One of the things which puts people off cycling on the road is the tendency of some drivers to pass far too close. So how much room should a driver give a cyclist or other vulnerable road user when overtaking? Well, the Highway Code in Rule 163 says “Overtake only when it is safe and legal to do so. You should: … give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car”

Give vulnerable road users space

This is followed up in Rule 212 which states “When passing motorcyclists and cyclists, give them plenty of room (see Rules 162-167). If they look over their shoulder, it could mean that they intend to pull out, turn right or change direction. Give them time and space to do so.” So the advice in the Highway Code is clear. However, it is just that, advice, the Highway Code only tells drivers that they should give vulnerable road users space on the roads, not that they must. This is an important distinction because where the Highway Code uses the word must, it is indicating the Rule is a legal requirement and there is a penalty if the Rule is disobeyed. Where the word should is used, failure to comply with the Rule “will not, in itself, cause a person to be prosecuted, but may be used in evidence in court proceedings to establish liability”.

Where does this leave vulnerable road users? Well, it leaves them vulnerable without proper legal protection. In other countries, notable France and the USA (in 19 states) there are laws which require drivers to give cyclists road space, in the US at least 3 feet (0.9 m) and in France at least 1.5 m (4.9 ft). Shouldn’t it be the same in the UK? There is currently a petition to the Prime Minister to introduce legislation that would mean all motorists must allow a minimum of 3 feet in distance between their vehicle and any cyclist that they are driving past. If you would like to add your signature, you must do so before 06 January 2010.

Personally, I would prefer that any legislation forthcoming apply to all vulnerable road users and follows the French model, requiring for a minimum distance of 1.5 m when overtaking. We all have an equal right to use the roads, drivers need to realise that they are not more equal than other road users. It is high time that we did something about the Sacred Bull in Society’s China Shop!

Update: Since this post was written, the Highway Code has been updated to explicitly say that drivers should “leave at least 1.5 metres when overtaking cyclists at speeds of up to 30mph, and give them more space when overtaking at higher speeds” (Rule 162) and “Cyclists are also advised to ride at least a door’s width or 1 metre from parked cars for their own safety” (Rule 213). Additional wording has been added to Rule 163 that states: “you should wait behind the motorcyclist, cyclist, horse rider, horse-drawn vehicle or pedestrian and not overtake if it is unsafe or not possible to meet these clearances.”