Drivers in Suffolk may soon have to practice social distancing following the approval today of legislation requiring motorists to keep at least three feet of distance while passing a bicycle. The new law authored by Legislator Kara Hahn, however, is not intended to prevent disease, but rather to protect cyclists who often cite vehicles passing too closely as a top safety concern.
According to the legislation, “The operator of a vehicle which is overtaking, from behind, a bicycle proceeding on the same side of the road shall pass to the left of such bicycle at a distance of at least three (3) feet until safely clear thereof.” Violators can face fines not to exceed $225 for a first offense, $325 for a second offense and $425 for any subsequent offense. The minimum distance requirement, however, will not apply on roads that have clearly marked bicycle lanes.
In Suffolk, the urgency to implement policies that protect vulnerable road users – a term that includes both bicyclists and pedestrians – follows a January 2021 analysis by AAA Northeast that found the County had the highest number of pedestrian deaths in the State from 2011 through 2019. Additionally, there were 342 bicyclist accidents reported in Suffolk County resulting in six deaths during 2019 and five deaths in 2020 according to preliminary data from the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research.
“Suffolk’s streets have been repeatedly ranked as among the most dangerous in the nation for bicyclists, with this law we are increasing the safety of our roads,” said Deputy Presiding Officer Hahn. “We hope to educate drivers that passing too closely is a dangerous and potentially deadly threat.”
Today’s vote brings Suffolk County closer to becoming the first county in the State to adopt a “Three Foot Rule” requirement. As of February 2021, 33 states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws requiring at least three feet of distance between passing motorists and cyclists, however, New York State currently does not set a minimum distance, requiring only for motorists to pass “at a safe distance until safely clear thereof.” Cycling enthusiasts hope this will change now that a local jurisdiction has acted on the issue.
“After years of lobbying for this law at the state level we are excited that Suffolk County has taken the initiative to get this critical and life-saving law passed, said Daniel Flanzig, Esq. of the New York Bicycling Coalition. “It is our hope that this will begin to trend across the state and provide greater protection for cyclist everywhere. The New York Bicycling Coalition is forever grateful for Legislator Hahn’s efforts for spearheading this resolution”.
The bill now goes to County Executive Steve Bellone for a separate public hearing and his signature within the next 30 days.
According to Marty and Elyse Buchman, New York Bicycling Coalition board members and Co-owners of the Stonybrookside Bed and Bike Inn, “As cycling advocates and owners of a cycle tourism business, we are thrilled to see that the Suffolk County legislature has shown the courage to take the lead in the realm of bicyclist safety by becoming the first county to pass a comprehensive three foot safe passage law. County governments can serve as proving grounds for policy and pave the way for Albany to enact statewide legislation. The Stonybrookside, NYBC and all the cyclists on Long Island are proud and appreciative to have the support of the county Government, led by Deputy Presiding Officer Kara Hahn.”
“Whether for exercise, transportation, a desire to be more ‘green’ or a combination of all three, more individuals are riding bicycles than ever before,” said bill co-sponsor Legislator Tom Donnelly. “When we look at the relationship amongst those who share the roads, it is clear that the time has come to take steps to foster a safer, relaxing and more enjoyable experience for bicyclists. As Chair of the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee, I thank Legislator Hahn for spearheading this important common sense safety initiative that I am proud to co-sponsor.”
Greg Ferguson, Brookhaven Bicycle Co-op founder concluded, “Being hit by overtaking drivers is the single most common cause of death for bicycle riders. We are incredibly grateful to Legislator Hahn for this simple, commonsense law that will undoubtedly save lives. Thanks to Legislator Hahn, the whole bicycling community is safer. The three-foot law, which clarifies the rules for safe overtaking, gives the police and judges the ability to protect bicyclists. As importantly, this law will raise awareness among motorists about the need to take care when overtaking."
Photo: "Measuring West" by Steve Harris