Appreciation for the Generic Slow Vehicle Law

pull-over

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.

Notes:

  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.

    https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B8yYlSlJo3DfbnVRVUhxVExLaDQ/edit

  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 Most People Don’t Understand About the Cherokee Schill Case

“She is the bellwether for: ‘Do we have the right to use the road[way] or not?’ Not when it’s fashionable, not when it’s yuppies in Portland, but when it is a single mom who needs to get to her job.” — John Schubert

In May, we shared the case of Cherokee Schill, a single mom in Kentucky whose only means of transportation is a bicycle, and whose only viable route to work was a nasty U.S. Highway. Cherokee has been systematically targeted by Jessamine County law enforcement. She was charged with careless driving for operating her bicycle in the right-hand travel lane. Her case went to trial in September. Despite the fact that all four expert witnesses (two for the prosecution and two for the defense) testified that the shoulder was unsafe and that the way Cherokee was riding on that road was the safest way to ride, the judge sided with the prosecutor and upheld the citations for careless driving.

There are important issues in this case that are not well understood, and that have been further obscured by a vocal faction of detractors. This post will discuss those issues.

First, for some background, listen to the Outspoken Cyclist radio interview with expert witness John Schubert. John recaps the trial beginning at 10:20 in the podcast.


FACTS & ISSUES

1) Statutory definitions are important.

Kentucky definitions for the key terms used this case are consistent with other U.S. states.

highway

[learn_more caption=”Highway”]KRS 189.010 (3) Highway means any public road, street, avenue, alley or boulevard, bridge, viaduct, or trestle and the approaches to them.[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Roadway”]KRS 189.010 (10) Roadway means that portion of a highway improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel, exclusive of the berm or shoulder.[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Vehicle”]

KRS 189.010 (19)

(a) Vehicle includes:

  1. All agencies for the transportation of persons or property over or upon the public highways of the Commonwealth; and
  2. All vehicles passing over or upon the highways.

(b) Motor vehicle includes all vehicles, as defined in paragraph (a) of this subsection except:

  1. Road rollers;
  2. Road graders;
  3. Farm tractors;
  4. Vehicles on which power shovels are mounted;
  5. Construction equipment customarily used only on the site of construction and which is not practical for the transportation of persons or property upon the highways;
  6. Vehicles that travel exclusively upon rails;
  7. Vehicles propelled by electric power obtained from overhead wires while being operated within any municipality or where the vehicles do not travel more than five (5) miles beyond the city limits of any municipality; and
  8. Vehicles propelled by muscular power.

[/learn_more]

In summary: A bicycle is a vehicle. A bicycle is not a motor vehicle. The roadway (which, in the case of U.S. 27, consists of travel lanes and turn lanes) is the part of the highway intended for vehicles to use. All vehicles, not just motor vehicles.

2) Sloppily written statutes can be exploited to abuse citizens.

The following three statutes were used by the prosecutor to make his case.

[learn_more caption=”Slow vehicle statute language is inconsistent with definitions”]

KY 189.300

(2) The operator of any vehicle moving slowly upon a highway shall keep his vehicle as closely as practicable to the right-hand boundary of the highway, allowing more swiftly moving vehicles reasonably free passage to the left.

See the diagram and definition above. The right-hand boundary of the highway is the edge of the public right-of-way. It seems unlikely the KY legislature expected slow vehicles (including motor vehicles) to be operated in the grass berm, or on a sidewalk. The more common language for a slow vehicle law is found in the Uniform Vehicle Code:

UVC 11-301 (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.

Slow vehicles are to use the right lane or drive as close as practicable to the right edge of the roadway. The latter applying only to roads without lanes. Unfortunately, KY has not adopted the UVC, or at least not a recent version of it, and remains among a handful of states that use language that is inconsistent with statutory definitions of highway and roadway. We know of no other cases where such language was used to selectively discriminate against a bicyclist or driver of any other slow vehicle using the roadway.

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Bicyclists MAY use the shoulder”]

Kentucky Administrative Regulation (KAR) permits, but does not require, bicyclists to use the shoulder.

Section 9. Operation of Bicycles. A bicycle shall be operated in the same manner as a motor vehicle except the following traffic conditions shall apply:

(1) A bicycle may be operated on the shoulder of a highway;

(2) If a highway lane is marked for the exclusive use of bicycles, the operator of a bicycle shall use the lane whenever feasible;

(3) Not more than two (2) bicycles shall be operated abreast in a single highway lane.

The use of “may” in statute is permissive, not mandatory. A requirement to use the shoulder would be worded as “shall.” Nonetheless, this permission was used against Cherokee. The prosecutor argued that because 189.300 (2) required slow vehicles to be kept as close as practicable to the right hand boundary of the highway AND bicyclists are allowed to use the shoulder, the bicyclist is then required to drive on the shoulder.

[/learn_more]

[learn_more caption=”Requirement to drive carefully”]

KY 189.290 Operator of vehicle to drive carefully.

(1) The operator of any vehicle upon a highway shall operate the vehicle in a careful manner, with regard for the safety and convenience of pedestrians and other vehicles upon the highway.

Cherokee wasn’t charged with a simple traffic ticket, she was charged with careless driving. The case was built upon the purported careless behavior of other drivers reacting poorly to her presence on the road. Yes, this woman on a bicycle was failing to operate with regard for the safety and convenience of people enclosed in multi-ton vehicles because motorists’ careless behavior, driven by incompetence or aggression, might endanger other motorists. I have no idea how anyone could argue that with a straight face, but there you go.

[/learn_more]

In summary, Cherokee was found guilty of careless driving because the law allows her to use the shoulder. In choosing not to use the shoulder, she disregarded the “safety and convenience” of people who are incapable of simply changing lanes to pass a slower vehicle without having a temper tantrum.

3) A bicyclist’s decisions about her own safety are subject to being overruled by people who know nothing about bicycling safety.

Click to enlarge.

Even if we accept the notion that slow vehicles are required to keep off the roadway, the statute says “as closely as practicable…” Practicable means capable of being done within the means and circumstances present. You might think that when safety is at stake, the person most at risk would be given the latitude to decide what is practicable.

But the prosecutor insisted, and the judge agreed, that the police should determine what was practicable. For the purpose of the citations, the police officers’ assessments that the shoulder was “just fine” at the time and place of the citations was the only acceptable testimony. All the testimony about the risks and conflicts to be found on that shoulder from four expert witnesses (including the prosecution’s own two expert witnesses) was for nothing.

Apparently, Cherokee was expected to ride in the shoulder, only leaving it for every single immediate hazard and then returning to the shoulder, crossing the rumble strip each time after yielding and waiting for traffic to clear.

Click on the image to explore the frequent hazards and conflicts of the U.S. 27 shoulder.

4) Operating on the shoulder is not just inconvenient, it eliminates your right-of-way and legal protection.

[learn_more caption=”Right-of-Way at Intersections”]

KY 189.330 (10) The operator of a vehicle about to enter or cross a roadway from any place other than another roadway shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles approaching on the roadway to be entered or crossed.

