A few weeks ago I was riding down Punt Road on my way to CyclingTips HQ when a van sped past me far too close, the vehicle’s wing mirror missing me by roughly 10cm:

After posting the above video to YouTube I received a bunch of comments, including the regular anti-cycling comments you might expect on YouTube:

“Get off the road then u mong. And get a car u f***ing hippie”, read one. “Mate I would have been closer shouldn’t be riding on the road”, read another. And then there was this old chestnut: “Should be paying bicycle rego.”

But among the predictable and unhelpful comments others also suggested I should have been riding further out from the curb, to force passing motorists to use the other lane.

First thing’s first: what’s the maximum distance from the curb a cyclist can ride, according to the road rules?

I’ve looked through the 480-page-long Victorian Road Safety Road Rules 2009 and as far as I can tell there’s nothing in there saying a cyclist can’t use the entire lane if necessary. This is because the road rules treat cyclists the same as drivers unless otherwise stated (see rule 19).

But there are a number of road rules we cyclists should be mindful of when selecting a lane position.

Rule 129 says “A driver on a road (except a multi-lane road) must drive as near as practicable to the far left side of the road.” You could argue that riding close to the gutter isn’t “practicable” for a number of reasons. There’s often more debris and drain covers closer to the edge of the road and, perhaps more importantly, riding close to the curb gives you less bail-out room if a motorist does get too close.

Rule 253 says that a driver or rider must not “cause a traffic hazard by moving into the path of a driver or pedestrian” and rule 125 prevents drivers (and therefore riders) from “unreasonably obstructing drivers or pedestrians”. It’s interesting to note that rule 125 also makes it clear that merely travelling slower than other traffic does not constitute a breach of the road rules … unless the driver is moving “abnormally slow” (follow the link above for a definition).

As long as these conditions are met, and as long we aren’t riding more than two abreast (rule 151) – except while overtaking – it’s legal to use as much of the lane as necessary.

And speaking of questions of legality, what does the law say about motorists who pass cyclists as closely as in the video above? Commenting on the video, Sergeant Arty Lavos, State Bicycle Operations Coordinator at Victoria Police said “The driver in the video has not really committed an offence”.

In response, Garry Brennan from Bicycle Network told us his organisation has been informed of cases where police have acted against drivers in similar circumstances, citing rule 144: “Keeping a safe distance when overtaking”.

Either way, the actions of the motorist in the video above certainly aren’t recommended by VicRoads on the organisation’s Share the Road page:

“Be patient and give bike riders a clearance of at least one metre when passing [cyclists], more if travelling over 60km/h.”

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So could the “buzzing” in the video above have been prevented if I’d been further out from the curb? A paper published in the Accident Analysis & Prevention journal in 2007 by Dr Ian Walker from the University of Bath would suggest not.

With one of his colleagues in the engineering department at the University of Bath, Dr Walker modified a bike to carry an “accurate ultrasonic distance sensor” which could record how close motorists got as they passed the cyclist.

There were a number of interesting findings to come from the study, including:

  • Motorists left more space when passing riders that appeared to be female (a male who was wearing a long wig)
  • Motorists gave significantly more room when overtaking cyclists who weren’t wearing helmets compared to those who were
  • Bus and heavy vehicle drivers gave cyclists less room while passing than car and SUV drivers

And crucially:

  • The further the rider was from the edge of the road, the less room motorists left when overtaking.

A study commissioned by the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) in 2011 reproduced some of Dr Walker’s results, including the finding that female riders were given more room by passing motorists than male riders. Interestingly, the study also found that cyclists who were wearing “bicycle attire” were given less room than those who were dressed in regular clothing.

Could it be that your perceived level of experience on the bike, what you’re wearing, and even your gender are more important to your safety than your position on the road?

Dr Walker is currently going through the results from a recent study in which he’s tried to replicate the results from his 2007 research. While he can’t reveal his findings just yet — the paper is yet to be peer reviewed — he did say “I still think perceived experience seems to be a factor in how much space drivers leave.”

And there are other factors that determine how much space motorists give cyclists. A paper published in the Accident Analysis & Prevention journal in 2010 by John Parkin and Ciaran Meyers suggests that the presence or lack of bike lanes can be one such factor.

