roads were first paved in the late-1800s after extensive lobbying by
bicyclists, then known as “wheelmen.”
Horse-drawn wagons and early motorcars could function on the rutted dirt
roads of the era. But cyclists, balanced
on their large wheeled penny-farthings, had a difficult time functioning on the
uneven surface. At that time bicycles were often the fastest vehicles on the
As motorcar use increased, motorists found equitable,
non-motorized use of the street to be a hindrance. While never codified, these perceptions
regarding road use gradually came to be understood and accepted:
are for motor vehicles: in fact roads are still for moving people and motor
vehicles are but one type of conveyance by which people move. Slow vehicles are
unsafe: most enforcement officers know that speed kills, however, a perception
has developed that vehicles that are slower than other traffic create a hazard;
in truth, slower is still safer.
“right” of speed: many people believe that you can’t use the road if you can’t keep
up. If a heavily loaded truck is unable to accelerate from an intersection or
up a hill, most motorists understand and merely tolerate it or pass it when
they are able. Yet if the vehicle is a bicycle, intolerance and outrage
develops in some drivers. As with all slow moving vehicles, bikes must use the
right lane unless they are preparing for a left turn, but despite common
misconceptions they still have a right to the roadway.
is safest for bicyclists to stay out of the way: This myth has sadly
contributed to the majority of crashes and near misses cyclists experience.
Hugging the edge of the road is actually dangerous for a number of
reasons. Most traffic lanes are too
narrow to safely accommodate a motor vehicle and cyclist side by side. Cyclists who keep right so motorists can pass
them without changing lanes actually encourage close passes and sideswipes.
Cyclists who ride farther left and control the lane report no such problems. Motorists pass them in an adjacent lane. If they
have to slow down and wait for an opportunity to pass, that’s OK. Empirical evidence shows that any delays
motorists experience waiting to pass are usually 30 seconds or less.
lanes make cycling safer: In fact, bike lanes were created because of the myth
listed above and the desire for a separate space. Bike lanes force cyclists to
ride on the edge, sometimes even in the “door zone” of parked cars, where they
might be directly hit or startled into swerving in front of traffic. Channeling
bicyclists to the right of other traffic encourages them to be unpredictable —
unexpectedly passing slower traffic on the right. When cyclists are forced to
ride on the edge of the roadway conflicts arise at intersections and driveways
– the most common location of bicycle/motorist crashes. There the cyclist’s
position conflicts with turning cars — thru cyclists are to the right of
right-turning vehicles and are often screened from the view of drivers turning
paths are safest for cyclists: Since paths fall outside the scope of traffic
laws, behavior on them is unregulated, unpredictable and unenforceable.
Conflicts and crashes increase at intersections. Unlike roads, paths don’t go
everywhere people need or want to go.
riding in the middle of the traffic lane will impede traffic: where “impeding”
laws exist nearly all clearly state that only drivers of motor vehicles can
illegally impede. In the six states where the law does not specifically exclude
non-motorized vehicles, it provides for the reasonable speed of the vehicle in
question, thus accommodating farm tractors, horse carriages and bicycles. Why
is it cyclists are being cited for “impeding” when they are actually driving
defensively and in a manner reasonable for their vehicle?
In every state, bicycles are either defined in statutes as a
vehicle or cyclists are given the same rights and responsibilities as other
vehicle drivers. They have the right to
use most roadways, which means the fog line to the centerline. The term “roadway”
does not include the shoulder. In many non-snow states shoulders may be
non-existent or to too narrow to be rideable. While most states forbid bicycles
on freeways, some western states - with vast open space and fewer roads - allow
cyclists to ride the shoulder of controlled access highways. Only New York, Hawaii and Alaska mandate shoulder use if it is safely usable.
Most states require cyclists to ride “as far to the right
(FTR) as practicable to the right hand curb or edge of the roadway.” This sentence is often misunderstood. For
purposes of the statute language “practicable” means, as close the right edge
as is safe and reasonable under existing or probable conditions. It does not mean as close as possible to the
right hand curb or edge of the roadway. Moreover, it is up to each cyclist to
decide where he or she believes is safest.
After all, the cyclist not only has the least protection, but also is
passed with the highest speed differential.
Many statutes list specific reasons why cyclists need to ride farther left
within a lane. These include avoiding
road hazards, preparing for a left turn, passing another vehicle or avoiding
objects such as parked cars, pedestrians or animals. The most significant
reason given is a “substandard width lane” within which a cyclist and motorist
cannot pass safely side-by-side. This last reason is the most misunderstood,
largely because it applies to the majority of traffic lanes on today’s roadways
— making the exception the rule. Anywhere bicyclists choose to ride in such a
lane is legal.