Definition of Right-of-Way

KY 189.010 (9) “Right-of-way” means the right of one (1) vehicle or pedestrian to proceed in a lawful manner in preference to another vehicle or pedestrian approaching under such circumstances of direction, speed, and proximity as to give rise to danger of collision unless one grants precedence to the other.

[/learn_more]

A shoulder is not like a bike lane or even a sidewalk. In most states, including Kentucky, it is an operational no man’s land (because it is not intended for vehicular operation). It is off the roadway; therefore a bicyclist using it has no right-of-way. She must yield to all traffic making conflicting movements at intersections and driveways. If someone hits her, she has no legal protection. There’s nothing practicable about operating in a space where you are both vulnerable and subservient to every vehicle on a conflicting path.

U.S. 27 is not a limited access highway. It has clusters of commercial development along it where there are frequent intersections with streets and driveways.

[tabs slidertype=”simple”] [tab]

shoulder_row_issues_roadway_obst

It is a fundamental rule that a roadway user has the right of first come, first served. Faster vehicles approaching from behind are required to yield and pass only when it is safe to do so. In the case of U.S. 27, there is a passing lane available for that purpose.

[/tab] [tab]

shoulder_row_issues_shoulder_obst

Every surface hazard or obstruction that necessitates leaving the shoulder requires the bicyclist to wait for traffic to clear. Moving in and out of the shoulder makes the bicyclist unpredictable. Motorists who are not paying attention, may detect her in the shoulder, then turn their attention to something else, assuming she’ll stay there.

[/tab] [tab]

shoulder_row_issues_roadway_dwy

The right of first come, first served also includes other vehicles making conflicting movements. The roadway bicyclist has priority over vehicles turning left or entering the road. She also has the ability to encourage drivers who are turning right to wait and turn behind her rather than pass and turn across her path. This maneuver violates a roadway bicyclist’s right-of-way, though motorists often do it to edge-riding bicyclists).

[/tab] [tab]

shoulder_row_issues_shoulder_dwy

The bicyclist on the shoulder has no right-of-way. She is not on the roadway and must yield to all traffic on the roadway, including cars turning onto or out from a cross street. A driver can legally pass her and turn right across her path. A resulting right hook crash would be the motorist’s fault if she was on the roadway, but not if she was on the shoulder. She is required to yield, even when the motorist is coming from behind her. Likewise, drivers entering from the cross street do not have to yield to her because she is not on the roadway. A driver turning left from the opposing lane not only does not have to yield to her, he may not even see her if she is hidden by passing vehicles or the heavily crowned road surface.

[/tab] [tab]

shoulder_row_issues_roadway_int

When right turn lanes form, the shoulder stays to the right of them, or disappears altogether. A bicycle driver in the roadway can continue in a predictable straight line, maintaining her vantage and visibility through a complex intersection.

[/tab] [tab]

shoulder_row_issues_shoulder_int

When turn lanes divert or replace the shoulder, the bicyclist has to yield to all traffic on the roadway before she can proceed to the through lane. If she stays in the shoulder all the way to the intersection, she is even more vulnerable because she is in an unpredictable, low-visibility position. And she has no right-of-way. She must yield to all conflicting traffic.

[/tab] [/tabs]

5) The scales of injustice favor the majority, no matter how absurd.

911-crybaby-01So let’s review.

Cherokee, after trying to use the shoulder and suffering its many hazards, did some research and learned that the safest, most predictable (and most efficient) way to drive her bike is to control the right lane and make herself visible and predictable.

Some motorists were incensed at having to change lanes, and possibly slow down for a few seconds, to pass her. So they abused the 911 system to complain about a bicyclist on the road.

The authorities responded by repeatedly ticketing Cherokee for careless driving. Not only that, they ignored the dangerous behavior of motorists. Once, when she called for help because a motorist was assaulting her, an officer showed up, waved the motorist away and gave her a ticket!

This case was absurd. Yet the judge sided with the prosecutor and decided that her safety is subservient to the tender convenience of motorists AND that her presence on the road endangers them. Seriously, a woman on a bicycle “inconveniences” and “endangers” motorists (in plush climate-controlled cocoons—surrounded by 4,000 pounds of steel cage, crumple zones and airbags—propelled forward at high speed by the delicate press of the driver’s toe upon a pedal). The hardship. The horror. To have to lift that toe for a few seconds to change lanes and pass a bicyclist.

scales of injustice-01Here’s how it stacks up:

The court says Cherokee must ride on a shoulder, where she has no legal right-of-way; faces numerous crash hazards and likely flat tires; must constantly stop and wait for traffic to clear in order to pass obstructions, driveways and intersections; and must endure rough, loose pavement that robs several miles per hour from her cruising speed. Beyond the safety issues, we’re talking about adding significant time (measured in fractions of an hour, not seconds) to a commute that was already over an hour… rain or shine, blistering heat or freezing cold.

All this to save motorists (in their plush climate-controlled cocoons) 20 seconds of having to drive under the speed limit, for a delay of even less than 20 seconds. Time which would easily be absorbed by the next red light or traffic jam of other motorists.

A motorist who momentarily loses less than 20 seconds can choose to step on the gas and get it back. A bicyclist who loses 20 minutes has no way to make that up.

To make this even more ridiculous, the sources of delay on this road include traffic lights, traffic congestion (of cars), motorists slowing to look for destinations, vehicles slowing to turn, vehicles entering the road, and school bus stops (which stop traffic in both lanes). But a few seconds of driving slower to pass a moving bicyclist? Well, that’s just unacceptable.

6) What kind of a society are we?

What we have here is a single mom trying to get back on her feet after escaping domestic abuse. She lost her license for financial reasons (she couldn’t afford insurance). She didn’t give up. She didn’t go on welfare. She got on a bicycle — at first, a delta trike — and rode to the only full-time job she could get. Those early commutes took her three hours each way. Three hours. She was out of shape and weighed 90 pounds more than she does today. She gutted it out. She lost weight. She got stronger. She got a faster bike. She learned how to ride safely and successfully. She was pulling herself up by her bootstraps, dammit!

Now she’s stuck. Since the trial, the police have upped the ante. A few weeks ago, they arrested her for wanton endangerment — a criminal charge — for not riding in the shoulder. And the shenanigans are getting worse. She is on parole for the violations that caused her to lose her license — driving without insurance and while her license was suspended (for failure to pay a speeding ticket in NY). Jessamine County is now trying to make her parole conditional upon not driving her bike on the roadway on U.S. 27. In other words, if she gets caught in the roadway on U.S. 27 again, she violates her parole and goes to jail.

Alternatives to U.S. 27 include adding significant distance and using a 55mph, winding, hilly, 2-lane state highway (where motorists can’t pass safely or easily) to get to U.S. 68, which is just like U.S. 27. Any alternatives to the U.S. Highways add an additional hour to a 75 minute commute into Lexington — on 2-lane roads.

She recently completed a certification course to become a Cardiac Electrocardiogram Technician and is looking for a full time job in that field. Yet, she’s basically hamstrung. There are very few jobs in Nicholasville and she has no reasonable way to get to Lexington. In addition to problems with the police, shock jocks from the local radio station have been fomenting hatred on air. As a result, militant motorists regularly go out of their way to threaten her with their vehicles. She’s even been followed by a carload of men and had to divert from her route and hide.

