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Too Late for Jack Yates: The Maryland Legislature Considers a 3-Foot Passing Law—Again

January 31, 2010

Last summer, cyclist Jack Yates was killed at the intersection of Maryland and Lafayette avenues. He was riding to the right of the right lane of Maryland as a truck passed him, also in the right lane. That is, both vehicles were smooshed into the right lane as the truck instigated a right turn onto Lafayette. The accident that resulted is a classic “right hook,” one of the most dreaded occurrences in urban bicycling—and one of the most common.

Whether the driver didn’t see Yates or didn’t look, the turning truck sealed off the cyclist’s passage, and there are then only three things possible: 1) The cyclist veers right, impossible in this situation; 2) the cyclist stops, also impossible in this situation because there wasn’t enough time to react; 3) the cyclist crashes into the turning truck. Jack Yates—a regular bicycle commuter and by all accounts an experienced, safe, and responsible cyclist—met the latter fate, hitting the truck and becoming entangled in its rear wheels, which dragged him several feet across the intersection. He died on the scene, in the middle of a city intersection on a city-sanctioned bike corridor, and the truck drove off.

According to the Baltimore Police Department, Yates was the one at fault. Yes, Yates hit the truck, but he had no other option. Was he supposed to take the whole lane, and not yield to the right? That seems to be the message. And, in the immediate, that is the message received.

“You have the same rights as a motor vehicle and also the same obligations,” BPD Lt. Leslie Bank wrote in a letter responding to an inquiry about the incident from a member of local bike collective Velocipede. Indeed. If only we cyclists had any reason to believe that the Baltimore Police Department would have our back if we acted “properly” on city streets and took, always, the full lane.

Yates’ deadly empty-set could and should been have preempted. For a number of years, the Maryland legislature has considered what’s known as a 3-foot passing law. It’s just what it sounds like: If a motor vehicle passes a cyclist on a road, the driver must allow 3 feet of clearance. If such a law had been in effect, the truck driver would have been legally obligated to allow the cyclist following behind to proceed through the intersection before making the turn. And Jack Yates might be alive. In 2009, it was the House Environmental Affairs Committee that shot the bill down—citing “unenforcability”—after the Senate passed the bill 45 to 2.

The bill is once again in the legislature, sponsored by Del. Jon Cardin (D-Baltimore County) and Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery County). It is not only a smart and sensible piece of legislation, it is a matter of public safety, as last year’s tragic event ably proves.