Ride Smart: Know the Law

Ride Smart: Know the Laws!

learning to rideMost of us learned how to ride a bike before we learned how to drive. It was about balance and steering and fun, which was great for the schoolyard but not so good for riding the streets. Yet we turn kids lose on the streets and (even worse) the sidewalks every day even as they’re unprepared for the car emerging suddenly from the alley or the driver running a stop sign.

And as drivers, we adults are not generally conditioned to see the road from a rider’s perspective. We’re generally under-schooled in road rules yet we’re responsible for safely co-existing with  more vulnerable road users.

Consequently riders have to be more aware. Not only that but also more cognizant of the law because specific laws apply to us when we ride. Read on for a brief overview of the State of California laws that apply, and then go to Local Ordinances Affecting Cyclists to understand how local laws affect us.

How Laws Regulate Cycling

Vehicle code bookThe California Vehicle Code (CVC) provides a legal framework for regulating travel on public roads. A cyclist must hew to most of the laws that regulate motoring (the ‘rules of the road’) and then a few more under the CVC’s Section 21200-21212. It is worth familiarizing yourself with the code. Let’s summarize the basics:

  • Ride on the street with traffic flow and follow the law as any motorist would. That means stopping at all stop signs and obeying traffic control devices.
  • Keep to the right of the roadway when practicable, which means you can pass on the left, drift to the left when there’s a right-turn lane, or maneuver as necessary to avoid dangerous conditions. If your lane is not wide enough to share with a bus, say, don’t share it; ride confidently nearer to the center.
  • Use hand signals to indicate your turns because you can’t expect motorists to anticipate your next move. Always execute your left turns from the left turn pocket (if available) or from a commanding position in the leftmost lane. Alternately, cross the intersection and wait for the crossing signal.
  • Ride attentively, predictably, and responsibly (no dual earbuds on the road – it’s against the law!).

Again, ride to the right where practicable. That does not mean wherever possible. Don’t ride in the gutter or otherwise hug the curb, especially if passing traffic poses a hazard. And if you’re cited for riding in the middle of the lane when it’s a) not wide enough to share and/or b) you feel that you couldn’t safely ride to the right, refer the judge to this section of the state law:

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, subject to the provisions of Section 21656. 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. http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/ accessed 9/3/2010 (4) When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized. (CVC Sec. 21202)

To be clear, you’re required to yield the lane by riding to the right only when a reasonable person would find it safe to do so, or if the lane accommodates both you as a rider and large vehicles (trucks and buses).

A couple of additional pointers when riding our busy streets:

  • Hold to a straight line where possible (for example when passing parked cars don’t weave to the curb and back into traffic)
  • Refrain from sidewalk riding in any jurisdiction unless safety absolutely demands it
  • Wherever you ride, be extra careful at potential conflict points like driveways, shop doors and crosswalks
  • Children must wear a helmet that meets state safety standards but adults are not required
  • At all costs avoid physical conflict with motorists: instead get their plate and report it to police (and to the cycling community).

That last point is important: if you are stopped and cited for any reason, follow the suggestions of bicycle attorney Bob Mionske as you gracefully accept your citation to fight on another day in court. If you’re unfortunately involved in a collision, why Bob’s got advice for that too.

State Motor Vehicle Code Excerpts

A “bicycle path crossing” is either of the following: (1) That portion of a roadway included within the prolongation or connection of the boundary lines of a bike path at intersections …[or] (2) Any portion of a roadway distinctly indicated for bicycle crossing by lines or other markings on the surface. — California Vehicle Code Sec. 231.6

[I]t is unlawful for any person to ride a bicycle upon a highway while under the influence of an alcoholic beverage or any drug, or under the combined influence of an alcoholic beverage and any drug…A conviction of a violation of this section shall be punished by a fine of not more than two hundred fifty dollars. — CVC Sec. 21200.5

No person shall operate a bicycle on a roadway unless it is equipped with a brake…[or] equipped with handlebars so raised that the operator must elevate his hands above the level of his shoulders [or] that is of a size that prevents the operator from safely stopping the bicycle [and] supporting it in an upright position…. — CVC Sec. 21201

A bicycle operated during darkness upon a highway, sidewalk, or a bikeway shall be equipped with a lamp emitting a white light that illuminates the [way] in front of the bicyclist; a red reflector visible from 500 feet; a white or yellow reflector on each pedal, shoe, or ankle; and reflectors on each side forward & rear of the center of the bicycle… — CVC Sec. 21201

Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic shall ride as close as practicable to the right- hand curb or edge of the roadway except (1) When overtaking and passing; (2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection, private road, or driveway; (3) When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions that make it unsafe to continue; or (4) When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized. — CVC Sec. 21202

Any person operating a bicycle…shall ride as close as practicable to the right- hand curb or edge of the roadway except…[w]hen reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes)… 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. — CVC Sec. 21202

Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway of a highway, which highway carries traffic in one direction only and has two or more marked traffic lanes, may ride as near the left-hand curb or edge of that roadway as practicable. — CVC Sec. 21202

A person operating a bicycle upon a highway shall not ride other than upon or astride a permanent and regular seat attached thereto…If the passenger is four years of age or younger, or weighs 40 pounds or less, the seat shall have adequate provision for retaining the passenger in place… — CVC Sec. 2014

No person operating a bicycle shall carry any package, bundle or article which prevents the operator from keeping at least one hand upon the handlebars. — CVC Sec. 2105

Any person operating a bicycle upon the roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride within the bicycle lane, except that the person may move out of the lane [When] overtaking and passing another bicycle, vehicle, or pedestrian…and passing cannot be done safely within the lane; When preparing for a left turn; When reasonably necessary to avoid debris or other hazardous conditions; When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized. — CVC Sec. 21207

No person operating a bicycle shall leave a bicycle lane until the movement can be made with reasonable safety and then only after giving an appropriate signal in the event that any vehicle may be affected by the movement. — CVC Sec. 21207

No person shall drive a motor vehicle in a bicycle lane established on a roadway except to park where parking is permitted, to enter or leave the roadway, or to prepare for a turn within a distance of 200 feet from the intersection. — CVC Sec. 21209

No person shall leave a bicycle lying on its side on any sidewalk, or shall park a bicycle on a sidewalk in any other position, so that there is not an adequate path for pedestrian traffic. Local authorities may, by ordinance or resolution, prohibit bicycle parking in designated areas of the public highway, provided that appropriate signs are erected. — CVC Sec. 21210

A person under 18 years of age shall not operate a bicycle…nor ride upon a bicycle or any other public bicycle path or trail unless that person is wearing a properly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet that meets [ASTM or CPSC] standards. The parent or legal guardian having control or custody…shall be jointly and severally liable with the minor for the amount of the fine… — CVC Sec. 21212

A person under 18 years of age shall not operate a bicycle…nor ride upon a bicycle or any other public bicycle path or trail unless that person is wearing a properly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet that meets [ASTM or CPSC] standards. — CVC Sec. 21212

A person under 18 years of age shall not operate a bicycle…unless that person is wearing a properly fitted and fastened bicycle helmet… Any charge under this subdivision shall be dismissed when the person charged alleges in court, under oath, that the charge against the person is the first charge…under this subdivision — CVC Sec. 21212

Read more about the city laws that affect us on our Local Ordinances Affecting Cyclists page. And refer to the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalitions helpful summary of the laws with relevant state statutes linked. Have a look at their handy LACBC Road Rules pocket guide [pdf]. Join the LACBC to get your paper copy!

Recent Posts

Is a Mandatory Bike Helmet Law the Answer?

State Senator Carol LiuState Senator Carol Liu recently introduced a bill that would require every bike rider regardless of age to wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. Though a well-intentioned safety measure, SB 192 and its helmet mandate has spurred a backlash among some riders and several established statewide bike advocacy organizations. Why the opposition? Why not mandate helmets for adults?

On first look, helmets can only increase safety by wrapping the noggin in plastic. So it might seem like a common-sense safety measure to require riders to wear them. Accordingly, SB 192, if it became law, would “require every person, regardless of age, to wear a bicycle helmet when operating a bicycle… [and] require a person engaged in these activities in the darkness to wear retroreflective high-visibility safety apparel….”

Proponents argue that if all riders wear a helmet, we could reduce the too-high incidence of bike-related crash fatalities that can surpass 150 (statewide) on a particularly bad year. Of course, even one crash fatality is too high, we believe, but is a mandatory helmet law the means to getting to vision zero? After all, if children benefit from head protection (as required under existing law) shouldn’t adults benefit too?

Of course it’s not that straightforward. In fact, the California Bicycle Coalition says that this bill “sends the wrong message about bicycling” and the mandatory use of helmets would “discourage bicycling.” The bill, they note, makes it a ‘crime’ to violate the provisions. Is it appropriate to criminalize helmet-less riding when so much more threatening driver misbehavior goes unpunished every day? From their call to action:

There are proven ways to make our streets safer while encouraging bicycling — reducing speed limits on key streets, building protected bike lanes and bike paths, and educating motorists and bicyclists on how to drive or ride safely, to name a few. A mandatory helmet law is not one of them.

