Appreciation for the Generic Slow Vehicle Law


Bicyclists across the US, including a number in Florida 1 and California 2 have recently reported that they were harassed by police and ticketed for riding in the center of travel lanes that are too narrow to share safely side-by-side with cars and trucks. Florida and California have bicycle-specific laws 3 4 modeled after Uniform Vehicle Code § 11-1205(a), which requires bicyclists to ride as far right as “practicable” when traveling slower than other traffic. 5 Like the UVC version, the Florida and California bicycles-stay-right laws include an exception for lanes that are too narrow for riding side-by-side with a motor vehicle to be safe (in addition to many other exceptions such as on-street parking and surface hazards). Unfortunately, many police ignore the exceptions and use the stay-right requirement to harass or ticket cyclists whenever other traffic must slow for them.

When so many bicyclists operating according to best practices are cited for violation of the law, we must conclude that there is something wrong with the law.

When so many bicyclists operating according to best practices 6 are cited for violation of the law, we must conclude that there is something wrong with the law. One observation is that since most travel lanes are 10 to 12 feet wide – too narrow for safe side-by-side sharing by a typical SUV, much less a truck or bus 7 – the law has the general rule (stay right) and the exception (narrow conditions) completely backward. Police officers assume that the law wouldn’t be written the way it is unless bicyclists should stay to the right edge of the lane most of the time, and so they send lane-controlling bicyclists to court again and again, only to have such cases dismissed. 8 This poorly conceived and written law generates needless conflict between police departments and the bicycling community. A somewhat better bicycle-specific law would declare bicyclists’ right to a full marked travel lane as a general rule, and define the exceptional circumstances where same-lane passing may be allowed. (Multiple criteria must be met: An especially wide lane allowing abundant passing distance given the vehicle width, a location away from intersections, safe conditions at the right edge of the lane given the bicyclists’ speed, and so forth.) The states of Colorado and Montana have each modified their bicycles-stay-right law with a step in this direction.

But what would happen instead if states did away with the bicycle-specific stay-right law entirely, as the NCUTLO Panel on Bicycle Laws recommended in 1975 9? Would traffic grind to a halt? No, but it would be harder for police to ticket bicyclists who exercise lane control for their own safety. We know this because six states – Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Pennsylvania – never adopted a bicycle-specific stay-to-the-right law. North Carolina has only a generic slow vehicle law, 10 similar to UVC 11-301(b):

UVC 11-301 – Drive on right side of roadways – exceptions …

(b) Upon all roadways any vehicle proceeding at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for traffic, or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway, except when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction or when preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road, alley, or driveway. The intent of this subsection is to facilitate the overtaking of slowly moving vehicles by faster moving vehicles. …

The driver of any vehicle traveling slowly can satisfy this law by using the right hand thru lane; only if there are no marked lanes is such a driver compelled to operate “as close as practicable” to the road edge.

When a bicyclist is pulled over in a state with abicyclist-specific FTR law, the disucssion about the statute requires explanation and interpretation of a long list of exceptions.
When a bicyclist is pulled over in a state with a bicyclist-specific FTR law, any discussion about the statute requires explanation and interpretation of a long list of exceptions. This places a burden on the bicyclist to thoroughly know the law and to be articulate and diplomatic in her explanation. It also increases the likelihood she may have to ultimately fight an unjust citation in court.

Having no discriminatory bicycle-specific stay-right law doesn’t make lawful cyclists immune to police harassment rooted in ignorance and bias. A lack of adequate police education about bicycling in North Carolina has resulted in many bicyclists (including myself) being pulled over by police who felt we shouldn’t be riding in the center of a narrow lane. The difference in North Carolina is that when the stopped bicyclists invite police to look up the statute, the officers usually recognize their error about the state law. The contrast between an unfair citation and a teachable moment is of great significance to the bicyclist. It’s possible that some bicyclist somewhere in North Carolina has paid a ticket for violating our state’s generic slow vehicle law, but our statewide advocacy organization isn’t aware of one, and we are vigilant.

Bicyclist advocates in North Carolina are actively engaging local police departments to promote better police relations and improved public safety, including education about best bicycling practices. When discussion of bicyclist positioning on the roadway comes up, we explain the technical issues of why it is often safer to ride in the center of the lane or control it by riding double file. This conversation with police is made much easier by the fact that North Carolina has no bicycle-specific stay right law. Question: “Don’t bicyclists legally need to stay to the right side of the lane?” Answer: “No, state law treats bicyclists the same as the driver of a slow moving tractor; they can occupy a travel lane. Next question?” Our state Driver Handbook underscores this point. “Bicyclists usually ride on the right side of the lane, but are entitled to use the full lane.” 11 North Carolina’s vehicle code clearly defines bicycles as vehicles and bicyclists as having the rights and duties of drivers of vehicles. Bicyclists don’t need a vehicle-specific law to telling them where to ride in a marked travel lane – or that they are allowed to occupy travel lanes in the first place – any more than motorcyclists do.