More experienced cyclists choose to “control the lane.” By
using a large portion of the lane, cyclists send a clear message to motorists
that they must change lanes to pass when safe and legal to do so. Cyclists legally controlling a narrow lane
cannot by definition “impede traffic” even though they are moving substantially
slower than surrounding traffic. It is important to remember that a traffic
lane is a public utility there for the purpose of moving people, not merely
Substandard Width Lanes
It may shock many to learn that a 12-foot wide lane is
considered a “substandard width” for the purpose of this statute. Federal
roadway design standards suggest a cyclist needs a minimum of 4 feet of operating
space. The typical cyclist is roughly 30
inches, but requires some lateral “wobble” space. Even 4-wheel vehicles don’t
track a perfectly straight line. Realistically, many cyclists need 5-feet or
more of space to operate safely, due to the type of bike and accessories or
All states require safe passing clearance between vehicles
of any type. Some require a 3-foot
minimum clearance for passing bicyclists. While nearly impossible to enforce
unless a cyclist is struck, it does give the motorist a general idea that they
need to move over. With the 3-foot
minimum, the cyclist’s operating space, and the passing space, have already
accounted for more than half of a 12 foot lane.
Most passenger cars are roughly 6-feet wide, with mirrors
adding another foot. As we’d expect a car takes up more than half of a 12 foot
lane, too. The problem is many motorists
don’t realize how wide their cars are, or how close the right side is to
something they are passing. This is why
it is safest for a bicyclist to control the lane in a way that sends a clear
message that overtaking motorists must pass them in an adjacent lane. This
action by the bicyclist prevents crashes.
Today’s traffic includes a high percentage of large vehicles
like pickups and SUVs that are even wider than conventional passenger
cars. Below is an example of what
happens if a truck attempts to pass a cyclist within a 12-foot lane. Would you
want that truck to pass you at any speed that close?
What Laws Should You Enforce?
Traffic laws reflect the rules of safe and predictable
movement. These apply to cyclists as they do to motorists. Traffic controls such as stop signs and
traffic signals certainly apply. So do
destination lanes such as turn-only lanes. Use of headlights, and in many
states, taillights, is required at night.
Cyclists are required to travel the same direction as
traffic, yet many cyclists are commonly seen riding facing traffic. Due to its unpredictable nature this is a
leading cause of motorist/bicycle crashes.
Wrong way cycling is dangerous and illegal behavior in all 50 states.
The major violations which cyclist should be stopped and
ticketed for are, 1) riding against traffic, 2) failure to yield right of way
at stop or yield signs, 3) running red lights and 4) riding without required
We need to stop cyclists for disobeying traffic
controls. Many cyclists ride through red
lights because they have no fear of being ticketed. This obvious lawlessness by
some cyclists further increases the animosity felt by many motorists. If the police won’t enforce traffic laws for
bicyclists, who will? Isn’t that part of
the police role in enhancing traffic safety and promoting voluntary compliance
with the law?
The major violations by motorists that endanger bicyclists
are, 1) failure to yield right of way, 2) unsafe passing, 3) harassment or
assault and 4) inattentive or impaired driving.
By law, cyclists always have the right of first come, first
served in the lane that they are occupying. Vehicles can’t legally intrude into
their path, or pass them, unless it is safe to do so. Most right of way conflicts occur at
intersections. There, motorists pull out or make turns across the path of
cyclists. Violations also occur when a motorist passes a cyclist just prior to
turning right and then turn across the cyclist’s path. This can happen if the
cyclist is riding too far right or is in a bike lane, sidewalk or path. These
right of way violations account for many collisions between motorists and bicyclists. Officers should be watchful to cite these
violators and understand them when working crashes.
Seeing and treating cyclists as an expected and respected
part of traffic will undoubtedly be a new idea for many police officers and
their administrators. Some have even
exhibited a bias against cyclists in traffic, which is likely the result of
conditioning that cyclists are neither a traditional or legal part of the
traffic mix. Both of those assumptions
are historically and legally wrong. While educators have a lot of work to teach
cyclists young and old to ride lawfully and responsibly, it is the role of law
enforcement to reinforce those lessons with appropriate enforcement and mutual
Kirby Beck is retired after 28 years with the Coon Rapids, Minn. Police. He is a certified IPMBA police cyclist instructor trainer. He is an expert witness in bicycle crash cases. He can be reached at Kirby@kbeckconsulting.com.