Ride Smart: Know the Laws!
Most 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 the streets. We turn kids lose on the streets and (even worse in some ways) the sidewalks every day unprepared for the worst – the car emerging from the alley, or running the stop sign looking for another car not a kid on a bike.
Adults are generally under-schooled in the rules of the road and under-appreciative of the responsibilities that we assume when we ride or drive. As drivers, we’re not generally conditioned to see the road from the cyclist’s perspective. Yet we’re responsible for co-existing with other road users who are more vulnerable.
As cyclists, we need a greater knowledge of the law than do drivers because specific laws apply only to us when we ride. (Read on for more detail.) It’s also a matter of safety and security: we know that financial liability is borne by motorists through insurance, but cyclists sometimes bear the burden when a motorist is uninsured or if he flees. The cost for uncompensated care shifts to the cyclist. Read on for a brief overview of the state laws that apply most often then go right to our Local Ordinance Affecting Cyclists page to see how ordinances make local cycling law.
How Laws Regulate Cycling
The 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 if it’s been a while since you’ve gotten a car license. So let’s summarize the basics:
- Ride on the street with traffic flow and follow the law as any motorist would. That’s not negotiable. Don’t ride against traffic and when in your lane ride confidently: it’s all yours unless wide enough to share with a bus, say.
- 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 as necessary to avoid an object in the road or other dangerous condition;
- Don’t presume the right-of-way unless you clearly have it, and at controlled intersections obey lights and signs as a motorist should;
- Use hand signals to indicate your turns (because you can’t expect motorists to see you) and execute your left turns from the left turn pocket (if available) or from a commanding position in the leftmost lane;
- Ride attentively, predictably, and responsibly (no dual earbuds on the road!) because the responsibility for keeping yourself safe falls disproportionately on you, the rider.
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. You are allowed to use the entire lane under state law if the lane is not wide enough to safely share. Use it! And if you’re cited by a cop for riding in the middle of the lane and you feel that you couldn’t safely ride to the right, take this state law text with you to court:
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 points:
- Firmly assert your right to the road (it’s yours!) by hot yielding control over your space;
- 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 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 the cycling community.
Read on for more of the California Vehicle Code and don’t forget that local ordinance affects cyclists too. (Local ordinances sit atop state law.) Refer to the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalitions helpful summary of the laws with relevant state statutes linked. And have a look at their handy LACBC Road Rules pocket guide [pdf]. Join the LACBC to get your paper copy!
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.
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.