Overtaking Bicycles and Arizona’s Three Foot law

this is the next in an occasional series on laws governing bicycle use in Arizona

In the last installment, we noted that a bicyclist is subject to the rights and responsibilities of a “driver of a vehicle”, as well as some special rules which apply specifically to bicyclists; and that there were important legal distinctions between the driver of a motor vehicle and a bicyclist. Today we examine a special responsibility applicable only to the driver of a motor vehicle — the duty to overtake a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction not only safely, but with a minimum of three feet of clearance.

The general rule for a driver overtaking another vehicle is as follows:

§28-723. Overtaking a vehicle on the left
The following rules govern the overtaking and passing of vehicles proceeding in the same direction:
1. The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left of the vehicle at a safe distance and shall not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle…


A special rule was created by bicyclist advocates in 2000, HB2625, to bring attention to overtaking, allow for increased fines for violators, and to provide for additional educational opportunities. The rule applies only to the driver of a motor vehicle when overtaking a bicyclist, the new statute reads, in full:

§28-735. 28-735. Overtaking bicycles; civil penalties
A. When overtaking and passing a bicycle proceeding in the same direction, a person driving a motor vehicle shall exercise due care by leaving a safe distance between the motor vehicle and the bicycle of not less than three feet until the motor vehicle is safely past the overtaken bicycle.
B. If a person violates this section and the violation results in a collision causing:
1. Serious physical injury as defined in section 13-105 to another person, the violator is subject to a civil penalty of up to five hundred dollars.
2. Death to another person, the violator is subject to a civil penalty of up to one thousand dollars.
C. Subsection B of this section does not apply to a bicyclist who is injured in a vehicular traffic lane when a designated bicycle lane or path is present and passable.


Note that the minimum safe distance of not less than three feet, subsection A, applies on all streets in Arizona. Streets come in a wide variety of configurations, most streets are divided into lanes, but others are not, some have shoulders, or no shoulders, paved or unpaved, some have designated bicycle lanes, many do not. The minimum safe distance of not less than three feet applies on all streets in all configurations regardless of the position of the bicycle to be overtaken.

R4-11 BMUFL sign with Change Lanes to Pass placard

On many streets with lanes, the lane is not wide enough to safely share side-by-side with a vehicle and the bicycle. Drivers of vehicles in this situation will need to change lanes, at least partially, in order to pass safely and legally. Since the adjacent lane must be clear to move even partially into it, the Coalition encourages drivers to make a full lane change when passing, the same as when passing any other vehicle.

There is a misunderstanding that the minimum safe distance of not less than three feet does not apply on streets with designated bike lanes; this is simply not true. Subsection C states that the enhanced fines of subsection B do not apply if a bicyclist is struck while riding outside of a “passable” designated bicycle lane. It has no relevance to Subsection A. Subsection A always applies.

Note that Subsection C is presumably poorly drafted in that it does not allow for a bicyclist  who is legally turning left to be “protected” by subsection B — although an overtaking motorist is still, as always, required observe the minimum safe clearances specified in subsection A.


In addition to the minimum three foot passing law, HB2625 also added a new directive to include “those practices and laws relating to bicycles” (underlined below) and as a result ADOT/MVD has added a question relating to bicycles to the Arizona’s drivers license test

§28-3164.B. The (drivers license) examination shall include all of the following:

1. A test of the applicant’s:

(c) Knowledge of safe driving practices and the traffic laws of this state, including those practices and laws relating to bicycles.


4 Responses to “Overtaking Bicycles and Arizona’s Three Foot law”
  1. Kevin Hackett says:

    So how does the state educate drivers? Because, as an everyday bicycle commuter I see very few drivers who obey the law, especially here in downtown Mesa, where you can see almost every driver who passes a bike violates this law and the police do nothing, ever.

  2. Robert Jenson says:

    Laws on the books are a good start, but it they are not enforced they are worthless. 28-735 has been on the books for how many years now – 15?, and how many times has this law been used in the multiple fatalities caused by a motorist striking and killing a cyclist from behind?

    • admin says:

      Hello Robert,
      thank you for your comment.
      With regard specifically to fatal overtaking collisions, police have, in fact, been very good about citing for 28-735 appropriately. For example, last year a driver misjudged overtaking space and killed bicyclist Ethelyn Hartline in Yavapai County and was cited. In some other cases, citations are not brought because of impending felony criminal charges, e.g. the driver who killed Highly Falkner in November 2014 is currently being charged with Manslaughter.

      Fatalities are, of course, relatively rare. And the Coalition does, as much as feasible, monitor each one — here’s a list of every bicyclist killed in Arizona since 2009, along with some varying level of detail on each one.

      So the real challenge is to bring enforcement and education to the myriad of daily interactions.

  3. Ed B says:

    Attorney Neal Thomas’ open letter to a number of police chiefs, including Phoenix and Tempe, Scottsdale, Gilbert, Mesa (southeast valley) regarding 3-foot law in general and specifically that the rule applies regardless of whether or not there is a bike lane…

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