We are often asked about the enforcement of Minimum Passing Distance Law.
This page covers the basic rationale behind MPDL along with its enforcement.
Let’s be clear from the outset..
Minimum passing distance law (MPDL) is in no way a substitute for dedicated infrastructure; rather, it’s a recognition that even under optimistic infrastructure expenditure scenarios, cyclists will necessarily continue to share road space with motorists for a long time yet.
Accordingly, safety needs to improve dramatically.
MPDL is just one of many measures to reduce the rate of death and serious injury for bike riders. Investment is still required in infrastructure, education and creating a more harmonious environment between all road users. MPDL is not the stand-alone silver bullet that alone should inhabit the space of cyclist safety but it does act as an important tool in the larger tool-kit of awareness creation.
It is cost effective and its message is very clear.
One of the challenges to mutual understanding between cyclists and drivers is that riders will often see dangers or impediments that are of no consequence to motor vehicles – such as pinch points, uneven surfaces, potholes, side winds, road shoulders that disappear etc.
All of these situations can cause a bicycle rider to divert from what a driver may consider a predictable line.
One of the biggest reasons people avoid biking is a fear of having to occupy this same space as cars and the creation of a virtual dynamic envelope of space can help alleviate this.
It’s important to recognise what can be achieved by the passing of MPDL. What this can mean to current riders and others who are currently simply too scared to share the road with motor vehicles.
It would mean improved safety by providing a definition of a specified overtaking distance.
It would recognise cyclists as legitimate road users who are more vulnerable than other drivers.
It would recognise a cyclist’s need to the protection of a defined space whilst sharing the road with other road users.
It would provide motorists with a clear, unambiguous, easily recognised measure when overtaking cyclists – otherwise motorists must slow down and wait.
It could reduce the risk of cyclist/motorist crashes and also cyclist crashes caused by being side-swiped (not necessarily hit) by motor vehicles.
It would be enforceable, in that such a clear law would allow a Garda or witness to readily evaluate a driver’s actions either through eyewitness or camera footage.
It would provide cyclists with space to avoid obstacles (e.g. pot-holes, glass, etc.)
It would ultimately assist in reducing cyclist fatalities and serious injuries.
Many bicycle rider fatalities on the road are caused by being hit from behind by a vehicle travelling in the same direction. This can happen when motorists ‘take a chance’, and skim past the cyclist only to find another vehicle coming in the opposite direction at the point of overtake.
As in this example…
Bicycle riders have less protection than motorists and are more likely to be injured if a crash happens, so need a defined adequate space when interacting with motor vehicles.
It is important too, that we portray a clear message to reflect the fact that it is not necessary for a motorist to collide with a cyclist in order to endanger either life or health.
An extensive study carried out by The American League of Bicyclists in 2014 shows us that 40pc of cyclist fatalities on the road are caused by cyclists being hit from behind by a motor vehicle travelling in the same direction.
Many Irish bicycle riders too have experienced dangerous overtaking.
Here are just some examples on Irish roads video of overtake collection
It is very important to recognise that this isn’t just the idea of Stayin’ Alive at 1.5. Many jurisdictions have have progressed implementing Minimum Passing Distance Law (MPDL) and is very current.
Figure 1 shows the jurisdictions with MPDL in place or being currently discussed, while figure 2 shows the jurisdictions that have done do in the last 3 years since Stayin’ Alive at 1.5 came into being. 2 diagrams
One of the perennial questions though is the enforcement of Minimum Passing Distance Law (MPDL). How is it done in other jurisdictions and how can it work in an Irish context.
The major component of MPDL is awareness and education and both are underscored by a meaningingful and enforceable law which crystallises the overall message.
There are 3 ways that this can work.
1. Garda eye witness.
2. Camera footage.
3. Ultrasonic technology.
1. Enforcement of MPDL of course does not involve our Gardai chase motorists around with measuring tape but should they witness an encroachment of this space, then there is a clear law defining it.
Our previous transport minister, Paschal Donohoe made the following statement regarding MPDL:
(Minimum passing distance law was) – “Laudable in principle, it would be difficult to provide for in legislation in a manner that would make it practicable and enforceable. In practice, the only way to prosecute would be if a Garda witnessed an incident and could be certain that this distance was less than 1.5 metres”. There has been many eye witnessed prosecutions of MPDL by police in various jurisdictions and I’m confident that our Gardai can do so too once this is clearly defined.
There are other ways of enforcing MPDL if we examine some models from overseas..
(There is no need to reinvent the wheel in this area).
