Get Legal with Ray Thomas: Oregon’s ‘Safe Passing’ law explained

Get Legal with Ray Thomas: Oregon’s ‘Safe Passing’ law explained

This is the final installment of our three-part series on Oregon’s passing laws written by our legal correspondent Ray Thomas. Read previous parts here and here.

The 2007 Oregon Legislature added an innovative law to the nation’s passing laws when Senator Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene) reformed Oregon’s bicycle passing laws with a new collection of legal concepts. The new passing law was intended to remedy several factors believed responsible for the tragic death of triathlete Jane Higdon on Territorial Road in Eugene when she and a group of riders were passed by a truck hauling logs.

Here’s the text of the law:

ORS 811.065 Unsafe Passing of a Person Operating A Bicycle

(1) A driver of a motor vehicle commits the offense of unsafe passing of a person operating a bicycle if the driver violates any of the following requirements:

    (a) The driver of a motor vehicle may only pass a person operating a bicycle by driving to the left of the bicycle at a safe distance and returning to the lane of travel once the motor vehicle is safely clear of the overtaken bicycle. For the purposes of this paragraph, a ‘safe distance’ means a distance that is sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the driver’s lane of traffic. This paragraph does not apply to a driver operating a motor vehicle:

      (A) In a lane that is separate from and adjacent to a designated bicycle lane;
      (B) At a speed not greater than 35 miles per hour; or
      (C) When the driver is passing a person operating a bicycle on the person’s right side and the person operating the bicycle is turning left.

    (b) The driver of a motor vehicle may drive to the left of the center of a roadway to pass a person operating a bicycle proceeding in the same direction only if the roadway to the left of the center is unobstructed for a sufficient distance to permit the driver to pass the person operating the bicycle safely and avoid interference with oncoming traffic. This paragraph does not authorize driving on the left side of the center of a roadway when prohibited under ORS 811.295, 811.300 or 811.310 to 811.325.
    (c) The driver of a motor vehicle that passes a person operating a bicycle shall return to an authorized lane of traffic as soon as practicable.

(2) Passing a person operating a bicycle in a no passing zone in violation of ORS 811.420 constitutes prima facie evidence of commission of the offense described in this section, unsafe Enrolled Senate Bill 108 (SB 108-BCCA) Page 1 passing of a person operating a bicycle, if the passing results in injury to or the death of the person operating the bicycle.

(3) The offense described in this section, unsafe passing of a person operating a bicycle, is a Class B traffic violation. (Maximum fine of $360.)

While a number of states have legislated specific passing distances, the most common of which is three feet, the Oregon law uses the rider’s “fall over” height as a distance measure, a useful gauge to protect from a side swipe.

The law, which went into effect on January 1, 2008, defines “safe distance” as “sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the driver’s lane of traffic.” While a number of states have legislated specific passing distances, the most common of which is three feet, the Oregon law uses the rider’s “fall over” height as a distance measure, a useful gauge to protect from a side swipe.

Specific exclusions from the law are traffic lanes next to a bicycle lane, speeds below 35 mph, or when the rider is turning left. The 35 mph speed limit was a compromise to allow city transit services to travel more closely to riders in a low speed dense traffic environment.

The law limits the passing maneuver to instances where the roadway is unobstructed to avoid the situation where drivers are tempted to “squeeze” by persons on bicycles when there is oncoming traffic. The law makes clear its intention not to authorize passing when it is otherwise prohibited by law, and states that if a passing maneuver in a no-passing zone causes injury or death to the person on a bike then such an act is “prima facie” evidence of the offense, which means that no further proof is necessary to establish the elements of the violation. However, the law does not specifically prohibit passing a rider or group of riders in a no passing zone; instead it attempts to hold a driver responsible for an attempt to pass in a no-passing zone which results in an injury collision, either by the driver failing to yield to oncoming traffic or driving too close to the persons on bicycles.

When the Bicycle Passing Law Does Not Apply

In instances where the passing law is inapplicable, such as where the posted speed limit is less than 35 mph, then the general Oregon passing law will still apply to persons on bicycles being passed by motorized traffic. ORS 811.410 governs passing on the left of another vehicle (including bicycles). It states in relevant part:

811.410 Unsafe passing on left; penalty.

(1) A person commits the offense of unsafe passing on the left if the person violates any of the following requirements concerning the overtaking and passing of vehicles:

    (a) The driver of a vehicle that is overtaking any other vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left of the other vehicle at a safe distance and shall not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle.
    (c) The driver of a vehicle shall not drive to the left side of the center of the roadway in overtaking and passing a vehicle proceeding in the same direction unless the left side is clearly visible and is free of oncoming traffic for a sufficient distance ahead to permit the overtaking and passing to be completed without interfering with the operation of a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction or a vehicle overtaken.

While the “general” passing law in ORS 811.410 does not include the new “fall over” safe passing distance contained in ORS 811.065, it nevertheless specifies that the passing vehicle must give a “safe distance” to the passed vehicle (bicycle). Where people “buzz” or even hit a rider with their cars when overtaking and passing the “general” rule of ORS 811.410 provides a basis for a traffic citation, even if the new bicycle passing law does not apply because of speed or where the rider is in a bicycle lane. In instances where the driver intentionally “buzzes” the person on a bike then stronger legal measures are called for, like Reckless Driving, Reckless Endangerment, Menacing or Assault; but where the actions are the result of a mistake then the “general” law can still be the basis for a citation by law enforcement or a citizen violation prosecution. A citation for Careless Driving is also likely warranted in most unintentional “close passing” incidents.

“Following Too Close” and Pace Lines

The final portion of ORS 811.065 is an amendment to the “following too close” statute which clarifies that persons on bicycles may lawfully ride in a pace line. The “following too closely” law, ORS 811.485, now specifically applies only to “motor” vehicles, excluding bicycles from its scope. While some members of the law enforcement community may be displeased that persons on bicycles are singled out for more favorable treatment than other vehicles, the law does make a clear statement that bicycle pace lines (where groups of riders are “taking the wheel” of the rider in front in order to draft and reduce wind resistance) exist with the legal blessing of the vehicle code.

Conclusion

Oregon’s passing laws contain legal concepts that allow a fluid, dynamic, and cooperative sharing of the road between road users — whether they’re on a bike or in a motorized vehicle. People are responsible for applying these rules on the road into actual practice. When that happens, the roadways are capable of safe use for all users.

Ray Thomas
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

This article is part of our monthly legal series with Portland-based lawyer and bike law expert Ray Thomas of Swanson, Thomas, Coon & Newton. (Disclaimer: STC&N is a BikePortland advertiser and this monthly article is part of our promotional partnership.)

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