 3 feet (by law) and preferably more when passing from the rear. That uis where the law's greatest value is a law based tool to educate motorists about what is and is not a safe passing distance.

Second, I was a bit shocked when I received an email today from the UK's Debra Rolfe at the CTC, basically saying, our cyclists are covered and they "already have a rule that stipulates at least 3 feet". What? A rule is not a law, plus I couldn't even find where 3 feet was even mentioned. How is it possible that an organization that is suppose to be serving the needs of cyclists can so easy settle for something that doesn't truly protect cyclists? Doesn't help save lives? Why in God's name aren't they out in front leading the charge? Then it dawns on me: this isn't their idea. So, they would oppose it and settle for something less. It was pretty clear from her message that I should keep my focus within the USA and leave UK cyclists in the good hands of the CTC. Sorry Debra...I am on a mission, as is Tom Amos to give cyclists in the USA, the UK and around the world something they desperately need..laws that protect them from harm. I hope you, the CTC and others will see the value in getting such a law passed in the UK. But as for bugging out, ain't going to happen. I am tired of seeing lives lost. Aren't you? Aren't we all?

Do the right thing UK and work to get a 3 foot law passed. There is simply too much at stake.

Thank you,
Joe Mizereck
joe [at]
joe [at]

voujan replied to joemizereck | 14 years ago


joemizereck wrote:

Would it be better to have a law requiring more space, 4 or 5 or more? Of course it would. The more space the better...but, here's what we need to keep in mind. Getting those additional feet will not be easy...or likely.

Joe, the UK is a part of the European Union. The Lisbon Treaty has now been ratified and laws will be created in Brussels. It is more likely that we will be able to pass a law that is keeping with the rest of Europe and complies with UK Road Safety standards. So really you should start telling the EU they are wrong to have 5 feet, as the UK should ignore their own Highway Code and comply with the USA's standards.

joemizereck wrote:

The answer is get the three, and start using it as a tool to educate motorists

You think that's how it works here!? I do not question your intentions; I do question your lack of research before promoting a campaign in a country you clearly know little about.

joemizereck wrote:

Then it dawns on me: this isn't their [CTC] idea. So, they would oppose it and settle for something less.

Well here you have just lost all credibility. You cannot handle the fact that an organisation that has successfully campaigned for cyclists for the past century, in a country you know little about, has had the audacity to disagree with YOU!!! A little more research and discussion would have got your campaign off on the right foot. 3ft is ok for USA, Europe demands 5. The CTC do not want to diminish what is not yet law, but what is used to categorise dangerous driving. Having a law of 3 feet will only protect motorists who pass cyclists at 2.5 feet when travelling at 70mph. To accuse a critic of being jealous of your campaign simply looks like you cannot justify your stance.

joemizereck wrote:

It was pretty clear from her message that I should keep my focus within the USA and leave UK cyclists in the good hands of the CTC.

CTC does not make the laws but they do influence government. They simply are representing what are the safety standards for UK and EU, and that any laws passed should not be anything less.

I think UK cyclists should be united in what they ask for. United with the cycling friendly cultures of Europe and not with the car culture of the USA.

OldRidgeback | 14 years ago

Ah, but when the campaign gets into the Telegraph and finally, the Daily mail, that's when it'll start to have an effect. I mean the Guardian's read by leftie vegetarian, errr, cyclists isn't it?

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