Do bicyclists in North Carolina ever control a wide travel lane under conditions where it creates an unreasonable delay for motorists, but with no real safety benefit? Yes, but such situations are very rare, firstly because so few lanes are truly wide enough for this to be safe, secondly because roads that carry substantial traffic will usually have an additional same-direction lane for passing, and thirdly because cyclists will usually move to the right as a courtesy when it will make a significant improvement for others. Contrary to what some people may think, bicyclists are human beings who typically care about other people, and some have written a good deal about this. 12 The rare cases where motorists experience significant delays from unnecessary control of wide lanes are too few and far between to warrant adopting a law that invites abuse from police and encourages unsafe edge riding.

Living without laws that punish bicyclists for being slower than motorcyclists and narrower than tractors has worked well in North Carolina. Bicyclist advocates in other states would do well to pursue the same full driver rights.


  1. Guy Hackett, Ryan Scofield: “Cyclist fights ticket for using full lane, and wins”
  2. David Kramer (6/29/2014), Scott Golper (7/6/2014), Greg Liebert (11/10/2013)
  3. 316.2065(5)(a) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing shall ride in the lane marked for bicycle use or, if no lane is marked for bicycle use, 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 any condition or potential conflict, including, but not limited to, a fixed or moving object, parked or moving vehicle, bicycle, pedestrian, animal, surface hazard, turn lane, or substandard-width lane, which makes it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge or within a bicycle lane. For the purposes of this subsection, a “substandard-width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and another vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.

  4. 21202. (a) 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.
    (4) When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized.
    (b) 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.
  5. UVC 11-1205 Position on roadway
    (a) Any person operating a bicycle or a moped upon a roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing 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, parked or moving vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge. 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.
    4. When riding in the right turn only lane.

    (b) Any person operating a bicycle or a moped upon a one-way highway with two or more marked traffic lanes may ride as near the left-hand curb or edge of such roadway as practicable.

  6. Cycling Savvy “FAQ: Why do you ride like that?”
  7. Interactive Graphics: Lane Width and Space
  8. “Cyclist fights ticket for using full lane, and wins”
  9. In 1975, the NCUTLO Panel on Bicycle Laws wrote:

    UVC § 11-1205(a) requires bicyclists to ride as close as practicable to the right hand side of the roadway. This provision is very unpopular with bicyclists for a number of reasons. It treats the bicyclist as a second class road user who does not really have the same rights enjoyed by other drivers but who is tolerated as long as he uses a bare minimum of roadway space at the side of the road. The provision is also frequently misunderstood by bicyclists, motorists, policemen and even, unfortunately, judges. The provision requires the bicyclist to be as close to the side of the road as is practicable, which we all understand to mean possible, safe and reasonable. But many people apparently don’t understand the significance of the word practicable, and read the law as requiring a constant position next to the curb. Even where the significance of the word practicable is recognized, the bicyclist is exposed to the danger of policemen and judges who may have a different idea about what is possible, safe and reasonable, and he is exposed to the very real danger of motorists who, because of their misconception of this law, will expect the bicyclist to stay next to the curb and will treat him with hostility if he moves away from that position.

    The side of the road is a very dangerous place to ride. The bicyclist is not nearly as visible here as he is out in the center of a lane. Also there is reason to believe that motorists don’t respect a bicycle as a vehicle when it is hugging the side of the road. It is at the side of the road where all the dirt, broken glass, wire, hub caps, rusty mufflers, and other road debris collects, and it is hazardous to try to ride through this mess. Storm sewer grates are generally at the side of the road. The roadway is frequently less well maintained in this position. Also, in urban areas there is frequently a dangerous ridge where the roadway pavement meets the gutter, and the bicyclist must try to ride parallel with this ridge without hitting it. A bicyclist riding near the right edge of the roadway is also in substantially greater danger from vehicles cutting in front of him to turn right than is the bicyclist who rides out in the middle of the right lane.

  10. NC § 20-146(b): Upon all highways any vehicle proceeding at less than the legal maximum speed limit shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for thru traffic, or as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the highway, except when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction or when preparing for a left turn.
  11. North Carolina Driver Handbook, Page 77
  12. What is a Courteous Cyclist?

What is a Courteous Cyclist?


The issue of courtesy often comes up when bicyclists discuss traffic, especially when motorists are part of the conversation. Most bicyclists want to be respectful of others and to set a good example. However, different assumptions, experiences and knowledge about traffic bicycling can result in different opinions of what “courtesy” means. How can cyclists extend courtesies to their fellow road users, while prioritizing their own safety? We’ll answer that question as it’s addressed by cycling classes such as CyclingSavvy and BikeWalk NC’s Traffic Bicycling course.