Appeal Fund for Cherokee SchillNo one should have to live like this.

The good news is that many generous people in the bicycle driving community have been supporting Cherokee, emotionally and financially. If you would like to pitch in, you can donate to her legal fund and share this story.

To hear Cherokee’s story in her own words, listen to her interview with Diane Lees on the Outspoken Cyclist.

Right to Road Challenged in Kentucky

cherokee-short

Recently, the bicycling world has been aghast to learn that a law-abiding citizen is being charged with “reckless driving” in Kentucky…despite all facts to the contrary. Cherokee Schill, a single mother, cut expenses by using her bicycle as transportation to work. Her route to work includes a section of U.S. 27, a high speed limit, multi-lane road.

Schill, 41, said if there were an easier way to get to work, she would take it. Her 1992 Toyota Camry with 360,000 miles is not dependable. To be able to afford housing and food for herself and two teenagers, the divorced mother said commuting by bike keeps her household afloat.

“I’m not putting myself here because I think it’s fun or exciting,” Schill said of the commute. “I’m here because I’ve got two kids to feed and a roof to put over their head. … I’ve got to pay rent, pay bills and buy groceries.”

(Lexington Herald-Leader, “Woman biking daily to Lexington on U.S. 27 ticketed three times for reckless driving”)

The Lexington Herald-Leader also notes that she has not been involved in any crash since she started commuting by bike last June. Despite the fact that Cherokee is operating completely within the local and state laws, the Nicholasville police officers and Jessamine County deputy sheriffs have cited her three times, twice for “careless driving” and once for “reckless driving”, and the Jessamine County Attorney’s office has asked the county judge to prohibit her from riding on U.S. 27.

Reading the news reports, it’s clear that a reverse logic is working here. Instead of holding motorists responsible for inattentive driving, the police and county attorney are persecuting a law-abiding bicyclist.

“It just creates a very dangerous situation when you’ve got somebody on a bike that’s difficult to see to begin with, on a very highly travelled [sic] road, with signifigant [sic] speeds and a lot of people don’t pay attention to what they should be while driving, so it all compounds itself,” said Jessamine County Attorney Brian Goettl.

Goettl says a deputy sheriff responding to a robbery almost wrecked because Schill backed up traffic.

“He was almost in a wreck because of Miss Schill, and so it added to me another element of danger that I hadn’t even thought of before,” Goettl said.

(Emphasis added, WKYT, “Jessamine Co. bicyclist charged with reckless driving sparks court case”)

Instead of persecuting Cherokee, why are the inattentive motorists not being ticketed and targeted for prosecution? Why was the deputy sheriff not paying attention to his own driving? Is the deputy sheriff’s story about almost wrecking even true? Or is it merely a rationalization of his feelings that cycling has no place on that road? Why is the convenience of other road users a higher priority than Cherokee’s right to the road? If a slow-moving tractor were on U.S. 27, would motorists be calling 911 for help? Would the 911 operators and police even give a moment of attention if someone was commuting via horse-drawn carriage (such as many do in Amish and Mennonite communities)?

Randy Thomas, president of the Bluegrass Cycling Club, said Schill is operating within her legal rights and in accordance with safety requirements. Asked if he would ride U.S. 27, Thomas said, “I personally am not going to comment. I ride all over the area, and I’m sure I ride roads that cyclists wouldn’t feel comfortable on. It’s irrelevant what I would do or what anyone else would do, if she’s riding within her rights and what she’s comfortable in doing.”

(Lexington Herald-Leader, “Woman biking daily to Lexington on U.S. 27 ticketed three times for reckless driving”)

While she awaits a trial in August, the county attorney asked a judge to stop her from riding on U.S. 27. Fortunately, the county judge ruled in favor of Cherokee Schill and allowed her to continue to commute to work. The full trial will begin in August.

To hear first hand from Cherokee, take a listen to this week’s podcast from The Outspoken Cyclist.

i am traffic applauds Cherokee Schill, Judge Booth, and local advocates like Randy Thomas who are affirming all bicyclists’ right to the road. Steve Magas, a contributor and friend of i am traffic, will be helping to defend Cherokee pro bono, but there will still be legal fees that Cherokee must cover. We encourage you to donate to Cherokee’s legal defense fund and continue sharing this story. Stay tuned to our Facebook and Twitter accounts for updates.

 

Appeal Fund for Cherokee Schill

Overcoming Ignorance And Fear

First My Own, Then That Of Others

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CONTENTS

  1. Introduction
  2. Blindness
  3. Immobility
  4. “You Are Healed-AH!”
  5. Conquering Unfamiliar Territory
  6. A Crippling Blow
  7. The Nightmare Continues
  8. Victory, Affirmation, Freedom Restored

Introduction

This is the story of living with a disability, overcoming that disability, suffering under a forced re-imposition of that disability, struggling against that imposition, and finally subduing it. That is not my physical disability of blindness, but my intellectual disability of ignorance and fear.

I wrote the first half of this more than a year ago, but I could not bring myself to publish it. I felt like the final chapter was missing, and I had to live that chapter before I could write it.

I dedicate this article to John Forester, who through his writing rescued me from my own accidental ignorance. And to Andrew Fischer, who came to my aid in the struggle against others’ willful ignorance.

I am deeply grateful to my friends, particularly members of the Barony of Bergental and the bicycle driving community, for giving me some light during a very dark period. There were many days during that period (and there continue to be such days) when I could not find a compelling reason to get out of bed. But there were also days when my friends provided such a reason when I would not otherwise have found one.

Blindness

I am blind. I am not totally blind. Some would describe me as “partially blind” or “visually impaired.” The details are not important to the rest of the story, but people tend to be curious about it, so I will explain.

I was born with a rare, hereditary eye disorder called “retinoschisis.” Balls of fluid, called “scheses” (plural of “schesis”), partially separate my retina from the back of my eye. My acuity is impaired and I am missing some parts of my peripheral vision. The disorder also comes with a risk of retinal detachment, which results in total blindness in the affected eye. There is currently no corrective procedure. Since the defect is in the retina rather than the lens, it cannot be corrected with glasses or contacts.

I also have some secondary symptoms. I don’t have as much control over my eye movements as most other people. I must compensate for my reduced peripheral vision and eye movement control by turning my head more than most people do. I can’t wink, and I tend to blink more than most people. I have what is called a “nystagmus.” If I look intently, my eyes instinctively dart around, trying to focus. But they can’t get the focus they expect, so they just keep darting around. It’s a neat party trick.

It is hard to describe my vision or to compare it to normal vision because I have never had normal vision. It looks normal to me, and I have no other experience to compare it to. But I am told that everything looks blurry to me compared to someone with normal vision and that parts of my peripheral vision are missing. The blurriness means that I cannot make out as much detail as most other people.

I have trouble recognizing people. I have trouble making out small details or details of distant objects. My night vision is especially poor.

