SUFFOLK COUNTY

County Legislature approves three-foot passage rule to protect cyclists

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Drivers in Suffolk may soon have to practice social distancing following the recent approval of legislation requiring motorists to keep at least three feet of distance while passing a bicycle.

The new law authored by Legislator Kara Hahn, however, is not intended to prevent disease, but rather to protect cyclists who often cite vehicles passing too closely as a top safety concern.

According to the legislation, “The operator of a vehicle which is overtaking, from behind, a bicycle proceeding on the same side of the road shall pass to the left of such bicycle at a distance of at least three feet until safely clear thereof.”

Violators can face fines not to exceed $225 for a first offense, $325 for a second offense and $425 for any subsequent offense. The minimum distance requirement, however, will not apply on roads that have clearly marked bicycle lanes.

In Suffolk, the urgency to implement policies that protect cyclists follows a 2021 report issued by AAA Northeast that found the County had the highest number of vulnerable road users – a term that includes both bicyclists and pedestrians – deaths in the State. For 2019, there were 342 bicyclist accidents reported resulting in six deaths and five deaths in 2020 according to preliminary data from the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research.

“Suffolk’s streets have been repeatedly ranked as among the most dangerous in the nation for bicyclists, with this law we are increasing the safety of our roads,” said deputy presiding offficer Hahn. “We hope to educate drivers that passing too closely is a dangerous and potentially deadly threat.”

The vote brings Suffolk County closer to becoming the first county in the State to adopt a “Three Foot Rule” requirement: As of February 2021, 33 states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws requiring at least three feet of distance between passing motorists and cyclists.

However, the state does not set a minimum distance, requiring only for motorists to pass “at a safe distance until safely clear thereof.” Cycling enthusiasts hope this will change now that a local jurisdiction has acted on the issue. 

“After years of lobbying for this law at the state level we are excited that Suffolk County has taken the initiative to get this critical and life-saving law passed," Daniel Flanzig, Esq. of the New York Bicycling Coalition said in a press release. “It is our hope that this will begin to trend across the state and provide greater protection for cyclist everywhere. The New York Bicycling Coalition is forever grateful for Legislator Hahn’s efforts for spearheading this resolution."

The bill will now go before County Executive Steve Bellone for a separate public hearing and his signature within the next 30 days.

“Suffolk County established a Complete Streets policy in 2012 demonstrating our commitment to accommodating not only motorists but also other road users such as bicyclists and pedestrians," County legislature presiding officer Rob Calarco said. “Suffolk County has a reputation for often being the first county in the state to identify and tackle emerging issues, and that is because we have people like ... Hahn working hard to improve residents’ lives. I thank her for her work on this issue.”

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