Defining Courteous

Courteous means “marked by respect for and consideration of others.” Courtesy is voluntary social behavior that exceeds our obligations under the law (such as stopping for red lights). Police cannot write traffic tickets for being rude; they are limited to the statutes that prohibit unsafe movements. All road users must cooperate with one another to avoid collisions; courtesy, however, is making the extra effort to improve the social environment of traffic and optimize the experience for everyone. When it comes to courtesy, we self-police according to our own judgment.

The Golden Rule

As socially conscious travelers we try to apply the rule, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” We appreciate favors from strangers and try to do the same for them. But how big a favor should be expected? One example is holding a heavy door open for a stranger entering a building behind us. How long should we wait? If the stranger is right behind us, we feel rude for letting the door swing shut. If the stranger is too far away, waiting a long time makes both parties feel awkward. Our minds calculate a threshold by comparing estimates of our cost of holding the door and the other person’s cost of re-opening it. We usually extend favors when the cost to ourselves is less than the cost we save for others. When everyone does this for everyone else, everyone wins.

First Come, First Served

We often let a person with one item go first at the checkout counter when we have a full cart. But what if there is a long line of people behind us at checkout? If we give up our place in line, others will benefit, but our individual cost may become too burdensome. Such a large sacrifice is not expected of us; people understand that sometimes the first come, first served rule is the only fair and practical way to limit every individual’s burden to a reasonable level.

Assisting Overtaking

Every bicyclist must decide for themselves on a case-by-case basis how much burden to shoulder for an inadequate road design, and how much to rely on the first come, first served rule to get to their destination in a reasonable time.

In the Traffic Cycling class we discuss when a bicyclist should move to the right edge of the road to assist faster drivers in passing, versus when they should maintain control of their lane by riding in the lane center. For safety, cycling instructors encourage cyclists to control the lane when the usable lane width is narrow, because this reduces the risk of sideswipes caused by unsafe close passing. Bicyclists in North Carolina have the same legal right to use a full lane as other drivers. However, we also encourage cyclists to voluntarily move right at a safe location when the usable pavement is wide and it will help drivers pass by, letting them do so without changing lanes. Oftentimes one encounters marginal cases where the lane widens for a limited distance before narrowing again, and sometimes traffic backs up on narrow two-lane roads. In these cases, a bicyclist may elect to pull over where safe and wait until traffic disperses before continuing.

This is where comparison of relative convenience is useful. For instance, if only one car is following the bicyclist on a narrow road, and a safe opportunity to pass via the next lane will appear in several seconds, there is no net advantage to the bicyclist pulling off the roadway and stopping to facilitate the pass. But if multiple motorists are waiting at substantially reduced speed with no foreseeable opportunities to pass safely in the next lane, the bicyclist who pulls over at a safe location for a brief time provides a substantial benefit to the other road users at a low personal cost. One example of such a maneuver is “control and release.”

In a narrow lane, riding double file does not make safe passing more difficult. It discourages unsafe too-close same-lane passing and makes the group shorter, requiring less time to complete a pass in the next lane. (photo by Mike Dayton)

So how often should a bicyclist do this? Pulling over too frequently creates an unreasonably high cost for the bicyclist in return for maximizing motorists’ convenience. Every bicyclist must decide for herself on a case-by-case basis how much burden to shoulder for an inadequate road design, and how much to rely on the first come, first served rule to get to her destination in a reasonable time.

In the case of a group of cyclists, the logistics of moving everyone off of the roadway in a safe and coordinated manner can be particularly challenging. Usually a passing opportunity opens up and following traffic disperses long before a group can find a good place to pull over. One way that a group can make passing easier on a narrow two-lane road is to shorten the length of the group. This can be accomplished by riding double-file within a single lane, thus reducing the length of the group by half, and by riding in separated platoons of a dozen or fewer cyclists instead of in very large groups.

Some roads feature paved shoulders, which in most states are legally optional for bicyclists to use. The width, surface condition, and continuity of such shoulders varies greatly, so bicyclists who consider using them to assist others with passing must continually evaluate the risks. Helping another road user pass a few seconds earlier is not worth a flat tire or crash.

Multi-Lane Roads

On roads with more than one thru lane in the bicyclist’s direction of travel, drivers can move into the left lane to pass with relative ease. On such roads, traffic almost never builds up behind bicyclists for more than a few seconds, so bicyclists usually need not concern themselves will pulling off the roadway to assist passing. In urban areas with significant traffic, multi-lane roads are often the most advantageous routes for bicycling, offering everyone more convenience than narrow roads.

Passing on the Right

Passing stopped traffic on the right creates conflicts at intersections and frustrates drivers who must repeat their passing maneuvers. It is also prohibited by law when not done in a separate marked lane.
Passing stopped traffic on the right creates conflicts at intersections and frustrates drivers who must repeat their passing maneuvers. It is also prohibited by law in some states when not done in a separate marked lane.

