How Far to the Right Must a Cyclist Travel?
NOTE: Special acknowledgement is given to James Partridge for furnishing the information about the Ann Arbor incident and subsequent trial and to Riin Gill for supplying follow-up details. I also used an Ann Arbor News account, City, bicyclists work on safety.
Do cyclists have the right to operate their bicycles in the roadway? This question is sometimes asked by beginning cyclists, but anyone who has looked in the code of laws for their states will find that a bicycle is defined as either 1) a vehicle or 2) a slow-moving vehicle or that 3) the operator is given all the rights and duties (older language: rights and responsibilities) as an operator of a vehicle.
However, there are two other state code provisions which seem to question that right. Many communities and some state laws include a provision that a cyclist must ride on a bikepath when one is available. In some cases, efforts have been made to get cyclists onto sidewalks using this provision, but they have never stood up in court. In other cases, when the bikepath was in poor condition, the judge likewise excused the cyclist from using it. It seems to me that use of a bike path should be purely at the cyclist's discretion. Also, most state laws include a provision, found in the Uniform Code, that the cyclist keep as close to the right side as practicable (older language: practical). To some people, this provision suggests that a cyclist must stay as close to the curb or gutter as possible.
Certainly, there is a belief among motorists that cyclists should not be on the roadway whenever a shoulder is available. For instance, Jon Hahn in Seattle, in an article entitled "Road rules apply to cyclists, too," evidently believes that there is some law or code of behavior to that effect. He also is opposed to children riding with adults on the roadway or adults carrying children in trailers on the roadway. I guess he feels that all people with children have to own cars. There is no evidence, by the way, that riding with children or that carrying them in a trailer is unsafe. Nor is there any requirement in the legal code of any state that I know of for the cyclist to ride on the shoulder.
Unfortunately, false beliefs on the part of motorists can sometimes cause road incidents in which a motorist tries to enforce what he believes to be the law. In the Bay Area of California, a motorist was passing some cyclists while going down a hill, and he didn't feel one of them was far enough over onto the shoulder, so just after he passed them, he pulled onto the shoulder and slammed on his brake, so he could stop them and instruct them properly. However, while the cyclists seemed to be going very slowly to him, they were traveling too fast to be able to stop abruptly when he pulled in front of them. The lead cyclist couldn't swerve fast enough and ran into the car at a good clip, causing the cyclist to be thrown on the hood of the car, where his face was injured by the impact. The complete story can be found at "Injury to cyclist underscores tension on the roadways" By Joshua L. Kwan.
It's certainly not rare for cyclists to have police officers pull them over and tell them that they should be riding on the sidewalk. I had this happen to me in Gadsden, Alabama, and I immediately contacted the Chief of Police by email and sent him a copy of the portion of the Code of Alabama concerning cyclists, as the Code of Alabama (like the state laws of every state) gives the cyclist the right to be traveling on the roadway. Quite often the police feel it is OK to be riding on a roadway only if there are no motor vehicles present, but the state laws do not require the cyclist to surrend right of way to motor vehicles, no matter the officers' prejudices. A good while after this incident, while riding to work within this same area, I was harassed by a police officer who used his megaphone to say, "This is a state highway; this is a state highway." There is no law against a cyclist using a state highway, and the police car did not stop. It seems to me that the police are discouraging cyclists from the nearby college from using the roadway in a safe and legal fashion.
Ken Clark, the chairman of Ann Arbor's Bicycle Coordinating Committee while on his way to work for the EPA, was pulled over in a similar fashion in November 2001 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a college town, where bicycling is very popular. Unfortunately, perhaps due to proximity to Detroit, anti-bicycling views are very popular as well. I found myself frequently harassed by motorists for no clear reason when traveling through this area in 1998. For instance, while I was waiting for a light to change, a woman pulled up behind me in a car and blasted me with her horn. I just turned in my seat and stared at her until she stopped. Not far away, I pulled into a shopping center, and a mini-van began backing up. The van stopped, so I proceeded, but the driver had to yell out some comments about my "reckless" behavior. Inasmuch as I was moving slowly and was willing to either wait for the van or to proceed, I don't see how anyone could possible describe my behavior as reckless. Finally, I was run off of the road three times within 15 minutes by motorists passing vehicles while coming towards me, clearly illegal, deliberate, and dangerous acts.
Ken was traveling on a street with a bend to the right which could prevent his being seen by approaching motorists, so he was riding four feet from the curb in order to insure that he would be sure to be seen. The lane was over 13 feet wide. He said motorists frequently drove around the curve hugging the curb and thus they could not see him until the last instance. By riding where he was more visible, he improved their safety and his. His practice was to move to the right to allow vehicles to squeeze by after the motorists had seen him and had slowed down. The officer stopped him after seeing two vehicles suddenly swerve left when they saw him, "nearly causing an accident." This strongly suggests that they were moving faster than the legal 40 mph. In fact, the officer actually told him that his action was unsafe because Ken might not have enough time to react to a police vehicle moving at 60 mph in the 40 mph zone. Basically, the argument was that it was not safe for him to be riding legally because someone could be driving illegally.