2. Another means of enforcement would involve existing CCTV or from onboard footage from the bicycle or bicycle rider. Camera technology is improving all the time and with greater demands for the need for a minimum passing space, companies such as Cycliq have responded by adding lateral distance ‘tramlines’ to footage from their Fly 12 model. This currently may or may not be conclusive proof of a violation of MPDL but this technology is in its infancy at this stage.
We sought figures from the CSO to ascertain how many motorists had been cited for dangerous driving, dangerous overtaking involving a pedal cyclist where no collision had occurred, and there is no data for this.
Anececdotally, there may be cases where ‘driving without due care and attention’ can be used but such is the magnitude of this problem that it needs a specified defined dangerous overtaking law as many jurisdictions have done and continue to do.
This has been a specific weak area in all jurisdictions that now have MPDL in place and we in Ireland are no different in that respect.
In an Irish context it is important that we have a clear law that would also reflect the fact that it is not necessary for a motorist to collide with a cyclist in order to endanger either life or health. This is an anomaly our current law doesn’t seem to deal with. This is akin to a speeding offence where most likely no damage to person or property has been sustained, but is there to prevent potential future damage should behaviour not be modified.
This is a video that I recorded while out on my bike.
Please take a moment to take a look. It’s very short.
As you will see, the the driver buzzes past in the same lane (this would become clearer if I also had my front facing camera at the time. I do now).
This would be reported this to the Gardai. On seeing this they would need to agree that the car encroached 1.5 metres and subsequently issue a Fixed Charge Notice to the driver and penalty points. To contest this, the driver would need to go to court and risk paying a much larger fine and possible court costs. I would think it would be difficult for anybody to argue that 1.5 metres of lateral space was judged and given by the driver in this case for example when taking into account the road width of 3.2 metres at that point, the car’s roughly 2 metre width, my width and road positioning.
I think if the driver see that footage, he/she just holds their hand up and pays the fine. Even if contested, then road measurements using the median strip as a reference point would prove the driver misdemeanor. Once camera footage in this case could prove that the driver didn’t make any attempt to even straddle the median strip, then it becomes even easier to prove.
This is where 1.5 metres is important.
Compare this to what we have now. We have an undefined dangerous overtaking law which is subjective. I say it sacred me, the driver says he/she didn’t hit me so what’s the problem?
Careless driving…again subjective….dangerous driving? Again subjective. Driving without due care and attention?..still not iron clad.
This is why we have no recorded incident of dangerous overtaking of a bicycle rider where no collision has occurred but as you can see from the footage, that’s simply a dangerous overtake. Dangerous overtaking by the way was seen as one of the more serious offences and had an extra penalty point added to it last year. It is now 3. But for bicycle riders in its current guise is unenforceable. This is what the dept of Transport needs to realise. We simply cannot accept the status quo where a safe overtake means that the rider just stays upright after the manoeuvre.
Now, if cases such as this were out there with a prosecutable encroachment in to the 1.5 metre zone, then this is a very powerful educational programme, where potential real gains can be made in the overall awareness for the need to pass bicycle riders with this defined lateral space.
In a nutshell, It changes a subjective, nebulous test into an objective measurable distance.
Now let’s compare this to Queensland where in April 2014, MPDL was trialled for 2 years and subsequently passed into permanent law there. Factually speaking they initiated MPDL following 23 cyclist fatalities between 2012 and 2014.
In the trial period over a similar timeframe this number has dropped to 14.
During this time 72 drivers were fined for not keeping a safe distance from bicycle riders. The majority of these were from camera footage submitted to the police. (In contrast to Ireland where the CSO hasn’t a single record of even one citation for dangerous overtaking of a bicycle rider where no collision has taken place. This despite the frequent reports of this by cyclists.)
A large cycling group there has stated that 66% of their members felt safer on the road and attributed that directly to MPDL.
There’s has been almost 50% reduction in serious injuries.
Drivers reported being more aware of cyclists on the road.
Now let’s look at a similar video from Queensland that lead to the driver being fined under their new Minimum Passing Distance Laws…
(A minimum overtake distance law is no different to other laws; there must be sufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt. In other jurisdictions, on board video footage taken by the person on the bicycle has proved irrefutable).
This video was taken to the Queensland police who judged that 1.5 metres of lateral space was not given by the driver and proceeded to issue the relevant fine and penalty points.
This too can work in the Irish context.
I note that there has been some discussion recently as to the legality of use of GoPros etc (similar to cctv, the debate centres around the right to privacy and data protection issues), so it’s possible that may be a potential obstacle to their use in enforcing MPDL in an Irish context.
With the obvious lack of policing on our roads, this would be a retrograde step and would put us out of kilter with numerous jurisdictions.
To date though, many bicycle riders have submitted footage to the Gardai and where deemed appropriate and at their discretion, they have largely followed up and many positive outcomes have been reported.