Where traffic queues up at traffic lights and stop signs, bicyclists can occasionally be seen squeezing past the queue on the right and moving up to the intersection. In some states, such as North Carolina, traffic law prohibits passing on the right when not in a separate marked travel lane. This rule is designed to prevent right-hook collisions between right-turning and overtaking traffic; right turns are to be made from the right lane and overtaking should only occur left of right-turning traffic. But beyond possible legal and collision concerns, filtering forward often creates a greater burden for the queue of motorists than it saves for the bicyclist. If the travel lane is narrow, it may be unsafe for motorists to pass the bicyclist again without moving into the next lane. Each motorist may wait behind the bicyclist, pass when safe, and stop at the next light, only to have the bicyclist squeeze past them again and repeat the whole process. The safer and more courteous approach is for bicyclists to get in line with queued traffic and pass through the intersection on a first-come, first-served basis.

Stopping in Groups

When this group pulled over, the front riders moved forward far enough to ensure the rear riders could easily ride completely out of the travel lane before stopping. Then they offered a friendly wave to motorists who had followed them through a narrow stretch of road.

Groups of cyclists traveling together must sometimes stop for a short time to rest, re-group, or make route decisions. When a group stops in the roadway, however, other road users must figure out how to get around them in order to proceed. This is especially problematic if the group has stopped to chat at an intersection, where moving into the next lane to pass would be hazardous. If a cycling group stops and waits for a reason other than waiting for traffic ahead to clear, it is a simple courtesy to move the bicycles off of the roadway temporarily, and return to the roadway when the group is ready to continue.

Courtesy to Pedestrians

On paths, bicyclists should slow down and give pedestrians lots of space when passing, just as bicyclists need motorists to do for them on roadways.

Some locations, such as greenway paths, are shared with pedestrians. Pedestrians value these spaces as safe and relaxing places to walk with their children and pets, and will sometimes make unpredictable movements. This requires bicyclists to slow down and give pedestrians lots of space when passing, just as bicyclists need motorists to do for them on roadways. When a path is congested or pedestrians are otherwise spread across the width of the path, the bicyclist must often slow down to pedestrian speed and alert the pedestrians to the bicyclist’s desire to pass. Although a bell can be an effective way to alert pedestrians who are not facing the bicyclist, a friendly voice may be better appreciated. It is also important to receive some form of confirmation from the pedestrian (such as eye contact) indicating that they know they are about to be passed.

Disagreements about Courtesy

By making an attempt to understand the genuine difficulties faced by travelers other than ourselves, we can all promote civility.

Debate often arises about courteous cycling when different people have different perceptions of the costs of the available options. A motorist may not see and appreciate the broken glass, gravel, broken pavement, rumble strip, door zone or other hazards present at the edge of a road. Some people are unfamiliar with the effective safety benefits of riding near the center of a narrow lane to deter unsafe same-lane passing. A bicyclist may not appreciate the challenges a driver pulling a trailer may face when preparing to pass safely on a two-lane road. Some debates will never be put to rest, and sometimes all the options seem equally bad. But by making an attempt to understand the genuine difficulties faced by travelers other than ourselves, we can all promote civility.

Motorists often do not understand the reasons a bicyclist choses to ride where she does. Click on the image to see the conflicts this bicyclist is avoiding.
Motorists often do not understand the reasons a bicyclist choses to ride where she does. Click on the image to see the conflicts this bicyclist is avoiding.

A markedly different kind of debate results when one participant believes that another has an inferior right to a shared resource because they belong to a lower caste or class of users, and should therefore defer to the superior group. This type of prejudice often fuels motorists’ complaints about bicyclists using roadways, and sometimes anti-car advocates for increased bicycling can be similarly afflicted. While there are solid legal arguments supporting equal rights to traveled ways, the most persuasive approach to resolving prejudice usually involves an appeal to humanity and development of mutual understanding.

It’s important for bicyclists to view themselves as equally entitled users of our public roads, which means being equally entitled to safe travel. A bicyclist should never compromise her safety to increase convenience for another road user; that is too high a sacrifice to make. The prudent approach is to trade time and effort in an equitable manner to help everyone get to their destinations safely and in reasonable time.

Dealing with Harassment

Suppressing the urge to argue can be difficult, but it is unlikely that a motorist’s mind has ever been changed by a yelling match.

Occasionally a motorist who feels slighted by a bicyclist’s movement or simply their presence on the road will harass the bicyclist by yelling or horn honking. This can be very upsetting, and it may be difficult for the bicyclist to keep calm. Understand that the greatest danger in such situations usually occurs when the bicyclist escalates the situation by retaliating with their own yelling, obscene gestures, or other expressions that can be interpreted as hostile. Such exchanges can result in assaults. But if the bicyclist simply ignores the harassment, the motorist will usually continue on their way without incident. Suppressing the urge to argue can be difficult, but it is unlikely that a motorist’s mind has ever been changed by a yelling match. If a motorist behaves in a threatening manner, however, stop and report the incident to police as soon as possible. Take note of the license plate, driver description, and location, and be prepared with any witnesses or video that may be available. Note that video can be a very compelling and unbiased witness, and will also show any unlawful or escalating behavior on behalf of the bicyclist. Whenever interacting with other members of the public on our roadways, the most successful long term approach is ultimately to take the high road.

