We follow up on our recent discussion about new laws signed by Governor Brown with a look at how our existing laws are sometimes mistakenly interpreted by law enforcement professionals. Beat officers don’t always have an intimate knowledge of every corner of the vehicular code, and perhaps those sections that do apply to those who choose to bicycle may not get a frequent workout. The problem is that when they do get a workout often it is to the disadvantage of those cited. Sometimes clearly biased or vindictive action by an officer that raises hackles. More often it’s simply unfamiliarity with the nuance of the code. Whatever the cause, the burden of proof is on the poor soul who is cited. It pays to know the state laws and local ordinances!
We recapped the recent PTA-sponsored community forum at Beverly Hills Horace Mann school in early October, but we want to revisit it to look at some of the laws that govern legal cycling in Beverly Hills. At the forum was Sergeant Gregg Mader of the BHPD who offered tips and clarified the law so that parents and their kids in and around Beverly Hills would be cognizant of the road rules.
Now we’ve worked with Sgt. Mader on collision statistics in the past, and he’s been helpful. But cops can’t be expected to remember every twist and turn of the state and local codes that govern legal road use. Not surprisingly, some of the tips on offer were off the mark. Let’s review them.
Riding to the Right
By far the most common mistaken belief held by law enforcement is the state’s requirement that bicycle riders ride to the right. That’s in the code, true, but what’s left off the officer’s admonition is the key phrase, “when practicable.” An entire bike safety class could address what “practicable” means across contexts, but simply stated it means ‘when conditions allow.’ From the letter of the state vehicular code:
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 except under any of the following situations: (1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction. (2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway. (3) 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…. (Section 21202).
That is not the same as keeping to the right as in hugging the curb. (Which is simply a bad idea anyway.)
This same section also appends another crucial clause hardly ever noted by officers: the difference a ‘substandard’ width lane makes. ‘Standard’ seems to be interpreted as 14 feet in width. To put it into context, very few traffic lanes in Beverly Hills measure 14 feet; most measure about 11 feet. But not to worry: the vehicle code clarifies:
For purposes of this section, a “substandard width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane (Section 21202).
What difference does it make? The rider can take the entire lane when the lane is of “substandard” width – and that can make all the difference when you, like one-quarter of all cyclists in injury collisions across 2010 and 2011, are cited for violating section 21202. In Beverly Hills, at least, chances are you had that lane to yourself!
(Sgt. Mader didn’t specifically mention a prohibition on riding two abreast, but often it’s inferred by officers from Section 21202. So let’s nail it down: Where a right-hand lane on a multi-lane road is too narrow to share, there is no requirement to share it, and no prohibition on riding two-abreast in that lane. If it is wide enough (e.g., ‘standard’) to be shared, you must ride single-file.
People are surprised that the law may prohibit riding on the sidewalk. They’re even more surprised that it varies by locality. That’s because the state kicks sidewalk riding regulation down to local ordinances. So it’s generally legal in City of Los Angeles if done prudently; it is not legal in Santa Monica under any circumstances or any areas; and sidewalk riding is allowable under certain conditions in West Hollywood. Beverly Hills takes a different tack.
At the PTA forum, Sgt. Mader was asked if bicyclists were allowed to ride on the sidewalk. He replied, “Except for the business triangle, yes they are.” He noted that riders on sidewalks must “give pedestrians the right of way and ride safely” (always good practice). She followed up. “Specifically the triangle [is prohibited]? Or any street that has a high density of businesses?” He replied, “Specifically the triangle.”
Who will argue with a cop? The rider who is ticketed for sidewalk riding on South Beverly Drive should argue, however, because sidewalk riding is only prohibited in “business districts.” From our municipal code:
It shall be unlawful for any person to operate, ride, or propel any bicycle, skateboard, roller skates or similar type device on the sidewalk in any business district. For purposes of this section, “business district” shall be defined as designated in section 235 of the state Vehicle Code… (BHMC Title 5, section 5-6-801).
Many areas in Beverly Hills where people ride the sidewalk is really off-limits. Take South Beverly Drive for example, which is outside of the triangle. Plainly it is a business district and sidewalk riding is prohibited. What about Doheny Drive where a mix of businesses and apartments make it feel, well, not like a business district? This is where we look more carefully at the ordinance. It takes us back to the state code, which says,
A “business district” is that portion of a highway and the property contiguous thereto (a) upon one side of which highway, for a distance of 600 feet, 50 percent or more of the contiguous property fronting thereon is occupied by buildings in use for business, or (b) upon both sides of which highway, collectively, for a distance of 300 feet, 50 percent or more of the contiguous property fronting thereon is so occupied. A business district may be longer than the distances specified in this section if the above ratio of buildings in use for business to the length of the highway exists (Division 1 Section 235).
So forget the triangle. In Beverly Hills use this rule of thumb: If it feels like a business district it probably is, so better not to ride the sidewalk there. (Have you been ticketed for sidewalk riding? Let us know!)
What about multifamily apartment districts? They’re almost exclusively residential but business can be conducted there with the proper permit. But these areas don’t feel like business districts at all. So we will call it legal to ride the sidewalks there because nothing in our local ordinance defines them as “business districts” and according to land use maps multifamily zones (R-3, R-4) are distinct from commercial zones (C-3, C-5).
Here’s the caveat: riding on sidewalk is often dangerous. You’ll cross driveways where motorists won’t expect to see you and the chance of striking a pedestrian is increased. Remember: pedestrians always have the right of way. And of course you’re likely to enter the crosswalk when crossing streets.
Sgt. Mader was asked about crosswalks. Even where sidewalk riding is legal, he said, riders must “get off the bike and walk it across the street.” But crosswalks are a strange thing – informally considered an extension of the sidewalk. By that reasoning, where sidewalk riding is not prohibited, one can’t be prohibited from riding in an adjacent crosswalk, right?