These can be used as a reference point to the motor vehicle’s overtaking point.
Other police investigation tools include sunlight shadows as in this recent case from NSW.
Alan Corvy brought the first successful case for prosecution of NSW MPDL using video footage.
This is what Alan wrote to me in an email response.
“One way we were able to determine the gap is the distance between my shadow and the cars shadow, and that it was less than my shadow width. Having a straight forward way to determine the gap seemed very important to police. Something that would stand up in court”.
3. Most importantly though, there is a fail safe ultrasonic device currently in use in the USA and Canada which measures the lateral space given to a person riding a bicycle.
Police officers on push bikes are now equipping themselves with ultrasonic safe distance passing devices to help police MPDL with a device called a C3FT or BSMART.
This device may prove to be a game changer and help enhance the light touch regulation that has been witnessed by many jurisdictions.
The C3FT or BSMART was developed to meet the case needs of law enforcement to have an accurate and verifiable way to conduct education and enhanced enforcement activities related to their Vulnerable User Laws according to its manufacturer, Codaxus LLC.
Please see links to see how this works in practice.
First one is from the USA where MPDL exists in 28 states.
Laws in Tennessee and more than 27 other states require motorists to give cyclists no less than 36 inches of clearance when passing. Most people people who are stopped have never heard of the “three-foot law. That’s why, instead of handing unwitting offenders a ticket, the officer normally hands them a pamphlet. The goal is not to write tickets, the goal is to educate motorists. The device on his handlebars, called “BSMART, has opened up a whole new way of enforcing a law that used to be the officer’s word against the violator’s.
Officers have never had a data-driven device to measure that distance, now It’s evidentiary, rather than an officer’s opinion.
This one below is from Canada where 2 provinces and some cities have MPDL.
These then are the 3 ways that MPDL is enforced overseas. Most jurisdictions that have this law in place don’t witness large numbers of citations and the lack of enforcement in some places should not be taken as evidence of MPDL ineffectiveness. The main point of this law is, as stated previously, lies in the educational opportunity of underscoring this as law. MPDL sets a legally backed standard to demonstrate to the general public the importance of respecting a cyclist’s place on the road. In addition, the legal protection offered overcomes perceived dangers in the minds of potential cyclists and encourages them to embrace the bicycle as a mode of exercise and daily transportation.
Cycling has enormous potential for transportation, reducing congestion, mental and physical wellbeing etc. but it certainly needs help to break through some barriers and old modes of thinking, that prevent it from fully realising its potential. PR campaigns only go so far; the law is a much more powerful way of sending the message. that cycling matters, is here to stay, is going to get bigger, and other road users must accordingly adapt their behaviour and attitudes.
Most if not all jurisdictions where the MPDL has been introduced, this law has allowed motorists to cross unbroken lines in order to facilitate the overtaking of a bicycle rider when conditions are safe to do so. This is something that the vast majority of Irish drivers do currently anyway and simply legalises the practice. The rationale for this lies in the fact that the installation of double or single continuous white lines is based on assumptions about how long it takes to overtake another motor vehicle. That would mean a speed differential of say, 10kph, reduced visibility of the road ahead (blocked by the vehicle in front), and an assumption that the driver must completely changes lanes to pass.
Conversely, a bicycle is a much smaller vehicle, which means that the overtaking vehicle will have better visibility of the road ahead, compared to overtaking another motor vehicle.
The small size of a cyclist also means that the overtaking vehicle probably doesn’t need to completely change lanes in order to leave 1.5m clearance. This in turn means less time in the oncoming traffic lane and a quicker passing manoeuvre. The speed differential between a cyclist and a passing vehicle in a 100pkh zone is likely to be significantly higher than for overtaking another motor vehicle, so the overtaking manoeuvre is significantly quicker. So overtaking a bicycle in a 100kph zone and crossing the continuous white lines is not inherently contradictory to the existence of the double lines in any given location (which is in reference to overtaking another motor vehicle), and is possibly quite safe. As always, the onus is on the overtaking driver to determine that it is safe to do so before passing. This educational clip from Tasmania explains:
This video below explains the need for safe passing in an easy to understand way
MPDL if implemented, would have had little to no impact on the vast majority of drivers who pass bicycle riders safely in line with road safety authority recommendations already. It’s the ones who don’t understand what a safe passing distance is that we are most concerned with.
Unfortunately a minority of drivers believe skimming past a cyclist with inches to spare is a legitimate viable alternative. It is a win-win for both cyclists and motorists. It will reduce the incidence of death and injury for cyclists, and will result in less motorists living with the grief that they injured or, at the very worst, killed a cyclist. That kind of grief never goes away.