My blindness renders me unqualified to legally drive a motor vehicle. For a long time I thought of this as a severe limitation. I did not know of any other means of transportation that would give me the flexibility I needed to live a full and normal life.

On the spectrum of blindness, my vision is actually quite good. It is far better than the uncorrected vision of many people whose vision is fully corrected with glasses or contacts. Most people cannot detect my blindness through casual observation. Until I tell them that I am blind, they just think I’m weird (which I am, and proudly so). I can read most normal-size print under the right conditions. I do not use a cane or dog when I walk.

Apparently, I am quite comfortable performing many tasks by feel for which most people rely on their vision: for example, climbing/descending stairs, shaving, and turning a bolt with a screwdriver.

Immobility

My blindness renders me unqualified to legally drive a motor vehicle. (My brother has slightly higher acuity than me, and did have a driver’s license for a short period.) For a long time I thought of this as a severe limitation. I did not know of any other means of transportation that would give me the flexibility I needed to live a full and normal life. I got by with a combination of walking, biking, riding buses, and getting rides with friends and family members. With these methods I could meet my basic needs but not much more. Limitations on my mobility constrained my opportunities much more than any direct consequence of my disability: my options for where I could live, work, shop, and socialize.

Socializing was especially difficult for me for many reasons, but an important one was that my mobility limitations hindered my ability to act spontaneously or to interact with others on an equal basis. I could not go where other people went without great effort and planning.

Walking was slow and impractical for almost all trips. Biking was also slow, although faster than walking. It was also difficult, stressful, and still quite limiting. I only felt comfortable going short distances on familiar and comfortable routes. I had quite a few crashes too. Riding buses could be faster than biking, but it could also be slower than walking. It was extremely inflexible and unreliable. Bus routes only go certain places and only at certain times. Often buses are late, don’t stop, or don’t come at all. Missing a bus, even by a minute, could mean being twenty minutes late, an hour late, or not getting there at all. It could also mean becoming stranded far from home. So it was necessary to plan a trip well in advance and leave a lot of buffer time. There is also a severe limit on what can be carried on a bus. Getting rides from friends and family was also inflexible and unreliable, as well as humiliating. I would have to start looking for a ride days or weeks in advance, and I often did not find one. I could not choose when to arrive or depart or even know when I would arrive or depart. If my ride was late to pick me up, then I was late to arrive. If my ride wanted to leave early or stay late then I had to leave early or stay late. And there was a social liability in that my ride’s flexibility was constrained by their commitment to me.

Socializing was especially difficult for me for many reasons, but an important one was that my mobility limitations hindered my ability to act spontaneously or to interact with others on an equal basis. I could not go where other people went without great effort and planning, which often included the indignity of imposing on others for a ride, which I might or might not receive. Asking for a ride might not seem like it should be so humiliating, but as an integral part of my life, it left me in a constantly dependent and inferior social position. I was lonely and isolated. I could not relate to other people, and I resented them for taking for granted the freedom that for me was unavailable. I resented the World for leaving me behind.

“You Are Healed-AH!”

In the summer of 2005, approaching my twenty-eighth birthday, I separated from my wife (now my ex-wife). My principal social outlet at the time was my weekly choir practice, which I had been traveling to with my wife in her car, so it was important to me to continue attending. It was fifteen miles away (ten miles was my limit at the time) on unfamiliar, difficult, scary roads, so biking seemed impossible. I was too far out of the way for other members of the choir to pick me up. There were no buses that could take me.

Before we were married, my wife (then my fiancé) had bought me a book about cycling. She had known even less than I did about cycling (which was not much at the time) and was not at all familiar with the book. But she knew that I rode a bike. She had been poking around on the Web, had come across the book, and bought it for me.

I had never gotten around to reading it before, and I had forgotten about it until this transportation crisis arose. In desperation, I dug the book out and started reading it, hoping to find a clue to my mobility problem. The book was Effective Cycling by John Forester.

As I read the book, I became very excited. It suggested that I should ride my bike according to the same rules as drivers of motor vehicles use and that I should stay away from the edge of the road, sometimes riding in the center or even on the left side of a lane, thus occupying the entire lane. I knew that the designs of roads provided a simple and predictable environment for motorists to travel with ease and flexibility. If I could use the roads in the same manner on a bike, then I could go anywhere with the same ease and flexibility. This was a totally new concept to me, and I was somewhat skeptical of it, but I recognized its immense potential.

It was as if I was no longer disabled. I was still blind, but ignorance, not blindness, had been my disability all along. I had been healed. I could go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted.

I cautiously began to test out the techniques I had read about. On a familiar, comfortable road near where I lived (Strong St. in Amherst, MA), I rode a little farther from the edge than I had before. I immediately noticed that motorists passed me at a greater, more comfortable distance. I tried moving a little farther from the edge, and motorists left me an even wider gap. I also noticed that I could ride a straighter course, at a higher speed, with less effort away from the edge than I could near the edge.

I quickly became comfortable riding assertively on small quiet roads. I advanced my testing to bigger, busier roads. And then even bigger, even busier roads. I learned how to look at the horizon and follow the lane line to my left rather than following the right edge. I also grew more comfortable with scanning and signaling. I was ready to take on the scariest road I knew of: Route 9 in Hadley, a major four-lane arterial.

I headed out to the Hampshire Mall. Approaching University Drive, where Route 9 widened from two lanes to four, and where I would earlier follow the edge, I continued on a straight course to end up in the middle of the right lane. It worked! I looked straight ahead and held my position. Motorists passed me in the passing lane rather than squeezing by right next to me. With the edge of the road farther away from me, I found that I was able to focus my gaze farther ahead and move faster with less effort. Traffic controls no longer took me by surprise like they did before because they were all placed so as to be easily noticed from that middle-of-the-lane position. I also noticed that being directly in line with other traffic enabled me to take clues from traffic ahead of me about what I would encounter. When I got near mall, I scanned, signaled, yielded, and moved to the left through lane. When I got to the beginning of the left-turn lane, I moved right into it. It was amazing how easy it was. When the light turned green, I turned into the Mall. I was no longer afraid.

It was as if I was no longer disabled either. I was still blind, but ignorance, not blindness, had been my disability all along. I had been healed. I could go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I could do all of the normal things that other people did. I could live a full, normal life. I could go to choir practice.

I had the honor of meeting John Forester at the I Am Traffic Bicycle Education Colloquium. The image above is my copy of his book, which he signed at that event.

Conquering Unfamiliar Territory

On a 95-degree summer afternoon, I started on the fifteen mile trip to Holyoke, where my choir practiced. I passed Atkins Market and entered unfamiliar territory.

I continued to exploit my newfound freedom and expand my sense of possibility, cycling on a wide variety of roads under a wide variety of conditions, even making a couple of three-day, two-hundred-mile journeys.

I struggled up the steep winding road to the Notch in my lowest gear. I fought to keep the pedals moving and the front wheel pointing forward. I rounded a curve, hoping to see the top, but there was just another curve. I kept going. Finally, I rounded a curve and I saw the top. My muscles hurt terribly, but I kept pushing until I reached the top. I rested and drank some water. Then I claimed my reward: flying down the smooth, straight, south side of the Notch.

