Horses on the Road


Q: How should cars and horses share the road? Some horse people say drivers should slow down to five mph 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 I encountered folks riding their 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. You probably already know what it means, so it’s probably safe to declare it the universal hand sign for “slow down.” Or maybe not, since American Sign Language has an official sign for “slow down” (but it wouldn’t work very well for a vehicle approaching from behind).

Getting back to the topic, I already thought I was going slow. Each time I passed the horse riders I’d go slower than the time before, but I kept getting the slow down signal.  Either the riders gave that signal to every driver, or they thought I was still going too fast.

It’s been a long time since I was in driver’s ed, but I don’t recall any training on car-horse interactions. And 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), but it’s not a hard number. The law requires drivers to “reduce speed to a safe speed for passing relative to the speed of the individual.” The question then is, what’s a safe speed?

It’s not five mph. I’m no horse expert, but I can do math, and slowing down to five mph to pass a horse is nearly the same as not passing a horse. From what I’ve read, a horse walks at about four mph, so it would take about a minute to pass a horse at five mph, assuming you’re not tailgating prior to the pass or pulling in too soon after it’s completed. I don’t need to say it, but you shouldn’t be spending a minute in the oncoming lane of traffic.

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. This 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 (assuming it’s clear) to allow the required three 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 in this situation 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.


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