How a Safe Passing Law Could Reduce Car Collisions With Bicycles in Texas
Bicycling has been a great leisure activity and pastime for decades. Its popularity has soared in recent years as more and more Texans learned about the health benefits of riding a bike. Over the past twenty years, biking has become more than just a physical fitness craze—it has become a preferred mode of transportation for many commuters. Whether a way to maintain good health, to decrease pollution, or to just have a bit of freedom before work, people are opting for the peddle over the keys more and more.
But the new popularity of bicycling has come with a cost. Each year, approximately 300 cyclists are injured and 50 killed in car accidents in Texas alone. This statistic has begun to shed light on not only bike safety but also a more serious overall traffic issue: the hazards that cars cause when sharing the road. In addition to bicyclist fatalities, 400 Texas pedestrians and 500 Texas motorcyclists are killed every year as a result of car accidents.
The Safe Passing Law
Texas traffic laws are a patchwork of regulations concerning which vehicle has the right of way in specific situations. For most of a decade, now, advocates on behalf of bike riders have been saying that one more law is needed.
In 2009, a bill was presented in the Texas legislature to respond to the high fatality statistics caused by cars sharing the road with others. In particular, the proposal focused on the degree in which “vulnerable road users” (such as bikers, pedestrians, and motorcyclists) are at risk from car accident injuries. It also put an emphasis on how vehicle occupants usually bear the least amount of risk in these types of accidents. The proposal, named the Safe Passing Law, included the following provisions:
- A standard safe passing distance. The bill would have established a minimum passing distance of three feet (or six feet for commercial vehicles) when road conditions allow. Motor vehicles could legally pass vulnerable road users only if they could maintain at least that minimum passing distance at all times. If roads are hazardous, passing would be considered too dangerous to attempt.
- Right-turn limitations. The bill would have forbidden “right-hook” maneuvers, in which a car could turn right in front of a bike, pedestrian, or motorcycle.
- Standard left-turn yields. The bill required drivers to properly yield to pedestrians, bikes, etc. when making left hand turns.
- Drive-by limitations. The bill would have prohibited drivers from throwing debris out their windows—especially while passing; tossing trash out the window may easily hit or distract vulnerable road users and cause an accident.
The proposal carried enforcement provisions including misdemeanor charges and fines. If a violation caused an accident, consequences could involve up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.
An Idea That Would Not Die
The original Safe Passing Law was passed by the Texas legislature in 2009, but vetoed by then-Governor Rick Perry. Perry stated in his veto declaration that the bill put too much responsibility on drivers and not enough on the “vulnerable road users” to stay safe. This surprised many observers, who had expected the governor to sign the bill into law. Even though the bill had passed both houses of the legislature by wide margins, the end of the legislative session meant that overturning the veto wasn’t possible.
In 2013, a similar Safe Passing Bill was filed and passed the transportation committees of both the House and the Senate, but unfortunately not in time to reach the floor for a full vote. A similar bill was introduced in 2015, but it was not passed by either chamber.
Although the state government has not seen fit to act on this safety measure, almost two dozen town and city governments have enacted their own municipal safe passing ordinances. Among the cities that have acted are Austin, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio.
Texans Still Could Benefit From a Statewide Law
Although there are laws on the books requiring car and truck drivers to pass pedestrians, road workers, and bicyclists at a safe distance, current laws don’t specify what that distance is. The laws also fail to impose firm penalties for violating the right-of-way for vulnerable road users. The results have sometimes been bloody mayhem in our streets.
Everyone has an interest in seeing that our roads are safer. We encourage interested citizens to talk about this issue among family, friends, and their social media contacts. If you’re so moved, comment on this article in the space on this page or write a letter to a political leader to support safe passing.