Cyclists' legal rights

Updated July 2017

Cyclists on a Year of Yay! ride claim their right to the road, and stay safe.

Cyclists on a Year of Yay! ride claim their right to the road, and stay safe.

There’s no bike law expert like the guy shouting at you out their car window, amiright?

…sigh…

It may surprise you (no it won’t) to know that most people have no clue how cyclists are supposed to conduct themselves on the road. Everyone is pretty clear that “Hey, you gotta stop at red lights too, man!”, but beyond that they’re making it up—uncharitably. In general, people tend to emphasize cyclists’ responsibilities and de-emphasize or outright ignore cyclists' right to the road. Often cyclists themselves don’t fully appreciate their rights or how they translate into lawful riding practice. But in terms of your personal safety, it’s confusion about your rights, more so than a sometimes-failure to uphold the law, that contributes to bike/car altercations. So let’s learn some bike law, y’all!

KNOW YOUR RIGHTS

Knowing your rights will fundamentally change how you ride. Which is a good thing! You probably ride like a big, fat, slobbering apology, and it’s putting you in harm’s way! 

The first thing to know is that bicycles are classified as vehicles in the Ohio Revised Code (ORC)—just like cars, big rigs, motorcycles and scooters, tractors, RVs, Amish buggies and more.

OK, but so what?

Well, see, anyone who chooses to travel in road-legal vehicle, as defined by the ORC, has the exact same right to the road as anyone else. Period. Size and speed are irrelevant to the question of who can claim the most fundamental of all transportation-related rights: the right of way. In legalese, right of way is defined as:

“The right of a vehicle…to proceed uninterruptedly in a lawful manner in the direction in which it…is moving in preference to another vehicle…approaching from a different direction into its…path.”—Ohio Revised Code 4511.01

Translated, via analogy: Imagine yourself at a public water fountain. As long as you’re using it legally (not, say, poisoning the water supply), no one is allowed to tackle you in order to take their turn. Everyone must stand in line to wait until you’re done, regardless of how long it takes. They may have strong feelings about that, but regardless, assault is a no-no. Similarly, use of public roads is a case of first come, first served—which has some pretty radical implications for cyclists:

We cannot “impede traffic”.

The State of Ohio Court of Appeals ruled in State v Selz that requiring cyclists to travel at the speed of motor vehicle traffic would effectively ban them from public roadways, which is not what the law intends. This ruling is important because it affirms the idea that cyclists impeding traffic is nonsensical; we are traffic! Vehicle operators can’t be expected to maintain speeds faster than the inherent speed of the vehicle in/on which they’ve chosen to travel. And just as farm equipment can’t be expected to maintain a speed of 55mph, bicycles can’t be expected to maintain a consistent 25mph.

We do not have to “share the road”. 

“Share the road” is a horrible, terrible made-up phrase meant to help cyclists assert their right to a lane. But it is commonly misinterpreted by motorists to mean that cyclists should share our lane with (ahem, defer to) them. Again—size, speed and traffic volume are irrelevant when it comes to who’s got right of way, and nothing in the law requires us to yield to other traffic, for any reason. In fact, it can be extremely dangerous to do so!

We need not ride “as far right as possible”.  

The law says to ride “as far to the right as practicable, NOT “as far to the right as possible. The distinction is everything. To ride as far right as possible would keep cyclist forever in the rightmost lane, close enough to the curb and parked cars to clip them. But to ride as far right as practicable is to ride as far to the right as safe and reasonable for you. In fact, there are many reasons to avoid a far-right position on the road, and no one—not cops*, not judges, not fellow cyclists, not your mom, not crazed motorists—can dictate otherwise. We decide where we ride. Here again is the ORC:

This section does not require a person operating a bicycle to ride at the edge of the roadway when it is unreasonable or unsafe to do so. Conditions that may require riding away from the edge of the roadway include when necessary to avoid fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, surface hazards, or if it otherwise is unsafe or impracticable to do so, including if the lane is too narrow for the bicycle and an overtaking vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.—Ohio Revised Code 4511.55, Section C

THE BOTTOM LINE

As A cyclist, YOU can ride literally anywhere on the road, going any speed, regardless of traffic conditions.

CLAIM YOUR RIGHTS

At this point your mind very well may be blown. You may be thinking, “yeah well, that’s all fine and good but how does my theoretical right to the road translate into actual not getting killed?!” Or maybe, "That is THE! RUDEST!" Or, "Yeah, but I'm sure she's not accounting for...". Or perhaps you’re feeling empowered in a way you never have before.

Ironically, to the extent that cyclists can control safety outcomes vis-a-vis motor vehicle drivers, the safest way to ride is to assert your right to the road (indeed, it's downright dangerous not to). This is because excessively accommodating motor vehicle traffic renders a bicyclist invisible and unpredictable to drivers. It is therefore critical that you take a lane when necessary, refuse to yield when it’s not safe to do so and ride far enough from the curb that you can safely maneuver around hazards. It’s true that drivers may have all sorts of feels about that. But it’s not “rude” to exercise your right of way, to take up time and space on the road. It’s your right and you need to claim it—not for the sake of it or to be a jerk, of course, but to keep yourself safe! 

HOW YAY BIKES! CAN HELP

It tends to surprise people how much they can influence motorists’ behavior by exercising their right of way and riding visibly and predictably in the proper lane position. Join us on an educational ride to gain the confidence you need to assert your rights and stay safe out there! Yay Bikes! members ride free on our monthly How We Roll educational bike rides, but space is limited so register now!

In the meantime, for some easy reading, check out Bob Mionske's classic Bicycling and the Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist to learn ALLLLL the nuances of bike law.


*If you’re given a ticket for failure to yield, impeding traffic, being too far from the curb, etc.—be polite to the officer, but fight it in court. Because you will win.