The officer who stopped Ken expected him to ride on the sidewalk because the officer didn't judge the street safe enough for cycling, and she gave Ken a ticket for blocking traffic as a result, using an ordinance that applied to parked vehicles. Because that ordinance didn't apply to to cyclists, that ticket was later replaced with a ticket for failure to ride as far to the right as practical.
At the end of May, a hearing was held in which everyone agreed about the facts involved but in which there was no agreement about the behavior of the cyclist. Ken acknowledged that he could have ridden closer to the curb, but he didn't consider it safe to do so. The city attorney argued that Ken should have remained as close to the curb as possible, even if doing so endangered him. Both sides were asked to submit a brief on June 28.
In the city's brief, the argument was that the cyclist must stay as close to the curb as humanly possible. If you think about it, this would require the cyclist to ride through potholes, weave in and out between cars, and hug the edge of drop-offs. It's basically saying that the cyclist has no right to evalute what is safe or dangerous. The argument was based on definitions of "practical" and "practicable," but, as Alan Wachtel has pointed out, the exact same language is used in the Michigan State Code to describe all vehicle travel, not just bicycle travel:
257.636. (1) . . .(a) The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass at a safe distance to the left of that vehicle, and when safely clear of the overtaken vehicle shall take up a position as near the right-hand edge of the main traveled portion of the highway as is practicable. . . .
257.647. (1) The driver of a vehicle intending to turn at an intersection shall do so as follows: (a) Both the approach for a right turn and a right turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway. . . .(c) . . . Approach for a left turn from a 1-way roadway into a 2-way roadway shall be made as close as practicable to the left curb or edge of the roadway and by passing to the right of the center line of the roadway being entered. (d) Where both streets or roadways are 1-way, both the approach for a left turn and a left turn shall be made as close as practicable to the left-hand curb or edge of the roadway. . . .
Fortunately Judge Julie Creal Goodridge, on September 4, 2002, rejected the city's argument. She pointed out that both the city ordinance (which used the term "practical") and the state law (which used the term "practicable") were intended to provide for the safety of both the motorist and the cyclist and that the intent had been to give the cyclist reasonal discretion to determine what was a safe distance.
Unfortunately, this does not mean that the threat is over, either in Ann Arbor or elsewhere. The city of Ann Arbor can always appeal this decision. Cities elsewhere will continue to stop and harass legal cyclists if they happen to believe that only motor vehicles should be using the road. See Fred Oswald's Right to the Road Cases." Also unfortunately, bicycling advocacy groups, such as the LAB, prefer to ignore the problem. The danger always exists that those opposed to bicycling could win in a local court, thus effectively ending legal bicycling in that area. While those opposed to bicycling would probably lose if the case were carried high enough (I say "probably" because any ruling is possible in today's highly politicized courts), those wanting to appeal such decisions would have to face high court costs. Ken Clark's local case cost him $3,500 and a great deal of time; how many cyclists could afford to carry an appeal to the next level? At present, the worst case situation applies to the entire state of Illinois. There, the state supreme court has decided that the state is not responsible for accidents happening to cyclists which are the fault of the state because cyclists are not the designated users. This effectly means that the state has no incentive to ensure that its streets, roads, and highways are safe for bicyclists to ride upon.
Ken Clark deserves our thanks for having fought this case in court. I hope that you and I will be willing to do the same if the need should arise.
However, as I was afraid, the matter is not nearly settled. While Ken's attorney, David Cahill announced that the case set a precedent, Assistant City Attorney Kristen D. Larcom and Police Chief Daniel Oates said it was not. Oates says he still thinks that the officer who ticketed Ken was correct, and he says his department intends to ticket any cyclist they find riding in the "middle of the street." Ken Clark, on the other hand, is working with the city council members trying to get them to modify the ordinance.
In addition, Ken invited Chief Oates to a meeting of the Ann Arbor Bicycle Coordinating
Committee, where they discussed the matter. Riin Gill, who is a member of the committee, said that the chief looked at them "as if they were from Mars" when they said they wanted the police to enforce the traffic laws when cyclists disobeyed them. The cyclists preferred giving warnings to tickets, and they also were concerned with a different set of behaviors, such as running red lights and riding on the wrong side of the road. Also, the chief was open to the cyclists talking to the police during their traffic briefings. But the chief couldn't understand lane positioning at all. When the cyclists tried to explain about riding away from the door zone, the chief insisted that they should hug the car doors.
One of my assumptions above was that anti-bicycling sentiments were behind these events, but it turns out that the chief is a bike rider and purchased two new bicycles after retiring from the NYPD and moving to Ann Arbor. He has been wanting to ride with the local touring club but has put it off due to the controversy. It seems that the chief should be the focus point of advocacy efforts. He is willing to listen and cooperate, but he firmly feels that cyclists and motorists are safest when the cyclists hug the gutter.