Perilous Passing On The Right

This article was written by John Duggan and appeared originally in Cascade Courier.

One of the bonuses/benefits of riding in the bike lane or shoulder is not having to travel at two or three miles per hour and wait in traffic for seemingly endless light cycles. However, whether you are riding your bicycle or driving your car, passing on the right is inherently dangerous. In Washington, although it is legal to pass on the right in certain situations, when doing so, cyclists need to be extra vigilant.

RCW 46.161.115 provides as follows: "(1) The driver of a vehicle may overtake and pass upon the right of another vehicle only under the following conditions: (a) When the vehicle overtaken is making or about to make a left turn; (b) Upon a roadway with unobstructed pavement of sufficient width for two or more lines of vehicles moving lawfully in the direction being traveled by the overtaking vehicle. (2) The driver of the vehicle may overtake and pass another vehicle on the right only under conditions permitting such movement in safety. Such movements should not be made by driving off the roadway." 

Seattle Municipal Code 11.44.080 states as follows: "The operator of a bicycle may overtake and pass a vehicle or bicycle upon the right only under conditions permitting such movement in safety."

When it comes to bicycles, phrases such as "roadway with unobstructed pavement of sufficient width of two or more lines of vehicles" and "only under conditions permitting such movement in safety" provide some interesting and "gray area" factual scenarios. As cyclists, we encounter many situations where either the line of traffic to our left is stopped or moving slowly and there is a wide-open shoulder, bike lane or "pavement of sufficient width" for the bicycle to pass on the right. RCW 46.61.770 clearly states: "A person operating a bicycle upon a roadway may use the shoulder of the roadway or any specially designated bicycle lane if such exists." While the bike lane and shoulder scenarios seem clear, whether it is legal to pass in situations where there is "unobstructed pavement of sufficient width of two or more lines of vehicles" depends on the facts of each situation. For example, attempting to pass in the 18-inch gap of unobstructed pavement between the curb and the line of cars would not be legal.

The pertinent language in the above statutes is "only under conditions permitting such movement in safety." Just because the law says you can travel 25 miles per hour in the wide-open bike lane, shoulder or unobstructed pavement, and therefore pass all of the cars that are either stopped or slowly moving to your right, does not mean that this is the most prudent and safest course of action.

As cyclists we must keep in mind that we are essentially invisible to motor vehicle drivers and therefore must ride defensively. When passing on the right, cyclists need to slow down and anticipate that motor vehicle operators/occupants may do the following:

  • Suddenly turn right into a driveway or side street without looking or signaling;
  • Unintentionally drift into the bike lane/shoulder;
  • Open a courtesy gap for a left turning car to cut across stopped traffic and the cyclist's path of travel; or
  • Open the passenger door.

46.61.305 (1) states: "No person shall turn a vehicle or move right or left upon a roadway unless and until such movement can be made with reasonable safety nor without giving an appropriate signal..." There is case law in Washington that states that a vehicle driver, when passing another vehicle, has the right to presume that the driver of the overtaken vehicle will comply with the law and signal and look before turning. While the case law may help you argue your claim to the insurance company or judge, it will not do anything to help your broken bones heal faster. Never presume that a motor vehicle operator is aware of your presence until you have made direct eye contact.

Enjoy your open lane of travel, but ride defensively and travel at a safe speed that allows you to stop or take evasive action when you are suddenly confronted with an emergency situation. You need to ride with extreme caution when passing on the right.

Ride safely!

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