FARGO — North Dakota is one of eight states without a law requiring 3 to 4 feet of space when a vehicle passes a bicyclist.
Tom Smith, owner of Great Northern Bicycle Company in Fargo, said it’s time for the state to catch up with the majority of the country in safeguarding bicyclists.
“It’s appropriate to keep pace,” Smith said. “Fargo is doing a good job, but at the state level, we may be falling behind.”
Minnesota is one of 42 states to enact safe passing laws. In 2017, the state expanded the law by making it legal for drivers to change lanes in no-passing zones, when safe to do so, in order to safely pass bicyclists.
In North Dakota, Smith said there's some discussion every legislative session about adopting such a law, but it never gets traction.
Mark Staples, a spokesman for Gov. Doug Burgum's office said in a message to The Forum, "the governor is supportive of multimodal transportation in North Dakota, but I’m not familiar with the legislative history" regarding safe passing laws.
Christopher Joseph of the North Dakota Legislative Council said there has not been a safe passing bill introduced in the past four sessions and there is not a safe passing law on the books in North Dakota.
Despite the absence of a state law, Fargo has added more than 20 miles of on-road bike lanes since efforts started rolling in 2010.
Jeremy Gorden, senior transportation engineer with the city of Fargo, said a safety measure recently added to bike lanes was bright green paint to help drivers identify the lane.
Gorden said the bike lanes provide about 2 to 3 feet of buffer for bicyclists, but the system has gaps. The Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments identified eight gaps in Fargo's bike lanes that need to be closed to improve connectivity for bicyclists.
As for safe passing laws, Gorden said the topic has not come up at the city of Fargo and he's not aware of any effort to pass a city ordinance requiring drivers to give space to bicycles.
"It's common sense and hard to enforce, but I would hope people are passing by more than that (3 to 4 feet) today," he said.
Smith said he believes the vast majority of North Dakota drivers provide a safe distance when passing cyclists, "having it on the books validates the cyclists' right to the roadways" and provides another tool for law enforcement to keep cyclists safe.
"We have a rural state where most of the roads are safe to ride on. That also means that we could easily ask vehicles to provide that safe passing distance," he said.
A safe passing law alone, however, is not the most critical piece of bike safety, Smith said. The comfort of cycling has a lot to do with traffic volume, shoulder width and road condition, as well as attentiveness of drivers.