It’s not helmets per se that has advocates so exercised, as many riders already wear them. Nor is it the proposed $25 fine that goes with the misdemeanor citation. That’s a relative pittance compared to running a stop sign, say, which many riders despite the possible penalty of $300 (or much more with court costs) and license points. Even the bill’s nighttime reflective clothing requirement isn’t a deal-breaker as many riders already take measures to increase their visibility. (Reminder: state law requires a headlight and side reflectors.)

No, behind the opposition to this bill is concern that other crash factors are far more important to rider safety than a plastic helmet. For example. speed kills, we’re told by law enforcement. In any collision, the chance for injury and death actually outpaces the increase in vehicular speed. So nobody should be surprised that on wide streets that are seemingly designed for vehicular speeding, riders do die with much greater frequency than they do in areas (like Beverly Hills) where congestion, say, might keep a lid on speed. Those wide streets are dangerous by design, according to a report by that name from Transportation for America, and that there is an opportunity for lawmakers to take the initiative.

Reduced speed limits for motor vehicles increase bicycling in two ways: by increasing the speed of bicycling relative to the speed of driving, and by increasing the safety of bicycling. Most studies, though not all, show an increase in bicycling with lower automobile speed limits. per purcher infra programs paper

Then there’s the paucity of safe bike-friendly improvements. Here in Beverly Hills, despite our congestion and relatively high crash injury rate, only two streets boast a bicycle lane that separates riders from motor traffic: Burton Way and North Crescent. And each includes just a few blocks of lanes. We’ve got some sharrows on Crescent too, but riders lived with poorly-placed sharrows there that guided us right into the scrum of fast-moving motor traffic. (It took us six months of prodding to get the city to fix it.)

Bicycle lanes and even safety signage could really address the threat of harm on our most congested crosstown corridors. And for years we’ve pressed our city to take such a step. But the opposition to bicycle lanes suggests the challenge of realizing a more bike-friendly Beverly Hills. One of our busiest corridors, North Santa Monica Boulevard, for example, is a transit corridor and designated truck route; it carries about 50,000 vehicles daily. Yet both policymakers and staff opposed lanes there. It’s the kind of thinking that keeps Beverly Hills one of the more dangerous small cities in California for riders. (Recently we gained some traction in the North Santa Monica lanes campaign, however.)

For advocates smarting over policymaker inaction, the notion that riders should have to protect themselves from dangerous streets with a plastic helmet is pretty galling. And then there’s the argument made by bill proponents that helmet use is effective in reducing crash fatalities. Hogwash!

Are Helmets the Answer?

Helmet laws were first adopted in the United States by state and local governments in 1987; today 21 states require young riders to wear a helmet (typically children under age 16). But there is no existing model for Senator Liu’s legislation: according to the Bicycling and Walking in the United States Benchmarking Report (2014), published by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, no state yet has adopted an adult helmet law.

With no law in place, we can’t compare before & after adoption fatality rates through a study of the data. But we can look to other places to see how they minimize fatalities. For example, European countries show much lower injury and fatality rates. Yet helmets are rarely used there at all. “In the Netherlands, with the safest cycling of any country, less than 1% of adult cyclists wear helmets, and even among children, only 3–5% wear helmets,” say John Pucher and Ralph Buehler in Making Cycling Irresistible: Lessons from Europe (2008). The solution in those places appears to be streets engineered for user safety.

Even worse, Pucher and Buehler say, mandatory helmets may work against our policy objective: safer cycling.

The Dutch cycling experts and planners interviewed for this article adamantly oppose laws to require the use of helmets, claiming that helmets discourage cycling by making it less convenient, less comfortable and less fashionable. They also mention the possibility that helmets would make cycling more dangerous by giving cyclists a false sense of safety and thus encouraging riskier riding behaviour. – Pucher & Buehler

Another study offers some support for that proposition. “Where cycling is safe, a helmet law is likely to have a large unintended negative health impact,” says Piet de Jong in The Health Impact of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws (2012). “In jurisdiction where cycling is relatively unsafe, helmets will do little to make it safer.”

