— Minister for Transport says he is “not convinced of the benefits of fixing a passing distance in law”
A minimum passing distance for motorists overtaking bicycles was raised last week in the Dail by Fine Gael TD for Meath East, Regina Doherty.
The mention in the Irish parliament follows Stayin’ Alive at 1.5 campaigning politicians and the public on the issue. Doherty however said the issue of motorists poorly overtaking people cycling is a personal one to her.
According to the campaign, France, Spain, Germany, and Portugal have a 1.5 metre passing distances law. The law in France is for a 1.5 metres passing distance, reduced to 1 metres in urban areas where speeds are expected to be lower. Last month the US state of Alabama State Senate last month passed a 5 foot (1.5m) passing law, while the Australian state of Queensland is in the middle of a two-year trial of a 1.5 metre passing law where speed limits are greater than 60km/h, reduced to 1 metre the speed limit is 60km/h or lower.
Doherty said: “I ask the Minister to look at how infringement of the current law is being policed, for want of a better word. I do not believe it is being policed in any meaningful way. I cite a very personal example. I suppose all politics is personal, because it does not affect one until it comes into one’s home. A few weeks ago an incident happened involving my husband, who is an avid cyclist, and a very large bus.”
She added: “He felt extremely vulnerable one evening. When they caught up with each other at traffic lights and he went to take a photograph of the bus, the driver of the bus got out and was exceptionally aggressive both verbally and physically with him. That makes the cyclist even more vulnerable. It brought home to me that the drivers on the road do not have the respect for cyclists that they should have. While we are not talking about all people, many people do not see cyclists as legitimate road users.”
She said that “cyclists are legitimate road users”. Adding: “They are not just adults; many of them are children, and we need to recognise that they have a right to be on the road. They do not have any less of a right to be on the road just because they do not pay road tax.”
However, responding, the Minister for Transport seemed to pour cold water on the idea. The Dublin-based Fine Gael minister, Paschal Donohoe, is known to commute by bicycle.
Minister Donohoe said: “I am aware of the campaign referred to by the Deputy, as was my predecessor. However, I am not convinced of the benefits of fixing a passing distance in law. The reason is the difficulty of enforcing it if enshrined in primary legislation. Such a law would only be enforceable in circumstances where a member of An Garda Síochána witnessed a car overtaking a cyclist at a dangerously close distance. Even then, it would be difficult to prove the specific passing distance.”
Regardless, the minister said he would meet with the Stayin’ Alive at 1.5 group. He said: “There are genuine difficulties in respect of implementing what the group is seeking, but given that the Deputy has raised the matter I will meet the group with her in the coming months to explain these challenges and to see if there are other ways to deal with this.”
Doherty replied: “I appreciate that and I will take the Minister up on his offer. I am not denying that it would be difficult to pass a law because it would be difficult to police it. However, we have the same situation, if not worse, with the current law.”
Last year, the Australian state of Queensland started a two-year trial of a 1m and 1.5m minimum passing distance — 1m applies where the speed limit is 60km/h or less, while 1.5m applies where the speed limit is greater than 60km/h.
Linked to this, the Queensland Department of Transport explains: “Other road rules have also been changed to allow motorists to cross centre lines, straddle lane lines or drive on painted traffic islands to make it easier for them to pass cyclists, when it is safe to do so.”
In the United States, Alabama State Senate last month passed a 5 foot (1.5m) passing law, while Pennsylvania has a 4 foot (1.2m) passing law. Around 25 other states have a 3 foot passing law, but this distance is seen by many campaigners as too close to count as safe passing.
Minister Donohoe expanded on his caution against the idea by saying: “Once something is enumerated in primary law, the burden of proof is high. That is why there is a challenge with this matter, which we can discuss. The “Stayin’ Alive at 1.5″ campaign makes reference to a law which was implemented in Queensland from the middle of April 2014 for a two year period. This puts in place a minimum distance of 1 m when passing cyclists in a 60 km/h or less speed zone and 1.5 m when the speed limit is over 60 km/h. This law is the first of its kind in Australia and it might well be appropriate to look at the impact of that law and see what evidence it has yielded. The Road Safety Authority has indicated that it will examine practice in this area in other countries.”