There’s no time for horse-play when passing one on road

Q: How should cars and horses share the road? Some horse people say drivers should slow down to 5 miles per hour and give a wide berth to the horses so they don’t freak out and throw the riders. I was told by someone else that drivers can be ticketed if they move into the opposite lane of travel to give room to horses, although I’ve never heard of that happening.

A: I used to live in a semi-rural area, and occasionally encountered folks riding horses on the road. Whenever I passed them, I got a particular hand gesture. No, not that one. The one where you hold your arm straight out, hand facing palm down, and repeatedly motion toward the ground. That’s the universal hand sign for “slow down.” I already thought I was going slow.

It’s been a long time since I was in driver’s education, but I don’t recall any training on car-horse interactions. The only advice I could find in the Washington Driver Guide was don’t honk your horn when approaching horses. We’ve got a situation where even though horses are allowed on the road, us drivers don’t know what to do when we encounter them.

The Revised Code of Washington does give some direction on how to pass a horse rider (or any other slow traveler including pedestrians, cyclists and tractors). The law requires drivers to “reduce to a safe speed for passing relative to the speed of the individual.”

The question is, what’s a safe speed? It’s not 5 mph. I’m no horse expert, but I can do math, and slowing down to 5 mph to pass a horse is nearly the same as not passing a horse. From what I’ve read, a horse walks at about 4 mph, so it would take about a minute to pass a horse at 5 mph.

You shouldn’t be spending a minute in the oncoming lane of traffic—now that’s dangerous. The only scenario I can imagine where a driver gets a ticket for moving into the other lane to pass a horse (or cyclist or pedestrian) is if it’s done unsafely. That gets tricky because I don’t want to advocate breaking the law, but even in a no-passing zone, briefly moving into the oncoming lane to allow the required 3 feet (and more is better) between the car and the horse is the safer choice.

Like you said, theoretically a driver could be ticketed for crossing a solid center line, but I’ve never heard of it happening either. I don’t know the perfect speed to pass a horse, but here’s my advice: when there’s a discrepancy between what a driver thinks is the right speed, and what a vulnerable road user (anyone not protected by a cage) thinks is the right speed, us drivers should lean toward the perspective of the most vulnerable people on the road.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.