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By Daniel R. Laurence

I am an all-too-frequent motorist, and insufficiently frequent road cyclist, who enjoys the activity but not the fear and aggression that are all-too-regular effects when motorist impatience and cyclist entitlement clash. Thankfully, our state will take a firm and clarified stand in favor of mobility and safety for all, recognizing the rights of those who don’t roll over the roads in cages.

 A new law in Washington protects bicyclists and other “vulnerable roadway users” from unsafe motorists who try to pass too close, clarifies laws that protect such users, and seeks to focus enforcement on their protection.  Substitute Senate Bill 5723 was delivered to Governor Inslee on April 25, 2019.  If he signs as expected, the law takes effect on January 1, 2020.

The legislature has found that certain traffic infractions cause a high number of serious injuries and deaths to vulnerable roadway users. Pedestrians, animal riders, bicyclists, persons operating farm tractors, electric personal mobility devices, motorcyclists, mopeds or motorized foot scooters are all “vulnerable roadway users”.

The bill increases penalties for six traffic infractions that have the worst outcomes for vulnerable adult users.  Under this new fine structure, rather than impose on the base fine the other general assessments imposed on traffic infractions,  all of the fine is to be deposited into a new “vulnerable roadway user education account” used to educate judges, prosecutors and police about the new law. 

Believe it or not, there were 5 Senators and 26 House members who voted against the bill. Otherwise, it passed with overwhelming majorities.

Most notably for bicyclists, the new law codifies the “three foot” passing rule in language added to RCW 46.61.110(2)(a).  The statute now requires a motorist passing a bicyclist on a single travel lane road to give the bicyclist at least 3 feet of space “where practicable”, and otherwise do so safely – which includes slowing to a “safe speed for passing relative to the speed of the [vulnerable] individual”.  Where a lane exists to the left of the cyclist or other vulnerable person, the motorist must use it if possible. The motorist must pass by moving “completely into a lane to the left of the right lane when it is safe to do so.”  The new law provides that although a bicyclist traveling slower than the normal flow of traffic on a road with any number of lanes is generally required to stay on the right side of the right through lane, the cyclist need only do so if the lane “is wide enough for a bicyclist and a vehicle to travel safely side-by-side within it”.  In other words, where side-by-side travel is safe, the cyclist cannot “occupy the lane” to block a motorist who wants to pass.  Rather, the cyclist must move right to allow the motorist to pass, unless the cyclist needs to avoid a road hazard or the cyclist is preparing to turn.  The law also clarifies that a cyclist approaching an intersection can go straight although riding in a right-turn-only lane.

The specifics, as explained in the legislative summary, are:

Overtaking and Passing. [RCW 46.61.110.] When a pedestrian, bicyclist, person riding an animal, or a farm tractor without an enclosed shell is traveling in the right lane of a roadway or on the right hand shoulder or in a bicycle lane, the driver of an approaching vehicle must:

·         on a roadway with two or more lanes moving in the direction of travel, before passing and until safely clear of the individual, move completely into the lane to the left of the right lane, when it is safe to do so;

·         on a roadway with only one lane moving in the direction of travel, reduce speed to a safe speed for passing relative to the speed of the individual; and pass at a safe distance, where practicable of at least 3 feet, to clearly avoid coming into contact with the individual or the individual’s vehicle or animal; and

·         on a roadway where there is insufficient room to the left of the individual to pass in the same lane of travel, the driver must move completely into the lane for traffic moving in the opposite direction when it is safe to do so, before passing and until safely clear of the individual.


Following Distance and Yielding Right of Way [RCW 46.61.145, 46.61.180, 46.61.185, 46.61.190, 46.61.205]. If a vehicle follows too closely to a vulnerable user of the public way or fails to properly yield the right of way to a vulnerable user of a public way at an intersection, when turning left, at a stop sign, or when entering a roadway, the driver of the motor vehicle must be assessed an additional penalty, equal to the base penalty adopted by rule by the Supreme Court—currently $48.


Pedestrians Use of Sidewalks and the Road. [RCW 46.61.250.] A sidewalk must be accessible in order for a pedestrian to be required to use the sidewalk and not the road. Where sidewalks are not provided or are inaccessible, a pedestrian may walk along or on a highway under the following circumstances:

·         when shoulders are provided and are accessible, walk on the shoulder as far from the edge of the road as is practicable, facing traffic; and

·         when shoulders are not provided or are inaccessible, walk as near to the outside edge of the roadway facing traffic, and move clear of the road when meeting an oncoming vehicle, when practicable.


Pedestrians traveling to the nearest emergency reporting device on a one-way controlled access highway do not have to travel facing traffic.


Bicycles on the Road. [RCW 46.61.770.] The law governing the operation of bicycles is modified to provide additional circumstances where a bicycle does not have to operate as far on the right side of the through lane as is safe. The exceptions include:

·         when preparing to make a turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway;

·         when approaching an intersection where right turns are permitted and there is a dedicated right turn lane, a bicycle may be operated in the right turn lane even if not turning right;

·         when reasonably necessary to avoid unsafe conditions; and

·         when operating on the road with only one lane for traffic moving in the direction of travel that can accommodate both a bike and a motor vehicle, the bike must operate far enough to the right to allow the movement of an overtaking vehicle unless other conditions make it unsafe or if preparing or making a turn.


Let’s hope the word gets out soon – help spread it by sharing this post!