Ask i am traffic: Bicyclist Licensing

An i am traffic reader asks via email:

Do you think requiring bicyclists to have licenses, similar to automobile drivers (or a spot on our driver’s licenses similar to motorcyclists), would raise bicyclists’ stature in the eyes of law enforcement and the driving public? Would the inconvenience this would cause to cyclists be worth it to more clearly send the message to everyone else that we cyclists seriously want to be given the same respect as the automobile?

It has often been suggested, usually by non-bicyclists, that bicyclists should be required to pass a skills and knowledge test as a precondition for using our public roads. Anyone can see that inept and unlawful bicycling behavior is widespread here in the US, and studies show that moving violations by bicyclists contribute to about half of all car-bike crashes 1. So why not license bicyclists like motorists to improve public safety?

A bicycle license for an elementary school student in 1963. Glen School, Ridgewood, New Jersey
A bicycle license for an elementary school student in 1963. Glen School, Ridgewood, New Jersey

While many proponents of bicyclist licensing have motivations that are hostile toward bicycling, some others have a sincere interest in promoting safer bicycling, and so the question deserves a serious and reasoned response. No US state, and apparently no government on the planet, requires adults to pass a skills and knowledge test as a precondition for exercising the right to travel by bicycle on public roads. There are many reasons why this is so, ranging from beliefs about the appropriate role of government to cost-benefit considerations, regulatory program efficiency and social justice.

Danger to Whom?

Moving violations by motor vehicle operators pose a grave danger to members of the public, killing thousands of people each year in the US alone 2. By comparison, moving violations by bicyclists rarely injure anyone but the bicyclist. When bicyclists do injure people, the victims are usually pedestrians, and these bike-pedestrian collisions are more likely to happen when bicyclists operate on sidewalks, paths and other non-roadway facilities that bicyclist licensing advocates usually exclude from their proposed regulations. As a result, a licensing requirement for roadway use is unlikely to protect the safety of people, and may actually increase danger to pedestrians by encouraging more use of sidewalks by unlicensed bicyclists trying to avoid roadways, which studies have shown are the safer location for bicyclists to operate 3.


Self Protection

Rather than having a credible goal of protecting the public from bicyclists, bicyclist licensing is usually touted as a way to protect bicyclists from themselves. By that reasoning, why not require people to pass a swimming skills and knowledge test and obtain a swimming license before being allowed to use public pools, beaches, and lakes? After all, more people drown per million hours of swimming than are killed per million hours of bicycling 4. But the public would reject such a swimming license scheme because it creates a high government-imposed barrier to entry into a relatively harmless activity where the risks are private rather than public. Instead, most people prefer to invest in swimming skill development voluntarily and gradually as their interest and participation in the activity grows. Another preferred strategy is to incorporate key swimming education components into public school programs. This is the practice for bicycling education in many countries, but here in the US there appears to be less appreciation of the safety benefits of bicyclist knowledge and skill than of swimming knowledge and skill.


Government Overhead

There are some “nanny” laws, such as seat belt use laws and helmet use laws, that have a fairly low cost of compliance for the individual, and yet these laws are often hotly debated. A bicyclist license regulation scheme, by comparison, would have a much higher cost of compliance, on par with the cost of motor vehicle driver licensing. Not only are there the government costs of developing and administering the testing and licensing program (costs that would presumably be passed on to the bicyclists), but also the time and cost of training. Motorists accept the costs of licensing because they appreciate the potential danger posed to them and other people by those motorists lacking important skills and knowledge. But for bicyclists, the threat posed to them by unskilled bicyclists is not compelling, especially if those bicyclists ride very little.

Unintended Consequences

An avid bicyclist who spends hundreds or thousands of dollars on bicycling equipment and invests hundreds of hours per year bicycling won’t be deterred from bicycling by a licensing scheme, but many occasional, casual bicyclists would be. Bicycle licensing costs would be especially burdensome for the lowest income people, many of whom cannot afford cars and depend on bicycling for basic travel. Then there are children, who make up a significant part of the current bicycling population. The result of a bicyclist licensing requirement would be an immediate reduction in bicycling participation by casual, low income, and young users. Such a reduction would have negative consequences for public health because the health benefits of bicycling greatly outweigh the health risks, even for unskilled participants. It would also have negative consequences for transportation accessibility, transportation system efficiency, and air quality. Many health and transportation stakeholders consider any policy change that makes bicycling more difficult to be a move in the wrong direction.