Whether or not academic studies find merit in helmets, does local data support Senator Liu’s argument for mandatory helmet use? Thankfully a Beverly Hills rider looked at the state data. Yet he saw no correlation between bare-headed riding and the likelihood of dying. And not only is there no evident correlation; there is considerable noise in the state data as about one-fifth of all bike-involved fatality crash reports don’t even record whether a helmet was worn (or not).

We looked at that data and see considerable variability in rider fatalities from one year to the next too – variation that can’t be correlated with helmet use. For example, the year 2006 saw a ten-year-high of 155 rider fatalities; just three years later in 2009 the number dropped to a ten-year low of 107 fatalities. But those years the proportion of riders who donned a lid remained constant (just above one-fifth). Why did so many more die in 2009 despite the consistent use of helmets?

Moreover, look at the trends in helmet use among crash victims in California: they’re moving in a positive direction. The number of fatal crash victims not wearing a helmet is on the decline while the number of victims wearing a helmet is on the increase. Does this suggest that helmets are necessarily working to prevent fatalities? Or in light of the upward trend in helmet use, that we need a law to mandate it?

Trends show that non-helmeted victims in California are fewer while helmet use by crash victims is on the rise. Chart from data generated from the SWITRS database by Brent Bigler.

Trends show that non-helmeted victims in California are fewer while helmet use by crash victims is on the rise. Chart from data generated from the SWITRS database by Brent Bigler.

Now take a look at the proportion of those killed while not wearing a helmet: it too is one the decline.

Chart of Californa crash victims (helmeted versus non-helmeted)

Ratio of non-helmeted to helmeted victims in California crashes from 2001 to 2012. Chart from data generated from the SWITRS database by Brent Bigler.

Indeed in 2012, the most recent year for which fatal crash data is available, more than one-third of those killed wore a helmet. That’s well in excess of decade’s average of 21% and suggests that we don’t need a law to compel helmet use. Perhaps an outreach campaign can increase the proportion to much more than one-third to appease the pro-helmet folks.

Looking again at the numbers, to what extent is the helmet working to prevent crash fatalities among riders? That same year of 2012 saw a record number (49) of California riders killed while wearing a helmet. And despite an upward trend in helmet use, the state recorded a record number of fatalities (146) that year, which is considerably higher than the 20% decade’s average.

If riders appear to reach more often for a helmet than they used to, but wearing a helmet seems not to attenuate the number of fatalities, is there sufficient correlation to support a mandatory helmet law? For us to support it we’d like to see a much stronger correlation between bare heads and fatalities in crashes.

Advocates seize on the weak support of the state’s data. “Whatever comes of Senator Liu’s legistration,” says local rider Brent Bigler, we should make sure that incomplete data don’t lead to bad statistics used to justify bad policy enshrined in unhelpful laws.” We agree!

We can focus our attention on other contributing collision factors, however, like speeding. Consider that we’re not taking the necessary steps to ensure that we’re keeping riders safe, as has European nations. According to the Alliance’s Benchmarking Report, California dedicates only 2.4% of federal transportation money to bicycling and walking infrastructure projects. That put us near the middle of the pack among US states. Can’t we do more to create safer streets before we explore a mandatory helmet law?

Federal dollars for bicycling and walking via Alliance (2014)

Reprinted from Bicycling and Walking in the United States Benchmarking Report, published by the Alliance for Biking and Walking.

The Gall!

Michelin Man helmeted

If Senator Liu has her way, under state laws all riders will one day dress like the Michelin Man for our own safety.

One aspect of the helmet policy debate that really galls bike safety advocates is the hypocrisy of legislators who are charged with making our streets safe. While they are quick to prescribe one or another obligation for riders (like mandatory helmets or rider licensing or liability insurance), they generally fail to take action.

Now Senator Liu in the past has been a supporter of safe streets policies. Perhaps she can move a bill that would create a standalone statewide bicycle master plan (as 13 states already have).

In looking at the helmet issue, the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee agreed that policymakers should first focus on other opportunity areas, such as rolling out bicycle-friendly infrastructure (like bike lanes) to separate non-motor from motor traffic, among other measures.

While we wait for legislation that will make streets safer for riders, each of us can do ourselves a favor by at least knowing the rules of the road and educating ourselves in safe-riding practices. We recommend the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition’s Bicycling Skills Workshop series. It’s free for LACBC members ($35 for the general public) so join as a member and RSVP here! The next one is focused on women and will be held on March 14th from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at LACBC Headquarters, 1st floor Edison Room – 634 S. Spring St., Downtown L.A. A mandatory helmet law might not keep you from becoming a statistic, but riding with skill most likely will.

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