Parkin and Meyers found that when motorists were passing cyclists on roads that didn’t have a bike lane, they gave the cyclists considerably more room than when there was a bike lane. In the researchers’ own words:

“The results suggest that in the presence of a cycle lane, drivers may be driving within the confines of their own marked lane with less recognition being given to the need to provide a comfortable passing distance to cycle traffic in the adjacent cycle lane.”

In other words, motorists tend to drive according to lane markings, rather than the situation on the road.*

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Which brings us back to the question at hand: how far from the curb should you ride to ensure you’re safest? We asked a number of people in the know.

Sergeant Arty Lavos from Victoria Police provided the following advice:

“I would recommend a distance of about 1 metre out of the curb to avoid debris and also create a buffer zone between you and the curb itself. We suggest that you command the lane and be confident doing so. Riding close to the kerb promotes drivers to try to squeeze through.”

Gary Brennan from Bicycle Network gave similar advice:

“There is an old rule of thumb: where you must ride in a narrow traffic lane, position your bike in the same place as the left hand car wheels are travelling. That generally means the motorist will actually have to pass you by moving across the centreline, or into the adjacent lane.”

But Garry was hesitant to suggest taking much more than a metre, saying a more conservative approach “avoids the accusation that you have created a hazard, which is the problem with the ‘seize the lane’ approach, and one which a lawyer from the other side would make hay with.”

Dr Marilyn Johnson, Research and Policy Manager at the Amy Gillett Foundation and Research Fellow at Monash University’s Institute for Transport Studies said the best place to ride is …

“… About half a metre from the curb. This gives bike riders room to avoid obstacles to the left, reduces the likelihood of clipping the gutter (a risk when riding too close to the curb) and on narrow lanes it forces the driver to move out and actually overtake as they would another vehicle, rather than try and squeeze by and potentially side-swipe the bike rider.”

In the Discussion section of his 2007 paper Dr Ian Walker wrote:

“The best advice might … be for bicyclists to ride at a medium distance where grates and debris are unlikely to be encountered (perhaps around 0.5–0.75 m from the edge), moving further towards the lane centre when approaching junctions.”

And section 5.1.3 of the Florida DOT study reads:

“It seems that there is a spot between 3 and 4 ft (90cm to 1.2m) from the curb that results in the greatest lateral separation between motor vehicles and bicyclists.”

So depending on who you ask, it’s best to ride anywhere from 50cm to 120cm away from the curb. But as Gary Brennan from Bicycle Network told us when analysing the video taken on Punt Road, there are a number of variables to consider when trying to select an appropriate lane position and that these variables affect where you should position yourself:

  • “[The road in the video has] bluestone guttering. And there are sizeable drainage gates. You have less bail-out space.
  • The road is straight and the sight lines are clear and there is little threat of vehicle entry from cross streets or properties, so traffic speeds up, and at higher speeds drivers are less likely to swing wide around bikes.
  • You are on a four-lane arterial where traffic is naturally fast and commercial vehicles are common. Furthermore, it is a bus route.
  • Bikes rarely travel that that section of Punt Road, so drivers are not expecting to encounter them.”

So what are we to make of this whole issue? Here’s my take.

As cyclists we should be confident in taking up as much of the lane as we feel we need to in order to be safe. At a minimum we should ride 50cm from the curb but we should be confident in using more of the lane if the conditions dictate it — as a result of roadside obstacles, upcoming intersections, narrow lanes, potholes or any other factors.

I know I’ll certainly be making an effort to ride further from the curb in future, but what about you: how far from the curb do you ride?

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*Garry Brennan from Bicycle Network had a different view about the relationship between bike lanes and passing distance. He told us:

“Before-and-after studies done in Victoria — I think they were by VicRoads or City of Melbourne — show drivers were further away from bikes after bike lanes were installed than before. Drivers position themselves according to lane width, so that when the traffic lane is narrowed because of the installation of the bike lane, the driver moves closer to the centre line, and away from the bike.

It’s interesting that in the City of Yarra, where they have narrowed many traffic lanes to 1.9 metres in order to fit a bike lane in, the configuration works well. Reason? Drivers slow down considerably when traffic lanes are narrow, reducing risk to the cyclist. Those super-wide traffic lanes in some places are hell for bikes because drivers go really fast.”