Safe passing in RI: Frank’s Law

I first heard about “Frank’s Law” on the Providence Bicycle Coalition website. It’s Rhode Island’s version of what is often referred to as a “safe passing” law. Oftentimes, these specify that a vehicle must give a cyclist at minimum 3 feet (or 4 feet, are there any state laws that require more?) when passing said cyclist. Rhode Island’s version is a little different in that it require motorists to pass cyclists on the left at “a distance that is sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall over into the driver’s lane of traffic.” In practice, that means more like 5 feet, and I’d say that it makes more sense as a general rule, it’s just kind of difficult to explain on a street sign. I can imagine a sign that says, “Drivers must pass cyclists by 3 feet or more” but I can’t imagine a sign that says, “Drivers must pass cyclists at a distance sufficient to prevent contact if the cyclist were to fall over.” It also gives a little bit of wiggle room for interpretation, which isn’t always good in an enforcement situation. The fine for breaking the law is $85.

The ProJo had an article last Monday about the law including a little background information [do yourself and your blood pressure a favor: don't bother reading the comments]. It’s named after Frank Cabral, a cyclist who was killed by a motorist in 2007. The motorist was fined $75 for some minor infractions. I’ll let you read the ProJo article to get all of the details of the accident and the AG’s lack of prosecuting the driver. With the new law, a driver would be set back another 10 bucks. Awesome!

As with most laws like this, it all comes down to education and enforcement. The state driver’s test needs to have some questions about what to do when encountering a cyclist on the road. Police need to enforce this law and cite drivers who break the law. Somehow, I doubt I’ll see either of those things happening. This is likely to only be used as enforcement after-the-fact. That is, someone hits a cyclist, then they are fined $85 for failing to pass by more than the distance sufficient to prevent contact [etc.]. Meanwhile, the cyclist is in the hospital or dead.

About the only thing this law is good for is official complaints regarding commercial vehicles, transit, or other vehicles that have an identifying number and an employer that can put some pressure on a driver to obey the law. Like my situation with RIPTA. There’s no law saying that a bus driver can’t yell at a cyclist (although I hope that RIPTA has some rules about this). But there is now a law that says a bus can’t pass me too close. And if one does (or a commercial vehicle, police cruiser, mayor’s Hybrid SUV, etc.), I know that I can call someone and there will be a reasonable grounds for a complaint. And if you’ve read this blog, you know that I love complaining!

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8 responses to “Safe passing in RI: Frank’s Law

  1. At the peril of attracting your wrath, I’d also like to add that there needs to be more education of cyclists too. I’m 100% in support of share the road, but sharing the road means following the road’s rules. I always give cyclists a wide berth, but when I do that, then they run a stop sign to turn left from the right lane, it really makes me mad.

    • Allison, you won’t get any wrath from me. I’ve found that the more I ride, the less I break the law (but I still break the law on a daily basis – I’ll expand on exactly how in a future post). I wish that this same principal applied to other cyclists, but I’m not sure that it does. Absolutely, most cyclists need to do a better job of riding safely and obeying the law. The biggest argument we have for asking drivers to pass us at a safe distance, is that it does not add a significant amount of time to their travels to do so. That is, they can slow down for 10-30 seconds until it’s safe to pass, and then pass at a safe distance. The flip side of that is that cyclists need to know that passing a few cars on the right when approaching a stoplight doesn’t really do much to make your trip any quicker. A cyclist should absolutely never turn left from the right lane – that’s illegal, rude, dangerous and just plain stupid.

      I guess I’ve spent a good amount of time on this blog complaining about drivers, but believe me, I’m often just as exasperated with the behavior of cyclists. I do think that drivers must be held to a higher standard: the motorist is potentially deadly to other road users, while the cyclist is (mostly) just a danger to himself and the paintjob of the cars with which he shares the road. I see so many cyclists riding in dangerous ways every day. I really do believe that better cycling infrastructure leads to better road sharing on the part of the cyclists. I spent 4 days in Portland, OR earlier this year – mostly walking around, but I also traveled by bus and bike. I see more dangerous cycling in my 3 miles of daily riding in Providence than I saw in 4 days in Portland. And I saw hundreds more cyclists in Portland in that time period. Was the superior cycling infrastructure the main reason for this? Hard to say.

      Also, writing this blog has made me a safer cyclist – I’m now always thinking about my cycling. Also, I’m reading all of these other bike blogs. Commute Orlando has probably been the best source of information for how to ride in a safe way while sharing the road.

      So, how to educate those unsafe cyclists? I don’t really know. I don’t want to go down the path of requiring cyclists to obtain some sort of license. I really don’t think that the licensing process in any state really does anything to “educate” drivers (and I’ve had licenses in 5 states and 1 Canadian province). Driving is an incredibly dangerous activity. 35,000 – 40,000 people die every year in auto accidents, and millions are injured. We have an amazingly lackadaisical attitude towards driver education in relation to how dangerous it really is.

      My friend Vanessa mentioned a cycling education program she remembers from her 4th grade class in Germany (I’ll go find the link in a second). Basically, as part of PE class, children learn to obey the rules of the road while riding their bikes. This can be reinforced over the years and then transferred to learning about driving.

      Anyway, that was a long response to your comment. No wrath from me on your point. I’ll have to write some more posts where I’m grouchy about other cyclists. I have one in the hopper right now that is about unsafe passing again, but I promise to get to it soon.

    • I should have started my reply by saying: Thank you for giving cyclists a wide berth!

  2. Pingback: Courtesies. Positivities. Mammaries. « Car-Free in PVD

  3. I actually don’t mind when cyclists pass a line of cars on the right. It’s the running of stop signs and stop lights that really irks me. I mean, is it really that much of a hardship to unclip your foot from the pedal and stop for 30 seconds? My ex- and I used to tandem cycle a lot. The more serious we got about it, the more we rode on the roads, , and the more sensitive we became to good (and bad) behavior by both cars and other cyclists. Jay (husband) works about a mile and a half from the house. James’ daycare is about a block away from his office. So, now that James is old enough to sit in a bike seat, Jay rides home with him. One day he got home, and said that some guy honked and yelled at him on the bike. He said he felt bad, because he got angry and told the guy to shut the f* up. (He felt bad about losing his cool in front of James, not necessarily just about losing his cool). I was sympathetic, until I made the mistake of asking, “Why was he honking at you?” Jay’s reply was that he had run a stop sign. I was furious!!!

    • Ha! That’s a great story. It illustrates something I came to realize over the last year or so: when it comes to driving (or cycling) all of us are “that asshole” sometimes. I’m glad to hear that James and Jay are bike commuters.

      It was probably a combination of biking more and reading Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) that made me notice all of the crazy shit that people do while driving (or maybe it’s just Rhode Island drivers). When I do drive, I am so much more aware than I ever used to be. It’s almost exhausting, really. Traffic is a great read, I’ll have to do a whole post about it one of these days.

  4. Pingback: News & Notes — Greater City: Providence

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