Iowa’s Safe Passing Laws

The Iowa Bicycle Coalition has been concerned with motorist safely passing bicyclists since our creation in 2004.  Iowa bicyclists have “…all the rights and duties under this chapter applicable to the driver of a vehicle, except those provisions of this chapter which by their nature can have no application…” as stated in the Iowa Code 321.234.   Today, the Iowa Bicycle Coalition is announcing steps that have been taken to affirm bicyclists should be treated with the same rules as applied to motorists regarding passing or overtaking on the roads.

While the Iowa Code has not changed, the Iowa Bicycle Coalition was discouraged by a letter from a county attorney sent in 2008 following a fatal overtaking crash involving a bicyclist and motorist in O’Brien County.  The letter explained that vehicular passing laws did not apply to bicycles.  “Unfortunately, the two code sections you suggest 321.302 and 321.299 do not apply. Both of these sections refer to a “vehicle” being passed. Section 321.1(90)(a) states a “vehicle” does not include any device moved by human power.”  The Iowa Code defining a vehicle as not human powered was a setback to safe passing of bicyclists.  The O’Brien County Attorney was saying a motorist could not be charged with failure to safely overtake a vehicle, if the vehicle was a bicycle because it exempt from the legal definition of vehicle in the Iowa Code.

The Coalition set to change the Iowa Code with an attempt to adopt a three foot passing requirement similar to the law in almost half of the states in the US.  The passage of a three foot passing distance was never approved by the Iowa Legislature.  A law requiring a safe and reasonable passing distance was adopted (321.281), but the law did not contain a specific distance.  It did, however, contain one of the highest fines for a traffic violation of $250.

At the same time, the Iowa Department of Transportation requested an opinion from the Iowa Attorney General on passing of bicyclists.  The letter of advice stated, “1. A bicycle does constitute a “vehicle” under Iowa Code §321.299; and 2. The rules set forth in that section relating to the overtaking and passing of vehicles also apply to the overtaking and passing of bicycles.”

Iowa Code 321.299 is specific to how vehicles should pass other vehicles reading that, “The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left of the other vehicle at a safe distance and shall not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle.”  While Iowa Code 321.299 does not say you have to drive on the left side of the road it does say you must pass at a safe distance and not drive on the right side of the road until safely clear of the overtaking vehicle.  The Iowa Driver’s Manual, an official Iowa government document, outlines the procedure for passing another vehicle is to “Move left of center and accelerate around the vehicle you are passing,” or on multi-lane roads, “Move into the left lane.”

Therefore, the Iowa Code says you must pass at a safe distance and cannot return to the right side of the roadway until safely clear.  The Iowa Driver’s Manual instructs drivers the move left of center or to the left lane as a safe procedure.

In addition, the Office of the Prosecuting Attorneys Training Coordinator released a Highway Safety Law Update which advises Prosecuting Attorneys, “However, a bicyclist “has all the rights and duties under this chapter applicable to the driver of a vehicle,  except those provisions of this chapter which by their nature can have no application. . .” Iowa Code section 321.234(2). Therefore, bicyclists have the right to be protected from unsafe overtaking and unsafe passing by “the driver of a vehicle” overtaking or passing them. Bicyclists, as lawful users of the highways, may assume that others will keep a proper lookout for them. Vasconez v. Mills, 651 N.W.2d 48 (Iowa, 9/5/02).

Finally, the Iowa Driver’s Manual refers to safe passing of bicyclists as “Give bicycle riders the room they deserve and need for safety. When passing a bicycle rider, pass as if the cyclist were a vehicle and move into the other lane.”  The manual formerly refered to roadways with wide outside lanes in which a lane may be laterally shared with bicyclists,  but at the request of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, the sentence was removed.  The Iowa Driver’s Manual is specific on how vehicles should pass other vehicles using the roadway left of center or an adjacent travel lane on multi-lane roads.

The Iowa Bicycle Coalition is working with the Iowa DOT to update the driver’s education curriculum with instruction on how to safely pass bicyclists on the roadway.  Finally, the Iowa Bicycle Coalition is working with the Iowa DOT to include the clarification into the next law enforcement agency update.

Safe passing of bicyclists can save lives.  In 2013, two Iowa bicyclists have been killed in overtaking crashes.  In 2013, there were 186 non-intersection crashes, but reporting data in unclear if how many crashes were overtaking actions.

The safest way for a motorist to pass a bicycle is to pass on the left side of the road or an adjacent travel lane if clear of oncoming traffic.  Drivers involved in an a collision as a result of failure to maintain a safe and reasonable distance (321.281) face a $250 fine.  Drivers who injure a bicyclist as a result of unsafe passing (321.299) could face a $500 fine and a 90-day license revocation.  Drivers involved in a fatal crash with a bicyclist as the result of unsafe passing (321.299) could face a $1000 fine and 180-day license revocation.  In addition, the Iowa DOT can administratively revoke a driver’s license for one year.

Additional documents:

Lowe, Mark_correspondence_Gorham 7-16-12 AG letter on bike as a vehicle

HSU July August Sept 13

Letter From Obrien County Attorney

Iowa Driver’s Manual

Iowa Bike Laws