A passing problem

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Imagine you could magically change one belief drivers have about road use. What would it be? For me a top contender is the belief that you pass a cyclist when you encounter them on the road. Instead, I would want all drivers to think of it as overtaking, and the concept should be identical to overtaking any other vehicle.

At the moment the most widespread belief is that the presence of a cyclist on the road should make as close as possible to no difference to a driver. Society believes the cyclist’s duty is to position themselves such that the driver can pass them, the same way they’d pass a lamppost.

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Cyclists are viewed as a feature on the road that should not affect the flow of motorised traffic. In other words, there is a widespread belief that the width of a car and the width of a bicycle should be accommodated in a lane simultaneously.

Roads don’t need to be very narrow for this belief to become problematic. Drivers continue to behave as they believe things should work: the lane should accommodate the width of their car and the width of the cyclist side by side.

If the lane is narrower, it’s a tighter squeeze, and if they think about it at all, I think people would reason that’s just the way it is in narrower streets.

Isolated in a metal box, devoid of ever experiencing for themselves what such a situation feels like for cyclists, many drivers don’t see the harm. Likewise, the belief that the lane at all times should accommodate both the width of their car and the width of a cyclist means that when the cyclist positions themselves in such a way that the driver cannot squeeze past, many respond with anger. That anger stems from the belief that they should be able to pass the cyclist. If the road is simply too narrow, the go-to response is anger with the cyclist for being there.

The phrase expressing this in a few words is when people vent their frustration with cyclists who “don’t stay on the left side”. Per the law, cyclists have a right to the width of the lane, so unless they are cycling into oncoming traffic, they are “on the left side”.

Few people comprehend this. The proposed Minimum Passing Distance Law allows drivers to still intrude into part of that space, provided they don’t come closer than a metre/1.5 metres to the cyclist. That should be viewed as the grace that it is.

Until we figure out magic, we should perhaps avoid talking about drivers passing cyclists. Vehicles only pass each other on the road if they are in separate lanes. Otherwise it’s an overtake, and we should call it that.


  1. Nicely written. The accusation of being in the “middle of the road” rather than the correct “middle of the lane” is also another apt description for this type of mindset.

  2. Passing is a synonym for overtaking though, isn’t it? It’s the usual term in the USA for what we’d call overtaking, from what I remember, but I guess usage might be rather different here in Ireland. I agree with the overall sentiment of the article anyway!

  3. Not really. Do you overtake a house? No you pass it. That’s the point I think Nadia is making. Overaking is something you do to other cars and if I remember my rules of road correctly that’s the term that’s used and it includes all sorts of things to do like checking your mirrors, pulling out etc. Things that a lot of motorists don’t do when they are ‘passing’ a cyclist. Passing is a pasive thing that happens without you doing anything. Overtaking is an active thing that you think about.

    I completely agree that far too many motorists don’t think at all when they are passing a cyclist. I’ve had plenty of drivers pass me very close whenever there was plenty of space between them in the drivers seat and the white line for god’s sake. I don’t know whether it is down to lack of thought or nastiness but some drivers seem to think that staying in the middle of their lane is the right thing to do and if there are any cyclists in front of them then that’s the cyclist’s problem.

  4. Excellent analysis of the likely mindset of drivers who closely pass cyclists rather than safely overtake them. My only problem with the article is the implication that the majority of drivers are in the first category rather than the second. Whether on a commute or out for a spin, we all remember the close passes but are inclined to forget the many safe overtakes. I agree that one close pass is one too many and that the consequences can be very serious but I’m not sure that accusing the majority of motorists of such behaviour is either fair, balanced or useful.

    • This is a fair point, however, I’d want to do some kind of data gathering and analysis before I would agree that the belief that a lane should accommodate the width of a cyclist and the width of a car at the same time is not the majority view.

  5. One attitude needs to change more than any other: the idea that you have to get where you’re going in the shortest time possible.
    The result is that most people who ride bicycles are passed several times on every journey by drivers who swerve out to pass, then screech to a halt at the next junction, traffic lights or traffic jam.

  6. Eric:

    It might be because I lived for a while in the USA, but “pass” and “overtake” are pretty much the same term for me. “Pass” in fact is what they say in the USA for the action of getting around a car in front of you. I don’t recall anyone ever saying “overtake” at all.

    “Overtaking or passing is the act of one vehicle going past another slower moving vehicle, travelling in the same direction, on a road.”

    I’m not sure what point I’m making, except maybe that people in the USA are as bad as anywhere else for inappropriate manoeuvres in getting ahead of bicycles, and they don’t have a distinct word for getting past motorised vehicles. So I’m not sure eschewing the word “pass” in the context of getting past bicycles will have that much effect.

  7. “Do you overtake a house? No you pass it.”
    I’m not 100% sure, but I think in the USA you would “pass by” the house, and you would “pass” both cyclists and cars. So the USA (I’m open to correction, but it’s my distinct recollection) already has the same term for catching up with and moving past both a car and a bicycle, and from what I recall the standards of making such a manoeuvre there were actually worse than here.

  8. My experience is the majority of cars who pass/overtake me on the road do so safely. This is particularly the case this year, with greater awareness to give cyclists more space on the road.

    The drivers who don’t give space are as described in this article. They come up close behind, and squeeze through a narrow gap, rather than waiting 5 seconds when there is more space to make a safe maneuver. Even though that type of driver is in the minority (say less than 5%), I reckon I encounter about one every week. As a result, I tend to “take the lane”, whenever I cycle on a route where I might be bullied.

    Nice article Nadia.


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