Police Enforcement

Some bicyclist licensing advocates have claimed that police will not or cannot ticket bicyclists for moving violations unless bicyclists are licensed. In fact, police have little difficulty stopping and ticketing bicyclists for moving violations when they are motivated to do so, and have numerous ways to determine the identity of a person without a driver license. If for any reason police are unable to obtain satisfactory identifying information in the field, they can always bring the bicyclist to the police station (as happened recently to actor Alec Baldwin when he was stopped by NYPD for bicycling against traffic). The real reason why police rarely stop bicyclists for traffic violations is because police don’t consider it a priority, in large part because our society does not consider these violations to be a significant threat to the general public.

In some places, mandatory bicycle registration programs have been employed as a means to identify the owners of bicycles. These programs imitated motor vehicle registration programs with the objective of reuniting owners with lost or stolen bicycles. In some cases they were also promoted as a way to help law enforcement officers hold bicyclists accountable for moving violations by facilitating revocation of bicycling privileges through seizure of the registration plate or even impoundment of the bicycle 5. Most of these mandatory bicycle registration schemes resulted in several unintended consequences. The first consequence was that the cost and inconvenience of registration deterred many occasional, child, low-income and multiple-bike-owning bicyclists from purchasing it; in many cities the vast majority of bicycle owners did not comply with the law. Another consequence was that police ended up spending less of their time and attention enforcing actual traffic laws and instead shifted their energy to enforcing the mandatory bicycle registration laws. Low compliance rates also meant that police could often assume that a bicycle was unregistered and use that suspicion to conduct pretextual stops and searches of most any bicyclist they wished 6. Lastly, the high cost of running bicycle registration programs compared to the price bicyclists were willing to pay meant that such programs were generally ineffective at revenue generation and often lost money. As a result, most localities that experimented with bicycle registration either eliminated the programs or made them voluntary in the wake of citizen complaints.

Toronto Conclusions

Despite a rich history of problems, new proposals for bicycle registration and bicyclist licensing still arise. In 2004, the City of Toronto studied the issue in response to a request by the City Council and arrived at the following conclusions 7:

  • Bicycle registration is not effective in preventing bicycle theft;
  • A bicyclist operating license is not required for police officers to enforce the existing traffic rules;
  • Developing a bicyclist testing and licensing system would be expensive and divert resources from enforcing the existing traffic rules for bicyclists; and
  • Providing more resources for bicyclist education and training and increased police enforcement would be a more cost-effective approach for improving safety.

Right to Road

Yet the weakest argument that has been levied in favor of bicyclist licensing is the idea that travel upon our public roads is a privilege that should come at a price and that the price should be as high for bicyclists as it is for motorists as a matter of “fairness” or for symbolic “legitimacy.” This argument attempts to turn centuries of road-rights law on its head. Since about the time of the Magna Carta, travel upon the public roads has been considered a basic human right to be protected from unnecessary interference. Early regulations such as medieval tolls were tolerated only when they were demonstrably fair and necessary for road construction and maintenance 8 9 10 11. Motor vehicle-specific regulations, including licensing requirements, were developed in response to the new dangers motor vehicles posed to the general public. As the public costs of motoring dwarfed the public costs of human and animal powered modes, motorists became the focus of revenue collection for road funding. The few direct user fees that existed for nonmotorized travelers were generally abandoned as inefficient and impractical to collect compared to the alternatives, such as property taxes. The regulatory burden for all users, motorized or not, should be kept as low as the safety of travelers and the maintenance of the facility allows. Lower energy modes create much less public danger and pavement wear than higher energy modes, and so will have a lower regulatory burden. In a fair and free society, our traffic regulations are a means to an end rather than an end unto themselves.

What to do?

If bicyclist licensing is not the solution to dangerous bicycling behavior or negative perceptions of bicyclists, then what is? We recommend the following:

  1. Incorporate bicycling education into public school curricula. Most nations that value bicyclist safety offer bicycling skills and knowledge programs in their schools. Over time, this provides all members of society (including children, adult bicyclists, motorists, police, politicians and traffic engineers) with a consistent concept of operations for effective traffic negotiation by bicycle instead of the misconceptions, myths and taboos that Americans hold about bicycling.
  2. Educate motorists about bicyclists’ rights. The common myth that roads are for cars and not bikes adds fuel to another myth that the traffic laws are for cars and not bikes. Motorist harassment of bicyclists on roadways breeds contempt among some bicyclists for the driving culture including the normal rules of movement, and results in more unpredictable operation, such as sidewalk bicycling, red light running and wrong-way bicycling. Motorist education is sorely needed to address this social dysfunction and to provide a more hospitable environment for predictable and lawful bicycle driving.
  3. Train police in enforcement techniques that support safer bicycling. Most police are not adequately trained in traffic law as applied to bicycling or how to effectively prioritize enforcement actions to promote bicyclist safety. As a result, police often err by stopping bicyclists for bogus infractions, such as impeding traffic, while ignoring unlawful and truly hazardous violations, such as bicycling against traffic or bicycling at night without lights. Clear policies, priorities and procedures empower police to focus their actions on significant safety problems while promoting respect for the traffic laws.
  4. Invest resources in basic traffic law enforcement and related education. Enforcement campaigns that combine educational materials, advance publicity, verbal and written warnings, and targeted but fair issuance of citations can be highly effective at improving bicyclist and motorist compliance rates while protecting bicyclists’ access to their road system. Consistent enforcement maintains compliance and reduces long term crash rates.


