Bike Law University: Where to Ride Laws

Ken McLeod
Legal Specialist, Advocacy Advance
April 2013

Source: BikeLeague

A Sharrow Lane

A Sharrow Lane

Bicyclists have been fighting for good roads and the right to use them since before the League of American Bicyclists was founded in 1880.

Where to Ride laws strike at the very heart of advocacy: Bicyclists’ right to the road. When safety requires a bicyclist to take the lane, it is important that the law allows a bicyclist to do so.

In this edition of Bike Law University, we take a look at Where to Ride laws and how they have shaped bicyclists safety.

What are they?

Where to Ride laws tell bicycles, or vehicles generally, how they should position themselves on the road. These laws create and manage the expectations of road users regarding the behavior of others while traveling on the road. In most states, the law that applies to bicyclists regarding road position starts with a variation of requiring a position as far to the right as practicable.

When you talk about Where to Ride laws it is necessary to begin by defining the word practicable. In most states a bicyclist is required by law to ride as far to the right as practicable, sometimes referred to as AFRAP. The obvious and necessary question to a bicyclist seeking to comply with the law, motorists judging bicyclist behavior, and law enforcement officials tasked with enforcing the law is – what does practicable mean? So, inevitably a dictionary is consulted and we learn that it means “capable of being put into practice,” which is likely to mean one thing to an experienced road cyclist, one thing to a driver who is annoyed at a “law breaking” cyclist safely taking the lane, and a different thing to every law enforcement officer who by order or inclination enforces the law. What is practicable is often context sensitive based upon road and traffic conditions. The League generally recommends that cyclists ride in the right third of the lane with traffic.

Where To Ride Chart

Where To Ride Chart

Click here to see the full chart.

Cyclists and police at times disagree over where on the road cyclists can ride. Cyclists have successfully fought tickets issued under Where to Ride statutes based upon exceptions in the law, including narrow lanes and hazards. Local bicycling advocates and League Certified Instructors can be valuable resources if you are ever prosecuted under a Where to Ride law. If a disagreement occurs, it may be useful to consult bicycle safety education materials and roadway design manuals. In addition, sharrows, where marked, are usually meant to serve as an indication of where to ride and can be used as an insight into official ideas of what is “practicable.”

In the states that do not use the language “as far to the right as practicable” there seem to be three reasons for the difference:

  • New York defines its standard in terms of a cyclist’s impact on traffic
  • Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Washington essentially substitute “as safe” for “as practicable”
  • Arkansas and Massachusetts do not provide unique lane positioning rules for cyclists or vehicles travelling at less than the prevailing speed of traffic

In most states there are a number of exceptions to the general requirement to ride as far to the right as practicable that allow a bicyclist to take the lane in certain situations. The seven most common exceptions are listed below:

  1. Operating at or above the rate of speed of normal traffic flow on the roadway
  2. Passing
  3. Turning to the left
  4. Avoiding hazards or hazardous roadway conditions (usually this is accompanied by a non-exhaustive list of hazards, often including parked cars to address the door zone)
  5. Operating in a lane that is not sufficiently wide for a bicycle and vehicle to operate side by side
  6. Operating on a one-way street, in which case a bicyclist may ride near to the left side of the roadway
  7. Intending to proceed straight when the right-most lane is a right turn only lane (to avoid a right hook conflict)

These exceptions, along with the indefinite nature of what is “practicable”, can give cyclists substantial autonomy in deciding where they feel comfortable riding on a roadway given the conditions that exist on that roadway. Although these rules are usually phrased as exceptions, they can also be seen as clarifications regarding when it is practicable to ride to the right.

It is important that cyclists are equipped with the legal rights to determine where they want to ride. When conflicts over shared road space arise between bicyclists and other road users or law enforcement it is important that safety is the primary concern rather than ideas about the hierarchy of road users and good Where to Ride laws allow the cyclist to decide what is safe.

