Cycling Legalese – Where Do Bikes Belong On The Roadway?
Welcome to Cycling Legalese, an online cycling law column from everyday cyclist and Chicago based injury lawyer, Brendan Kevenides. There can be confusion on where to ride on a roadway; take the lane or hug the curb or both? Let’s see what the law says.
Q: It’s never been clear to me where I’m supposed to ride on the road. What does the law say?
Brendan Kevenides, P.C.:Let’s be frank, many of us who ride our bicycles in the city tend to follow few set rules. It is not because urban cyclists are a bunch of arrogant jerks (okay, maybe sometimes it is); it is just that the reality of the constantly changing landscape through which we travel requires constant… creativity. Cars, pedestrians and the streets themselves are unpredictable, so we dart, dash, swerve, squeeze and skid about the city. The rhythm of the city and the traffic that pulses through it often has little to do with the rules of the road. Nevertheless, it is prudent to understand what the law requires of us as urban cyclists. When a collision occurs, you may need to look to the law for help.
Before hitting the road it is important to know where you and your bike belong in relation to other traffic. Our cities and states have statutes and ordinances which govern where bicyclist are supposed to position themselves on the road. Should you ride in the middle of traffic? On the right? Where do you belong? The bottom line is that you belong in the safest part of the street given traffic and roadway conditions.
There is considerable consistency nationwide as far as this goes. California law is typical. It states, “Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.” Cal. Veh. Code Section 21202(a). The law goes on to note a number of exceptions where a bicyclist may move out of the right side of the road such as when passing another vehicle or bicycle, when preparing to turn left and, importantly, “When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge.” New York’s Vehicle Code offers some interesting variance taking the presence of new bike infrastructure into account, but still allows the cyclist to respond reasonably to changing conditions. New York law states, “Upon all roadways, any bicycle . . . shall be driven either on a usable bicycle. . . lane or, if a usable bicycle . . . lane has not been provided, near the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway or upon a usable right-hand shoulder in such a manner as to prevent undue interference with the flow of traffic except when preparing for a left turn or when reasonably necessary to avoid conditions that would make it unsafe to continue along near the right-hand curb or edge.” N.Y. Veh. & Traf. Law Section 1234. The law adds that the rider may take a variety of conditions into account when choosing a line of travel.
Generally, if you are riding at about the same speed as traffic, as is sometimes the case in a congested urban setting, then you may ride within a lane as if you where driving a motorized vehicle. You always have the same rights, and also the same duties, as a motorist. Signal when turning and stopping. Look carefully for pedestrians and other road users. If cars and trucks are moving faster than you are then you must travel as close as practicable to the right side of the road. You may pass a slower bicyclist. You may leave the right side of the road to make a left turn when it is safe to do so. You may also leave the right side of the road to avoid hitting stuff like swinging doors, pedestrians on mobile phones, giant potholes and the like. Do not feel like you must force yourself to ride in the gutter. It is often not safe to do so, and the law does not require it. Remember, we are traffic.
Nothing contained in this column should be construed as legal advice. The information contained herein may or may not match your individual situation. Also, laws differ from place to place and tend to change over time. No reader should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information presented herein without seeking the advice of an attorney in the relevant jurisdiction. This column is meant to promote awareness of a general legal issue. As such, it is meant as entertainment. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the reader.
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