For the benefit of my non-bicycle riding friends, I offer you some thoughts about how we ride our bicycles and why we do some of the things we do. It’s important to understand that bicycles are considered vehicles under the law, and people who ride bicycles have the same rights and responsibilities as those who drive cars. Bicycle law has become part of the driver education programs in many states. So, I’ll start with the law (which may vary from state to state) and conclude with some typical riding conventions that you may find useful to know:
- Bicycles and automobiles are governed by the same laws in the state Vehicle Code. Both must stop at stop signs and red lights. They must travel in the appropriate lane for their direction of travel. Bicycles are entitled to travel on all public roadways (including some highways) except where explicitly prohibited.
- Bicycles typically are NOT allowed to ride on sidewalks or crosswalks (especially in downtown areas) and it is actually quite unsafe to do so. Sidewalks and crosswalks are designed for pedestrians with a walking speed of 3-4mph, not a bicycle travelling at 10mph or more. Cars drivers do not expect to see bicycles here (especially traveling in the opposite direction of traffic). One of the most common collisions between cars and bicycles involve bicycles on sidewalks.
- Many states have instituted a minimum-distance passing law (ie the 3-foot law). This means that a car must give a bicycle at least 3 feet of lateral distance when passing. This also means that, to legally pass a bicycle, a car must move into the next lane (or cross the centerline, depending on the scenario). As a car driver, this means you need to be acutely aware of oncoming traffic and possibly traffic behind you and should never pass on a blind turn or with a limited line of sight.
- When a car passes a bicycle and there is a significant speed differential between the car and the bicycle, the draft created by the car can make it difficult for the bicycle to hold its line. A bicycle can be sucked up into the slipstream of a car. The wind created can cause a bicycle to wobble or fall. So drivers, please slow down and/or move left when safely passing a bicycle.
- Many traffic lights are timed for cars (not bicycles). So, if you think a bicycle ran a red light, it’s quite possible that they entered the intersection while the light was still green and it changed as they rode through. It’s happened to all of us (in cars and on bicycles) so please don’t assume that the bicycle rider ran the light intentionally.
- If you want to let a bicycle rider know that you’re behind her, a soft, quick tap-tap of the horn is much more effective than a long, hard honk. As bicycle riders, we’re often startled by car horns (they’re pretty loud when the car is right next to us) and this could cause a rider to swerve dangerously or lose control of her bicycle.
- Bicycle riders may not be able to hear you on the road, especially if it’s windy. This is magnified when a bicycle is riding at high speed. Please don’t assume we know you’re behind us. A good rider will glance over his shoulder intermittently to see if there are cars there.
- Bicycles are entitled to take the lane for a variety of reasons. This means they move from the far-right side of the road into the lane. This may be the safest place to be. There may be hazards in the bike lane or shoulder that a bicycle rider can see but that you can’t see in your car. It may also be the safest place to be at a busy intersection where cars may be turning right. In California, the law states that a bicycle in the lane should yield right of way if riding slower than the flow of traffic and there are five or more vehicles behind the bicycle.
- On roads without a dedicated bike lane or shoulder, bicycles will ride to the far right of the lane. The law states that bicycles should ride as far right as is practicable. This doesn’t mean that a bicycle will ride in the gutter as that may not be the safest place to ride, especially because this may encourage cars to pass when there isn't enough room to do so safely, forcing the bicycle off the road.
- If there are parked cars on a road, a bicycle should ride outside the “door zone.” This is typically about 2-3 feet to the left of the parked cars. If you are exiting your car on a busy street, make sure to look back to ensure you’re not opening your car door into the path of an oncoming bicycle. Look way back, as the bicycle may be moving at a speed that places them at your door quicker than you’d expect.
- On fast descents, a bicycle can safely navigate a twisty road faster than a car.
- Bicycle riders should signal their intention, just like cars. This means using a hand signal when stopping or turning. However, it’s sometimes unsafe to take a hand off the bar to signal, especially at high speed, through corners, or if the road surface is very bumpy. Typically, a rider will signal for a brief time but then put her hand back on the bar, so if you don’t see us signal, it doesn’t mean that we didn’t.
- Bicycle riders should ride in the appropriate lane for their direction of travel. This means that a bicycle should not be in a right-turn lane if he's not turning right. It also means that it’s necessary for a bicycle to merge to the left if there’s a dedicated left turn lane. Both of these maneuvers can be a bit tricky to an inexperienced bicycle rider. Please be patient as they learn and gain confidence.
- Many vehicles, especially taller cars and trucks, have a blind spot on the right of the vehicle. This puts bicycles at risk if they’re on the right side of the vehicle. As a driver, make sure you look right before turning or merging right. Also make sure to look as far behind you as possible, as a bicycle may advance rather quickly, especially at an intersection. As a bicycle rider, we should not put ourself to the right of a vehicle that might be turning right. Instead, merge to the left of the vehicle, into the lane, to avoid the infamous “right hook.”
- Bicycles can go very fast. On a flat road, a bicycle may travel at a speed of 10-20mph. On a downhill, a bicycle can travel at speeds in excess of 30, 40, or even 50mph. Please keep this in mind as you pull out into a road or turn left from opposing traffic in front of a bicycle. The “left cross” is another common type of collision, especially dangerous when a bicycle is traveling at a high rate of speed.*
- When interacting with bicycles on the road, please follow the conventions established for right of way. If you’re at an intersection, don’t give the right of way to a bicycle just because you’re being nice. It’s unsafe for a bicycle to take the right of way from you because other road users may not be aware of what you’ve done (and you may not be aware of other road users). So, when you wave us through an intersection and we don’t do it, please don’t be offended. We appreciate the gesture but it can be unsafe for us to do it.
Please feel free to share this list with your friends! This list is not comprehensive and I welcome any additions you'd like to share in the comments section of this blog.
You'll find the first part of this series here:
*I’ve been writing this post in my head for the past week. After putting the words down on paper, so to speak, I learned of the death of a bicycle rider on Skyline Boulevard in Woodside on Wednesday, due to a collision with a van turning left in front of her. My thoughts are with the family and friends of Joy Covey.