Reader questions: Tennessee’s Three Foot Law

Gentle friends,

A reader contacted me with a question about Tennessee’s three foot law and what the deal is with the special license plates. He has recently moved here from California, where the bike riding culture and laws vary from what we have here in Tennessee.

To the question about the license plates: The fee for the license plate is an additional $35 and, of that, about $15 goes to the Jeff Roth Cycling Foundation. Those involved with the Foundation were instrumental in getting the Jeff Roth and Brian Brown Bicycle Protection Act passed in 2007. The law reads

“[T]he operator of a motor vehicle when overtaking and passing a bicycle proceeding in the same direction on the roadway, shall leave a safe distance between the motor vehicle and the bicycle of not less than three feet (3′) and shall maintain such clearance until safely past the overtaken bicycle.”

The law passed without objection in both the Tennessee House and Senate. The penalty for violating this law is a class C misdemeanor.

When I started really riding again as an adult about 6 years ago, I was in a discussion with a friend of mine about riding on the roadways. This friend is smart, reads the news regularly, and is a former journalist. As a bike riding advocate, I would share news and information with her – including the 3 Feet Law which, at the time of our conversation, was a law for about 6 years. “Well, I’ve never heard of it,” she told me, which struck me as odd considering her voracious appetite for Tennessee related news and information. Then again, it could also be the echo chamber in which many bike riders and multi-modal transportation advocates find themselves in – WE all know the laws, and we try to publicize and promote them, but there’s only so much a small group like that can do.

Personally, I would consider it the duty of the DMV to send updates and changes to road law to all licensed drivers at least once a year. They’ve got your address on file! (And if it’s the wrong address, you’re supposed to update that on your driver’s license.) Additionally, when you go in to renew your license or to obtain a new one, there could be a one-page sheet on new laws. On the Department of Safety website, there’s no link to updated driving laws and regulations (not that I could find). There is, however, a news article about watching out for deer.

Ignorance is no excuse, and all drivers should be keenly aware that they are operating a vehicle that can be deadly. For myself, being a bike rider means that I am also a better vehicle operator, and I am thankful for that.

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