Beverly Hills does prohibit driving in a crosswalk:
It shall be unlawful for any person to drive, ride, or propel any vehicle upon any sidewalk, except over a permanently constructed driveway… (BHMC section 7-2-308).
But that concerns a ‘vehicle.’ Our municipal code is silent on riding a bicycle in a crosswalk. State law deals expressly with crosswalks and includes this language:
This section does not prohibit the operation of bicycles on any shoulder of a highway, on any sidewalk, on any bicycle path within a highway, or along any crosswalk or bicycle path crossing, where the operation is not otherwise prohibited by this code or local ordinance (Section 21650).
Asked to elaborate on the crosswalk prohibition, Sgt. Mader provided an example: You’re heading west on the sidewalk adjacent to the southmost lane of an east-west thoroughfare and you ride through the crosswalk. Because the adjacent travel lane runs east, you’d be riding against traffic, he said.
An attendee at the PTA forum asked, “Is that specifically in the Beverly Hills municipal code?” The Sergeant replied that it is in the California vehicle code. But it is not; crosswalks are unidirectional, so unlike traffic lanes there is no specified direction of travel. Perhaps Sgt. Mader was recalling Section 21650.5?
A bicycle operated on a roadway, or the shoulder of a highway, shall be operated in the same direction as vehicles are required to be driven upon the roadway (Section 21650.5).
But a shoulder does not a crosswalk make!
The Bike-Involved Collision: Who is Really at Fault?
Sergeant Mader offered a practical piece of advice to riders: in nearly any bike-involved collision the motorist will come out better. It is true; up against a couple of tons of steel, the rider on a 20-lb ride won’t fare well at all. And the statistics back that up: Sgt. Mader reported that 36 bike-involved injury collisions occurred in Beverly Hills over a 12-month period – an upward trend. But he went a step farther by attributing the preponderance of fault (19 of those 36 collisions) to the rider. He also made a point of referring specifically to injuries to pedestrians from bike-on-pedestrian collisions.
Now, we didn’t review those particular 36 collisions, but we did review 39 collisions between 2010 and 2011 (as reported by BHPD to our Traffic & Parking Commission). From the collision summaries provided, we found that only one involved a pedestrian (according to citations). Where citations were issued (33) we found it was most often for the usual infractions: 8 for not riding as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway (section 21202) and 7 for not yielding the right-of-way to all traffic, say, when entering or crossing the road (section 21804). But those cited offenses happen to be the ones where officer discretion is greatest, and probably relies most on the motorist account.
Clearly the categorical violation would be disregarding a traffic control device (only 2 citations) or failure to signal (3 citations). Wrong-way riding (against traffic) was observed in 11 instances but it resulted in only 1 citation, oddly. These behaviors certainly open the door to charging the rider with not riding prudently. But what of motorist misbehavior? The collision summaries are simply not clear about which party was cited.
There is another kind of behavior for which the motorist is exclusively responsible, however: swinging open the car door suddenly which takes down the rider. The state code says:
No person shall open the door of a vehicle on the side available to moving traffic unless it is reasonably safe to do so and can be done without interfering with the movement of such traffic…. (Section 22517).
‘Dooring’ (as it is called) accounted for the third most frequently violated law (4 of the 33 citations). That clearly is the motorist fault because he or she fails to look carefully.
With the exceptions of such clear-cut responsibility, fault is decided by judge and jury. But it often proceeds from statements made te the officer, and the officer’s own narrative in the report. Fault-finding it is not a hypothetical exercise as it can mean the difference between fully collecting for injury or not.
How the ‘View Through the Windshield’ Colors Institutional Perspective
We call the propensity to take the motorist’s word or to discount the rider’s account the ‘view through the windshield.’ It is a perspective that colors much of the experience that the rider has when injured in a collision (never say “accident”). Remember, “I didn’t see him” is one of the most common excuses offered after striking a cyclist. But that’s no good reason for striking any road user. Where the windshield view comes in is that such a statement is not taken as an admission of liability but rather supports the existing presumption that the rider was not making himself sufficiently visible. (Or perhaps not riding in accord with the law regardless of the facts.)
So let’s wrap up with an anecdote from Sgt. Mader at the PTA forum that illustrates the problem. Sgt. Mader was a once full-time bike-mounted patrol officer, so he spoke from experience when he said,
It’s amazing how you can sneak up on people in full uniform…You’re on a police bike and they just don’t see you.
We hear you! But he said this without a trace of irony. Yes, visibility is a challenge, and state law requires lights and reflectors for that reason. But there is an institutional blindness at work here too when the motorist claim “I didn’t see him” or “He came out of nowhere!” is not treated with appropriate skepticism. Crash your car into another vehicle and “I didn’t see him” carries no weight. Why should it when the motorist strikes or collides with a rider? Are motorists really looking carefully enough if they can’t see a cop in full regalia on a cop bike?
Those cognizant of their own ‘view through the windshield’ they might interpret Sgt. Mader’s anecdote as we did: a sign that we all have more work to do to ensure that road users find parity on the blacktop and off regardless of choice of mode. Make a record of the BHPD contact info in case of a crash: 310-550-4951 for regular response and 310-550-4800 (or 911) for emergencies. Let’s hope you don’t need it!
*Just for the record, local ordinance defines our business triangle as “the area bounded by the centerline of Wilshire Boulevard, the centerline of Santa Monica Boulevard [south roadway], and the centerline of the alley between Canon Drive and Crescent Drive” (Title 10 – Chapter 3 – Article 16. Commercial Zone). Not to confused with a generic “business district.”