I would never have made it up that hill with mind and body divided by the stress and difficulty of my old way of cycling. By freeing myself of that stress and difficulty, I was able to unite mind and body to achieve new heights, literally and figuratively.

I reached the South Hadley side of the Connecticut River, but I couldn’t find the bridge to Holyoke. I went around and around trying to find it until I finally realized that I was misreading my map. Before, being lost like that would have been terrifying, but with my new ability, being lost no longer meant being stuck. I calmly searched for the bridge until I found it.

South of the bridge, I entered the urban core of Holyoke, another unfamiliar setting. But an unfamiliar road no longer scared me. I knew that I could count on the familiar patterns of other roads. I was hot and exhausted, but I was also happy and confident.

I made my way to my friends’ house where practice was held, and I collapsed. They weren’t home. I sat and waited until some relief came along in the form of an ice cream truck. A little later, my friends came home and reminded me that there was no practice scheduled that week. Oh, well.

I continued to exploit my newfound freedom and expand my sense of possibility, cycling on a wide variety of roads under a wide variety of conditions, even making a couple of three-day, two-hundred-mile journeys. I made these trips because there were opportunities at the end that I wanted to take. I could never have made those trips or taken those opportunities before my transformation. It would have been overwhelmingly difficult, stressful, and scary.

I felt compelled to share the knowledge that led me though such a powerful transformation with other. I began corresponding with cycling instructors and pursuing cycling instruction certification.

A Crippling Blow

As I continued to exploit my newfound freedom, I was sometimes stopped and threatened by police officers, who disapproved of my assertive cycling behavior, the defensive driving techniques that made bicycle transportation practical and allowed me to build a life for myself. I had never interacted significantly with a police officer before, and the experience was quite scary. However, these encounters did not deter me because they all ended quickly. They would stop me, order me to move to the edge, or sometimes to get off of the road entirely, threaten to arrest me, and then move on. So I would simply move on as well, confident that my right to the road was secure and that I was not in significant danger.

My spirit was crushed. I was terrified. Knowing that I would eventually be stopped by a police officer again, that I was under a standing threat of arrest and that I could be held in jail for an indeterminate duration without even being convicted of a crime: It all made me feel completely helpless.

But these threats escalated in the Fall of 2009. First I was stopped in Hadley. Hadley was close to Amherst, where I lived, and I had been through it many times. I had never been stopped in Hadley before. The other stops had been farther from home, in places where I did not expect to travel very often. Being stopped in a place where I traveled on a weekly basis was a higher level of threat. The threat was intensified when the same officer stopped me a month later, seized my bicycle, made me walk to the police station to retrieve it, and renewed his threat of arrest.

Shortly thereafter, I was stopped by a police officer in West Springfield. I had been stopped in West Springfield several times before, but nothing had come of them. During the previous West Springfield stop, officers had even acknowledged my legal right to the road. But this time the officer arrested me and charged me with the crime of disorderly conduct. At my arraignment, the judge informed me that if I was arrested anywhere, for any reason, while the charges were pending, that I could be held in jail until their resolution.

My spirit was crushed. I was terrified. Knowing that I would eventually be stopped by a police officer again, that I was under a standing threat of arrest in Hadley, that a police officer who stopped me would discover that I was facing criminal charges, that the discovery could further bias them against me, that a threat of arrest and criminal charges was credible, and that I could be held in jail for an indeterminate duration without even being convicted of a crime: It all made me feel completely helpless. I was afraid to leave my home unescorted for fear of another police stop. And when I did leave my home, I was overcome with such intense anxiety that I could not enjoy what I was doing. I was extremely depressed, feeling like a prisoner in my home.

Moreover, I was afraid of the possibility of being found guilty. Such a finding would be terrible and not only for the usual reasons that a criminal conviction is terrible. It would also render illegal an essential function of my life, one that I had suffered without for most of my life. After living with a disability for twenty-eight years, then being freed from its constraints and enjoying that freedom for four years, I was forced back into the constraints of my disability once again. It was like I imagine it would be for someone who lives to adulthood unable to walk, then learns to walk as an adult only to have someone shatter his knees with a sledge hammer a few years later and again be unable to walk.

The Nightmare Continues

After four months of prosecution, a week before the scheduled trial, the district attorney agreed to drop the charge. I was a little bit freer, but I was still terrified of the possibility of future encounters with police officers, and I was still overcome with anxiety when I left home. I desperately wanted some means to ensure my safety, but I was told that there was nothing I could do to achieve it. Short of that, I wanted to at least know for sure what danger I was in, particularly in Hadley, but I was told that the only way achieve that was to go out and see what happened. I apparently had no choice but to pretend to live my life as normal, all the while expecting the nightmare to resume at any time.

I have never had a talent for acting. I was unable to pretend that everything was okay. But I did venture out a little and try to rebuild some of the life I had before. I had been doing some private tutoring and looking for a full-time teaching position before I was arrested. I felt that things were too uncertain to resume that. I started with some social activities with people I felt comfortable with. That would reduce my anxiety a little. But I was always apprehensive of the possibility of further conflict with the police. And being unable to determine where I stood with them was especially upsetting. There was no way to ask them if their threats still stood and get a meaningful answer.

A few months after the disorderly conduct charge was dropped, the same Hadley police officer stopped me a third time. He accused me of wiretapping and seized my camera. I received notice a few days later that he had charged me with wiretapping as well as disorderly conduct.

I bought a sport video camera with the hope of collecting on-bike footage for educational videos. When I went out, I mounted it on my helmet and set it to record my trip, hoping to refine my camera technique and maybe catch some interesting traffic interactions. It also gave me some security in that it would enable me to document a police encounter.

A few months after the disorderly conduct charge was dropped, the same Hadley police officer stopped me a third time. He wrote me a traffic citation. He also accused me of wiretapping and seized my camera. I received notice a few days later that he had charged me with wiretapping as well as disorderly conduct.

I was again a helpless prisoner. I pleaded for help from anyone who might have been able to help me, but most were unwilling to do much. After six months of prosecution, a judge eventually threw out the charges in response to a motion to dismiss. But I now knew that the Hadley police were willing to carry out their standing threats. I knew that I was not safe. I was still a prisoner.

One of the people that I had asked for help was attorney Andrew Fischer, and in the Fall of 2010, he agreed to pursue a lawsuit against the Hadley police, in which we would ask the court for an injunction, an order to leave me alone.

It was another year before he filed the lawsuit. At that point, I felt a good deal safer traveling because I knew that the judge would hear about any interference from the Hadley police. I was still in a tenuous position, but a much better position than before. I could at least begin to rebuild my life. I moved to a new home in Easthampton. One major difficulty in coping with the pending lawsuit was the legal hazards of speaking or writing about my experience. I felt an intense desire to discuss the experience that dominated my thoughts with others, and suppressing that desire was intensely frustrating and it continued to isolate me. The lawsuit continued for more than two years.

Victory, Affirmation, Freedom Restored

Many people take for granted the ability to travel freely. They do not realize how precious it is, and they do not understand what it is like not to have it.

