Nope! Contrary to popular belief, Massachusetts does not have a 3-foot passing law. Instead, our law says the following on the subject:
In approaching or passing a person on a bicycle the operator of a motor vehicle shall slow down and pass at a safe distance and at a reasonable and proper speed.
I know it sounds like weak sauce, but in my opinion our law is actually preferable to one with a fixed passing distance, such as three feet. That’s because “a safe distance” allows for some all-important variability.
For example, three feet may be a healthy margin when a car is passing you at 25 MPH, but what about when they pass you doing 50? Though technically “legal,” that can be terrifying, and more than enough to cause a crash.
One interesting solution to this problem comes from New Hampshire. Their safe passing law is a lot like ours, except it goes on to specify the following:
The distance shall be presumed to be reasonable and prudent if it is at least 3 feet when the vehicle is traveling at 30 miles per hour or less, with one additional foot of clearance required for every 10 miles per hour above 30 miles per hour.
Of course, safe passing laws are not actually about enforcement. You won’t see state troopers out with yard sticks, ticketing drivers for passing bikers too closely.
As with so much of bike law, this law is really about determining who was at fault after a crash. If a driver is passing a biker and hits them, he surely wasn’t passing at a “safe distance”—boom, negligence proven. So from my perspective, the MA law works just fine.
Still, there’s an added benefit to fixed distance passing laws that ours doesn’t have: mindshare. A road sign that says “must give 3’ when passing” is much easier for drivers to understand than one saying “must pass at a safe distance and reasonable speed.”
I don’t think we need to change our law (we have more important changes to make first), but I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing signs like this posted around these parts.