 Spotlight State – Colorado

Rather than using the “as far to the right as practicable” language of most states, Colorado says that a bicyclists shall ride “far enough to the right as judged safe by the bicyclist to facilitate the movement of … overtaking vehicles.” Unlike the confusing term practicable, this language explicitly balances a cyclist’s need for safety with demands for efficient traffic flow. Cyclists are given further control over where they choose to ride because they are not expected or required to ride without a reasonable safety margin to the edge of the roadway. In addition, the law provides for all seven of the common exceptions to the “as far to the right as practicable” rule.

The language of Colorado’s law is the result of Bicycle Colorado’s efforts after one police officer, acting upon his own unique interpretation of practicable, issued numerous tickets for failure to ride “as far to the right as practicable.” Bicycle Colorado attempted to educate the police officer regarding cycling safety and the reasons that his interpretation of practicable was detrimental to cyclist safety, but no common understanding was reached. By changing the law Bicycle Colorado was able to change this difficult to understand law to language that actually says something, and embodies the education message that would otherwise have to be done on a personal basis. Now cyclists, drivers, and law enforcement officers can simply look at the law, rather than having to resort to a dictionary and their own experiences to determine where a bicyclist can and should ride.

Why should you care?

Where to Ride laws are an important part of bicyclists’ right to the road because they regulate bicyclists’ use of the road. When safety requires a bicyclist to take the lane it is important that the law allows a bicyclist to do so. There seem to be two primary justifications for Where to Ride laws: 1) concern for bicyclist safety, and 2) concern that bicycles interfere with traffic flow. Let’s take a look at how these laws address these two justifications:

1) Bicyclist safety: Where to Rde laws are essential so that bicyclists are told to ride with traffic because they gain significant safety benefits when they do so. Bicyclists riding against traffic are more than 3 times more likely to be in an accident. To be safe a bicyclist needs room to maneuver in an emergency and the confidence to position him or herself appropriately given road and traffic conditions. The requirement to ride to the right does a great job of addressing that people ride with traffic. The seven common exceptions to this requirement provide a basis for bicyclists to position themselves so that they are visible to motor vehicle traffic, act like other vehicles, or otherwise protect themselves from turning vehicles and other hazards.

2) Bicyclists and traffic flow: Where to Ride laws address traffic flow by requiring bicycles to be operated on the far right side of the road, allowing motor vehicle traffic room to pass when a road is wide enough. Two of the common exceptions to the ride to the right requirement have a direct relationship to traffic flow.

  • When a bicycle is operated at or above the speed of normal traffic flow there is no traffic flow or safety reason for a bicycle to be operated in a way other than a motor vehicle, and so in most states a bicycle is not required to ride to the far right in those circumstances.
  • When a lane is not sufficiently wide for a bicycle and a vehicle to operate side by side there is a significant potential that riding to the far right may invite unsafe passing, and so in most states a bicycle is not required to ride to the far right in those circumstances. This exception correctly prioritizes bicyclist safety over fast traffic flow. It also appears to be one of the most commonly litigated exceptions as bicyclists taking the lane according to this exception are more likely to be in conflict with motor vehicle traffic flow for an extended period of time.

Good Where to Ride laws manage the expectations of drivers and let drivers know that a bicyclist has the right to take the lane according to their personal judgment of their safety and road conditions. Bad Where to Ride laws prioritize motor vehicle traffic flow and limit the ability of a bicyclist to make judgments about their own personal safety.  Additionally, bad laws may subject a bicyclist to prosecution and a fine for attempting to ride safely. It is important that our laws prioritize safety for all road users.

Who has them?

Forty three states, and Washington, D.C., have a law that requires vehicles, or bicycles, to operate on the right side of the road and as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable if travelling at less than the prevailing speed of traffic.

As previously discussed there are seven common exceptions to this requirement, and they occur in different frequencies. The average for all states is to have slightly more than 4 exceptions. The most common number of exceptions for a state to have is 6.

(Photo: Courtesy of Benicchio on Flickr.)