I was unable to secure the injunction I had asked for, but I was able secure a summary judgement ruling and a settlement that clearly constitute a victory, albeit a weaker victory than I had hoped for. Through the settlement, I was able to achieve a solid sense that I would have some recourse if the Hadley police were to interfere with my travels again. My victory was, in fact, historic, being the first time a federal court had ever affirmed a cyclist’s right to the road. I have come a long way toward rebuilding my life, but I also have a long way to go. I cannot simply “move on.” However, I am now free to move forward. Things are slowly getting better.

Many people take for granted the ability to travel freely. They do not realize how precious it is, and they do not understand what it is like not to have it. Having discovered it after living without it for most of my life, it is certainly very precious to me. And having recovered it after it was seized from me makes it all the more precious.

You can hear me speak about my long conflict with the Hadley police in my recent interview on the Strong Towns podcast.

Reality Check: The Hadley Harassment Case

Eli Damon demonstrating  communication during CyclingSavvy Instructor training.
Eli Damon preparing for a hazardous rail road crossing during CyclingSavvy Instructor training.

Update (Dec 3, 2013): Eli’s case has been settled quite favorably. Read the news as broken on The Daily Hampshire Gazette website: Hadley poised to settle federal case with bicycle advocate; agrees to pay $27,500 in lawyer’s fees

Since August 2009, Eli Damon has been put through the wringer of the justice and legal system, but perhaps most demeaning: Lousy media reporting. All because Eli was looking for a job near his home in Easthampton, Massachusetts. After a series of harassing traffic stops by local police, the town of Hadley began pursuing legal action against Eli for his right to use the road safely. Unlike many states, Massachusetts does not require that cyclists ride “as far right as practicable.” Instead, the Massachusetts General Laws have a requirement for overtaking that is applied frequently to cyclists:

“Except when overtaking and passing on the right is permitted, the driver of an overtaken vehicle shall give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle on visible signal and shall not increase the speed of his vehicle until completely passed by the overtaking vehicle.” (MGL 89-2)

Eli is an experienced transportation cyclist and traffic cycling instructor, and well-versed in the numerous safety benefits of visible lane positioning. He also has a thorough understanding of how to facilitate safe overtaking when appropriate (a CyclingSavvy technique called “Control & Release”).

With all of this in mind, I was completely stunned while reading a recent editorial titled “A wise ruling on bicyclist’s use of Route 9 in Hadley” in The Daily Hampshire Gazette. The un-attributed author of the piece shows a complete ignorance of cycling safety, actual laws, and even journalistic ethics.

Imaginary Motivations

Without asking Eli directly or reading any of his online posts, the editor assumes Eli’s motivations and reasoning for (assumptions italicized):

  1. Wearing a video camera while riding. “But by gearing up with a camera, he seemed to expect a confrontation; he claimed what he got was harassment.”
  2. Filing a complaint. “Damon’s 2011 U.S. District Court complaint, by the way, did not seek money. He wanted to prove a point.
  3. Lane position. “Though the magistrate makes clear bicyclists have the right to use roads, too many motorists seem to think riders have no place on public ways. Damon’s decision to ride in the middle of a travel lane pushed back against that, with predictable results.

Perhaps had the editor inquired into his actual motivations — instead of fabricating a narrative convenient to editorial bias — they would have learned how vital unencumbered, safe cycling is to Eli’s livelihood:

“The primary allegedly criminal act on my part is one that I must commit as part of my daily life, namely traveling on public roads in a safe and efficient manner. Indeed, traveling on public roads is almost universally considered to be essential for full participation in society. The effect of this is to place me on a kind of virtual house arrest, since any attempt I make to travel unescorted carries the risk of interference by police officers.” (Eli Damon, “Undue Process of Law”, June 12, 2010)

For additional context, the following is Eli’s CyclingSavvy Instructor bio:

I was born in 1977. I am principally a math teacher and have been teaching since the age of 17. I have a B.E. in computer engineering from SUNY Stony Brook (2000) and a Ph.D. in mathematics from UMass Amherst (2008). In the Society for Creative Anachronism, I am Lord Eli of Bergental, member of The Order of the Fountain. I first learned to ride a bike, in the common sense, at age 7. Due to a visual disability I cannot acquire a driver’s license. I once thought of this limitation as a severe one. I made some trips by foot, bike, and bus, and relied on friends and family members with cars to give me rides for some other trips. For the most part, however, the difficulty I had in traveling prevented me from living what most people would consider a full life. I learned to DRIVE a bike at age 27, and it radically transformed my life. Suddenly, I could go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, in a reliable, flexible, carefree manner. It felt as if I was no longer disabled. Now I travel almost entirely by bicycle. I have found that good cycling habits provide me with more freedom and flexibility than I could ever achieve through driving a motor vehicle. I have cycled in ten states and the District of Columbia, on a wide variety of roads under a wide variety of conditions. I have made trips of up to 200 miles.

The unwarranted police interference with Eli’s right to travel safely on our public roads made his only means of independent travel nearly impossible. Eli had been repeatedly harassed by police officers (The Hadley Encounters, The West Springfield Encounters, The Third Hadley Encounter: Relapse), so he should not be chastised for using common video equipment to record the encounters. The justice system holds a sworn law officer’s word in higher regard than that of a citizen. Unfortunately, this favors dishonest officers. Many of us have seen videos that contradict statements made by such officers. It’s a sad reality that citizens (especially ones in a minority) need to protect themselves from some of those sworn to serve and protect us.

Confrontation was not Eli’s motivation for recording his rides. In fact, his motivation was quite the opposite:

When I originally bought my Oregon Scientific ATC5K sport video camera, it was because I wanted capture footage of my bike rides for educational videos. I had seen videos from John Allen, Dan Gutierrez and Brian DeSousa, and Keri Caffrey and Mighk Wilson, and I wanted to do something like they had done. I wanted to show my community our local roads from a new perspective. I wanted to show them that there was no reason to be afraid of motor traffic on those roads, and wanted to show them the benefits of an assertive position, and the absence of the danger that many imagined.

A month after I bought the camera it was seized by Mitchell Kuc, and I was made to feel insecure traveling alone. The camera did come in handy in documenting the encounter. (Eli Damon, On-Bike Video Project, June 23, 2012)

Eli wants to prove a point? At great expense to himself, he is not seeking monetary damages for the harassment, humiliation, unwarranted confiscation of his property or curtailment of his ability to travel—a violation of his civil rights. He is simply seeking the ability for himself and other bicyclists to travel safely on public roadways without continued threat of police interference and harassment. That’s quite a point.

Common Ignorance of Bicycle Safety

Common sense is that which tells us the world is flat. — Stuart Chase

It may not be commonly understood, but as many of our educated and informed readers know, Lane Control is a vital safety skill that cyclists use to improve vantage and visibility and significantly reduce conflicts. Unfortunately, the editor did not see fit to look into why Eli might believe so fully in riding in a visible and predictable manner. Instead, the assumptions and bizarre conclusions set in: “If [Neiman’s ruling] had supported Damon’s claim riders can use the middle of a travel lane, people would get hurt. Even if lawful, it wouldn’t be safe.”

