Essay: On the Importance of Four Feet
(2017) Winter is a season when rides frequently become blurry sideways vision quests amidst wind and precipitation. Being able to see far down the road is sometimes a luxury for those who push the bike down the darkest of seasons roads. Cycling is a pursuit that requires seeing for safety reasons as well as being seen by motorists.
Along my commute home on the picturesque River Road near Washington’s Crossing, PA, the other day, I found myself squinting again. To be clear, I was driving, not cycling. The weather was enjoyable and naturally cyclists were out taking advantage of the balmy January day. Yet the car in front of me was keeping my focus. There on his Pennsylvania license plate was a surprising category: The Four Foot Safe Passing Law. Pennsylvania now makes license plates with the recognizable bike lane symbol and the imperative, “Allow Four Feet to Pass.”
Strangely enough, Pennsylvania has the most ambitious of cycling protection laws by ordering motorists to provide a four-foot buffer between the cyclist and the car. Other states with similar laws order three feet, if any at all. It is easy to be proud of a state that issues such a distance. I say strange because, despite the distance, not everyone seems to have heard of the law.
There are issues with the law, however. Bucks County is famous for its backcountry roads that have remained unchanged since horse and carriage times. That means, if a motorist is interested in complying with the law, a pass may not be legal for the road’s entirety. A four-foot buffer would not be realistic unless a motorist is actually considering using the grassy or wooded area on the far side of the commons as an overtaking zone. Head into central Pennsylvania and...well you're on your own out there.
Just today I witnessed a red Honda Civic barely (if at all) move over to overtake a cyclist. It made me wonder from where the motorist came. Considering the Washington Crossing Bridge was less than a mile from this incident, it was entirely possible the motorist originated from New Jersey. But there’s an issue here. Every bridge into Pennsylvania has a Welcome to Pennsylvania sign and then a Four Feet Please/ It’s the Law sign hanging from it. If the driver is from Pennsylvania, the motorist may not know about the 2012 law. Or the motorist may be anti-cyclist.
Focusing on the lack of education aspect, according to the Pittsburgh Bike Lawyer, only fifteen citations in the entire state of Pennsylvania were issued in the first thirteen months of the law. The entire state! Even more laughable is the penalty associated with the law: a $25 fine. Perhaps police officers are unaware of the new law just like the motorists. On a 2016 ride with a good friend, Brian Corona, stated two instances of knocking on a car window after a dangerous maneuver regarding a group ride. He educated the motorist at the intersection. He stated each response was, “Oh I didn’t know that.”
Perhaps those motorists are telling the truth. It seems weird Pennsylvania wants to educate incoming drivers instead of their own. I've never seen a sign that advises motorists within Pennsylvania to give four feet. As of yet, I know of no part of the driver’s manual that emphasizes the four foot law. Somehow the education needs to get out there. The fact I followed this motorist with the license plate for five miles before it dawned on me that s/he had a pro-cycling license plate should be evidence enough that action, while started, needs to be more visual.
While I fought the urge to turn around and pursue the red Honda Civic to knock on his/ her window at the next intersection, the Four Feet law is a good starting point to give cyclists a chance on the roads. Continuing to explore ways to educate motorists about the law is a good way to have everyone seeing clearly, despite the fact that it’s the gloomy winter with mixed precipitation blurring our view.