Cycling with Children


Cycling is a great way to spend active family time outside.


Bicycling is a popular, fun, healthy, and useful activity that people can do their entire lives. Bicycling provides low-impact exercise of variable intensity that improves health, fitness, longevity, mental focus, emotional balance, and stress levels.  Traveling by bicycle is often more enjoyable and affordable than other modes, and can be more convenient where automobile parking is limited. Teaching children to travel effectively by bicycle as they get older develops patience, discipline, self reliance and personal responsibility.  Learning to negotiate traffic by bicycle also teaches essential driving skills that will make them safer and more courteous motorists later.

Risk Management

Per hour of activity, bicycling has an injury rate similar to common sports such as soccer, and a fatality rate lower than swimming and similar to that of automobile travel.  The health benefits of bicycling outweigh any health risks by an order of magnitude in terms of disability adjusted years of life.  Like swimming and motoring, the safety of bicycling is determined primarily by behavior; education and skill development are key to success.   As a bicyclist’s skills and maturity progress, safe bicycle travel becomes possible in an increasingly wide variety of environments. An important consideration for cycling with children is matching route selection and adult supervision to the developmental and skill levels of the child.

Children as Passengers

Many parents enjoy bicycling with children as young as one year old (when they can safely support their own weight and sit themselves upright) by using a variety of child trailers and seats.  Transporting children as bike passengers allows parents to start modeling successful bicycling behavior early and helps interest children in bicycling.



Bike trailers let kids ride while you stay in control.

Enclosed two-wheel child trailers are ideal for children under four years old; the low center of gravity avoids affecting the parent’s balance on the leading bicycle, provides good handling, and minimizes the potential for a fall-related injury (the vast majority of injuries to kids cycling).  Such trailers also provide room for toys and snacks inside the compartment, keeping little ones happy during the ride.  Somewhat older children will prefer trailercycles, aka trailer bikes, which attach to the back of the parent bicycle and feature one wheel, a seat, handlebars, and pedals to assist with the work.  These trailers require more maturity and cooperation from the child and can be more difficult for the parent to control due to the higher center of gravity.  Tandem bicycles are another option, and can be configured to work for children of various sizes as long as the child can stay seated. Child carrier seats are also available, and are usually the most affordable option for transporting children. However, a child in a carrier seat can make a bicycle top heavy and difficult to control, especially when mounting and dismounting.


A tandem bicycle can be adjusted as the child grows.

Are We There Yet?

Long bike rides can be tiring or tedious for children; it’s useful to start small and break up longer trips with stops every 20 minutes or so.  Planning a round trip to a destination of interest such as an ice cream shop, restaurant, or park works especially well.


Water and snack breaks keep kids happy.

Teaching Cycling to Children

The essential skills required for safe cycling can be learned through informal mentorship (e.g. knowledgeable parents or other experienced cyclists), organized classes, or a variety of media.  Children can learn bicycle handling skills very quickly, but take much longer than adults to learn traffic negotiation skills due to developmental factors and are limited in what traffic situations they can handle until they reach their teens. This requires that a child’s learning objectives and cycling environment be carefully selected by the parent or educator to match the child’s cognitive development and maturity.

Basic bicycle handling includes starting and stopping, steering, riding in a straight line without swerving, looking back over one’s shoulder without swerving, and emergency braking. These skills should be taught in areas void of traffic, including other bicycle traffic.

Stopping at the Edge


Stop at the edge and scan: left, right, left

An essential traffic behavior that must be learned by children as soon as they start bicycling is to stop when they reach the edge of a driveway, path, or sidewalk.  The most common cause of car-bike crashes involving children is when the child rides out from a driveway, path or sidewalk into the roadway without stopping and yielding to other traffic.  Children often have “tunnel vision” that  causes them to overlook or ignore threats outside their direct line of sight, and often lack the maturity to stop and look both ways when they are not aware of traffic in advance of reaching the edge.

Riding with their child affords a parent the opportunity to supervise their child’s cycling, especially at edge locations such as street crossings.  Practically all bicycling trips, including greenway rides, include intersection crossings and/or entrances into vehicular areas.  Parents should model consistent behavior by stopping and looking both ways before proceeding, and invite the child to assist in assessment of traffic conditions.