Sadly, the media platform allows the writer to set an authoritative tone to common ignorance and misconception. Since the editor could not be bothered to search out these claims of safety, I’ve collected a few pieces to bring the editor up to speed:

The ruling actually DOES validate lane control.

The editor’s conclusion that the ruling did not support a bicyclist’s right to use the middle of the lane is wrong. In his ruling, Judge Neiman wrote that “Massachusetts law requires a slower-traveling bicyclist to pull to the right to allow a faster-traveling motorist to pass when it is safe to do so under the circumstances.”

There is not enough space for a car to pass this bicyclist without using a significant portion of the adjacent lane (such that that lane would need to be free of traffic). By riding in this position, the bicyclist is creating the illusion of courtesy while exposing himself to risk of being sideswiped by a motorist who mistakenly tries to squeeze past.
There is not enough space for a car to pass this bicyclist without using a significant portion of the adjacent lane (such that that lane would need to be free of traffic). By riding in this position, the bicyclist is creating the illusion of courtesy while exposing himself to risk of being sideswiped by a motorist who mistakenly tries to squeeze past.

The implication of that statement is that bicyclists are not required to ride right by default: they must only move right under certain conditions. While it is, in a sense, a victory to have a federal judge acknowledge the validity of lane control, the editor’s misinterpretation of the ruling demonstrates the same prejudicial misunderstanding that has led to this case in the first place. Therein lies the problem.

In many conditions it is unsafe, or impossible, for a bicyclist to move far enough right so that a motorist does not have to use a significant portion of the adjacent lane to pass. At that point, there is little difference to the motorist versus just changing lanes. Does the bicyclist still need to move right for show? Does the bicyclist have the autonomy to make that decision? Must he repeatedly defend that decision to the police and courts of law?

Who decides when and what is safe?

Our roadways are a cooperative system. In our daily interactions, most road users cooperate with each other in a civil manner — facilitating each other to enter or leave the roadway, make lane changes and pass more easily if we are considerably slower. We also cooperate by discouraging or mitigating each other’s mistakes to prevent crashes. Actual crashes are a mere fraction of the potential crashes that never happen because one party compensated for the mistake of another.

But what is cooperation? It seems to mean different things to different stakeholders. The law is vague on this matter — as it should be — because cooperation cannot be legislated or mandated, especially when it concerns decisions which affect safety.

The bicycle, because it is both narrow and slow, creates a complex problem for the concept of cooperation. The bicyclist’s vehicle provides no shell or buffered space around him. Therefore, the bicyclist must rely upon, or proactively encourage, the drivers of other vehicles to allow a buffer of space when passing. Lane control is an effective tool for proactively discouraging the common mistake of passing dangerously close. In addition, the narrowness presents the problem of being invisible or irrelevant — often overlooked by drivers making conflicting movements; this is a problem that is common to, and well understood by, motorcycle drivers. Lane control makes bicyclists more visible and provides them with vantage to see potential conflicts and compensate for the mistakes of others. But that same narrowness, coupled with slow speed, leads to the prevailing assumption that bicyclists should, by default, squeeze to the edge to facilitate faster traffic — even when that eliminates their ability to compensate for— and prevent—the mistakes of other drivers.

The Burden of Car-Centric Prejudice

Unlike many states, Massachusetts does not have a bicyclist-specific roadway-position law. However, its slow vehicle law uses vague wording for “safe operation” that leaves room for interpretation. Judge Neiman’s ruling did not clarify what is safe and who is to determine what is safe. Unfortunately, it still implies that a bicyclist can be subjected to a level of scrutiny not applied to the driver of any other vehicle.

No one would think to compel the operator of a car, or even a narrow vehicle like a motorcycle, to operate continuously at the right edge of a lane, or to move frequently back and forth to allow faster vehicles to share all or part of the lane for more convenient passing — or, in most cases, the illusion of more convenient passing. Yet, it is “common sense,” according to the Gazette Editor, to compel a bicyclist — who operates the least robust vehicle and is passed with the highest speed differentials — to do just that. This sentiment is nothing less than car-centric bigotry. It is the removal of autonomy and assignment of second-class citizenship to the drivers of a particular class of vehicle.

sandusky road c1910In reality, the language of MGL 89-2 is very old. It is a vestige of the early days of narrow, unlaned and often unpaved roads. These roads were typically crowned with steep or soft edges, making it prudent to drive in the middle of the road (not lane). As common practice was to drive in the middle, all slower drivers were required to move over to accommodate passing. The current slow vehicle law in most states (based on an updated Uniform Vehicle Code which MA did not adopt) requires the drivers of slow vehicles to operate in the rightmost thru lane (except when passing, avoiding a hazard or preparing for a left turn). This reflects current roadway design, and (absent bicycle-specific discriminatory laws) applies equally to bicycles as to other slow vehicles. Since the parts of Route 9 where Eli was stopped have multiple lanes, there is no rational reason to expect the driver of any slow vehicle to accommodate unsafe same-lane or lane-split passing, nor to operate on an intermittently-unusable, debris-filled and conflict-ridden shoulder.

Deafening Silence

The most disappointing and frustrating part of all of this is that Eli has been almost completely alone in this battle. Despite repeated pleas for assistance and advice to MassBike and the League of American Bicyclists, Eli has been turned down and ignored. The very least that these organizations could have done is publicize his case and situation. If these organizations cannot rally around someone who must use his or her bicycle on a daily basis for their sustenance, what is their basis for existence?

Currently, I Am Traffic is a loose coalition of volunteers and educators. We hope one day to be an organization with the resources to support bicyclists like Eli in the effort to allow all bicyclists safe, unhindered travel on our public roads.

This post was co-authored by Keri Caffrey.

The Marginalization of Bicyclists

Image 01
Dan Gutierrez, who helped write this article, took the video from which these snapshots are taken. In the left photo, Dan’s colleague Brian DeSousa is riding close to the curb in the right-hand lane of a multilane arterial. That position invites motorists to pass him within the lane, and sure enough, one does. On the right Brian is in a lane control position, which tells motorists they need to change lanes to pass.

How the car lane paradigm eroded our lane rights and what we can do to restore them

Not long ago I was riding in the middle of the right-hand (slow) lane on a 4-lane urban street with parallel parking and a 25 mph speed limit. I had just stopped at a 4-way stop when the young male driver of a powerful car in the left lane yelled at me, “You aint no f***ing car man, get on the sidewalk.” He then sped away, cutting it close as he changed lanes right in front of me in an attempt, I suppose, to teach me a lesson.

That guy stated in a profane way the world view of most people today: If you can’t keep up, stay out of the way. My being in the right-hand lane and therefore “in his way” violated his sense that roads in general and travel lanes in particular are only for cars, a viewpoint that I call the car lane paradigm. The car lane paradigm conflicts with the fact that in every state of the union, bicyclists have the same rights and duties as drivers of vehicles.