Kids’ enthusiasm for cycling easily outpaces their ability to understand traffic. Parents need to limit their children’s destinations and routes based on their cognitive ability and maturity.

The Sidewalk Dilemma

Although many parents and children are tempted to think of sidewalks as safe places for children to ride, traveling any distance on a sidewalk inevitably results in crossing intersections and driveways or crossing roadways mid-block.  Such movements are associated with the most common collision types for child bicyclists, in part because of children’s errors, but also because motorists are less likely to notice bicyclists entering their path from sidewalk locations when they are focused on traffic approaching in the roadway. The most common type of car-bike crash in urban areas of NC involves a bicyclist riding on the sidewalk being struck by a motorist pulling out from a stop sign, red light, or driveway. Parents should consider all such conflict locations when deciding where they will permit their children to ride, and should supervise any and all crossing movements as needed depending on the maturity of the child.  In general, if a child does not have the maturity to bicycle safely on the roadway portion of a particular corridor, the child probably lacks the ability to handle the more challenging intersection conflicts that accompany sidewalk cycling on that corridor – at least, without supervision.  A suggested rule of thumb is to limit children’s bicycling to those areas where they are capable of safely negotiating the intersections as well as riding safely in the roadway itself.

Riding Right

A leading contributor to car-bike crashes is bicycling on the wrong side of the road.  At intersections, where the vast majority of car-bike collisions happen, other drivers aren’t expecting or looking for traffic approaching from the wrong direction. Between intersections, a wrong-way bicyclist requires a driver to make evasive maneuvers to avoid them; the driver cannot simply slow down and wait for a safe passing opportunity as they can with a same-direction bicycle traffic.  For these reasons, traffic laws everywhere require bicyclists to ride on the same side of the road in the same direction as other vehicle traffic. In North Carolina, bicycles are defined as vehicles and bicyclists have the full rights and duties of drivers of vehicles.

Children should be taught to ride on the right half of any corridor, including greenway paths and neighborhood streets.  In combination with this, they need to learn to ride in a reasonably straight line, without suddenly swerving, so that other bicyclists and automobile drivers can travel beside them and pass them safely. They should choose an imaginary straight line down the roadway that keeps them safely away from surface hazards and parked cars. Prior to making an adjustment in their lateral position on the roadway, such as when noticing a parked car ahead, the bicyclist must look back and scan for traffic that may be about to overtake them, and only make the lateral movement when it can be made safely.  Simply riding in a straight line well out into the roadway is not hazardous to bicyclists of any age, especially on the neighborhood streets where most children ride.  What is hazardous is suddenly moving into that position unpredictably when a driver is too close to reduce speed.

Supervising as Wingman

riding with children-01

Positioning yourself to the left of your child encourages drivers to pass at greater distance. It also allows you better vantage of potential conflicts and makes it easier to communicate as you coach. 

When riding with a child to supervise their bicycling, an ideal riding position is slightly behind and to the left of the child, with the child setting the pace. This position allows the parent or instructor to watch and communicate with the child, while also diverting overtaking traffic to pass at a larger distance from the child. The extra passing distance provides the “wiggle room” the child may require as their skill develops and makes the ride more comfortable for them.

Route Selection

Children between the ages of 7 and 10 can develop the traffic and handling skills to operate safely on low speed, low traffic two-lane residential streets.  By their early teens, they can develop the skills to handle multiple lane streets.  Although some cyclists may prefer more direct, important roads depending on their travel objectives, low traffic streets and greenways are often the most enjoyable places to ride for a wide variety of cyclists. Some cities provide maps that highlight low traffic streets and greenway routes; these can be of tremendous value in finding an enjoyable route for recreation or transportation.  Google Maps includes most of the local greenway trails, which can be used when generating travel routes for bikes.  The satellite and street view features of Google Maps are useful for determining the cross section and character of a street when choosing a route.

Older cities often have a grid of low traffic streets that provide alternatives to busy roads.  This is less common in some newer suburbs, but many progressive municipalities now actively pursue development of collector street networks and local street connectivity to provide redundant travel routes and to disperse traffic bottlenecks.  This allows many bicycle trips to be made on lower speed limit roads and two lane roads with wide pavement that afford easy passing at safe distance.  Some cities have also developed an extensive interconnected system of greenway paths in their own rights of way. By combining pleasant streets and greenways, a wide variety of enjoyable low-traffic cycling routes becomes available for family cycling.


Older children can develop intersection negotiation skills that greatly expand the range of routes available to them.

Keeping Tabs

Even after learning good cycling practices, kids usually start taking risks and short-cuts when they leave their parent’s sight, and are quick to emulate the bad habits of their peers. Parents can reinforce good practices by riding frequently with their children and discussing the reasons behind the rules.  Parents can also monitor their children’s cycling behavior alone or with peers by catching up to them with their own bikes at unexpected times.  Lastly, parents should always model good behavior when operating any vehicle.