So which is it? Do bicyclists have the same right to use travel lanes as other drivers or not? Before lanes existed, bicyclists simply acted like other drivers. But now that travel lanes are common, most people grow up with the car lane paradigm with bicyclists relegated to the margins of the road. This article goes into the history of how the car lane paradigm came to be and what we can do about it now.

Reading this is going to take a while, so here is an outline of where we’re going:

  • 1897: In the beginning, bicycles were vehicles and bicyclists were drivers
  • 1930: Bicycles are not vehicles
  • 1911 – now: Lane lines are invented and become common
    • Oops, the inventors of lane lines forgot about bicycles
    • “Slower Traffic Keep Right” or “Slower Traffic Use Right Lane”?
    • What does the “or” in “right-hand lane or as close as practicable to the right” mean?
    • Do speed and might mean that travel lanes are actually “car lanes”?
  • 1944: If you can’t keep up, you don’t belong (in the lane)
  • 1968: Motorcyclists, but not bicyclists, are entitled to full use of a lane
  • 1975: Bicycles once again defined as vehicles, but still not entitled to use of a full lane
    • Exceptions to the law requiring bicyclists to ride far right are better than nothing, right?
  • Now: No room on the road for bicycles
    • Bicycles at the far right and laned roads are incompatible
    • What do we do now?
1897

In the beginning, bicycles were vehicles and bicyclists were drivers

In 1789, the United States Constitution delegated to the states the power of policing their own citizens, including the power to establish their own rules of the road. As it turns out, some states even allow local agencies to have their own rules of the road. Since it is impractical to go over the history of every set of rules of the road in the U.S., this article will for the most part focus on events at the national level.

cover
LAW pamphlet 1897

As the bicycle became popular in the late 1800’s, some states and local agencies adopted laws prohibiting bicycles on their roads. By 1897 the League of American Wheelmen had successfully challenged those laws and declared in a pamphlet:

The League has made it possible for a cycler to ride the wheel on any street or highway in the United States. When the League was formed the bicycle had no legal recognition; now it is universally recognized as a carriage, and may travel with impunity wherever any carriage does. 1

Some foresighted people saw that it was necessary to formally organize the laws applying to road users into what came to be called “rules of the road.” One of the first places where rules of the road were adopted in the U.S. was New York City in 1903 2. In those first rules of the road, bicycles were defined as vehicles, the operators of which were treated the same as operators of other vehicles (most of which were horse-drawn wagons and carriages).

Rules for driving on an unlaned road - drive on right half, pass on left, slower vehicles as far right as practicable
Rules for driving on an unlaned road – drive on right half, pass on left, slower vehicles as far right as practicable

Many of those early rules of the road are familiar to us even today: drive on the right side of the road, slower traffic keep right, overtake on the left, don’t go faster than is safe, turn left from the center of the road, turn right from the far right, etc.

But there were variations in the rules of the road adopted by the various states and localities, which eventually led to an effort to create a model for the rules of the road for all the states and local agencies to follow. In 1926, the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC) was created by what came to be known as the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances (NCUTLO). 3 States are encouraged to adopt the provisions of the UVC as their own, with some complying more than others.

The original 1926 UVC incorporated the victory won by the LAW when it defined a bicycle as a vehicle:

“Vehicle.” Every device in, upon or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a public highway, excepting devices moved by human power or used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks; provided, that for the purposes of (Title II of) this act, a bicycle or a ridden animal shall be deemed a vehicle.

For bicyclists, defining bicycles as vehicles was crucial, not least because two of the most important provisions of the UVC are the definitions of “highway” and “roadway,” which in turn use the term “vehicular travel”:

Typical rural two-lane highway showing definitions of highway, roadway, travel lane and shoulder
Typical rural two-lane highway showing definitions of highway, roadway, travel lane and shoulder

Section 1. Definitions
“Highway.” Every way or place of whatever nature open to the use of the public, as a matter of right, for purposes of vehicular travel. The term “highway” shall not be deemed to include a roadway or driveway upon grounds owned by private persons, colleges, universities or other institutions.

Notice that the definition of “highway” said nothing about speed, so the roads were just as open to the drivers of slower vehicles as to faster vehicles. That slower vehicles are normal was reinforced by the law requiring drivers of slower vehicles to keep right:

A police officer on a bicycle citing a motorist in New York City. William Phelps Eno, Street Traffic Regulation, 1909

Section 10. Drive on Right Side of Highway.
…Upon all highways of sufficient width, except upon one way streets, the driver of a vehicle shall drive the same upon the right half of the highway and shall drive a slow moving vehicle as closely as possible to the right-hand edge or curb of such highway, unless it is impracticable to travel on such side of the highway and except when overtaking and passing another vehicle subject to the limitations applicable in overtaking and passing set forth in Sections 13 and 14 of this act.

The UVC also addressed overtaking:

Section 13. Overtaking a Vehicle.
(a) The driver of any vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass at a safe distance to the left thereof, and shall not again drive to the right side of the highway until safely clear of such overtaken vehicle. (b) The driver of an overtaking motor vehicle not within a business or residence district as herein defined shall give audible warning with his horn or other warning device before passing or attempting to pass a vehicle proceeding in the same direction.

Section 14. Limitations on Privilege of Overtaking and Passing.
(a) The driver of a vehicle shall not drive to the left side of the center line of a highway in overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction unless such left side is clearly visible and free of oncoming traffic for a sufficient distance ahead to permit such overtaking and passing to be made in safety.
(b) The driver of a vehicle shall not overtake and pass another vehicle proceeding in the same direction upon the crest of a grade or upon a curve in the highway where the driver’s view along the highway is obstructed within a distance of 500 feet.
(c) The driver of a vehicle shall not overtake and pass any other vehicle proceeding in the same direction at any steam or electric railway grade crossing nor at any intersection of highways unless permitted to do so by a traffic or police officer.

Except for the now antiquated rule about giving way to the right on an audible signal (which only makes sense on rural unlaned roads), the rules for overtaking are still well understood today, at least when it comes to motor vehicles overtaking other motor vehicles. Bicycles, however, are another matter. People don’t seem to understand how the rules apply when overtaking bicycles or being overtaken by bicycles. I believe the reason has to do with the car lane paradigm, which came about after the introduction of lane lines.

As it turns out, the overtaking law was written before lane lines became commonplace, so it is not surprising that it does not address overtaking on a laned road. Indeed, it is not logical for either the reference to the “right side of the roadway” or the requirement for the driver of the overtaken vehicle to “give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle on audible signal” to apply on a laned road.

San Francisco Market Street 1906
San Francisco Market Street 1906

Without lane lines, a wide road has room for multiple lines of vehicles (as illustrated in the recently rediscovered movie of Market Street in San Francisco in 1906), so there needed to be a provision prohibiting moving left or right unless such a move can be made with safety:

Section 18. Signals on Starting, Stopping or Turning. …(a) The driver of any vehicle upon a highway before starting, stopping or turning from a direct line shall first see that such movement can be made in safety and if any pedestrian may be affected by such movement shall give a clearly audible signal by sounding the horn, and whenever the operation of any other vehicle may be affected by such movement shall give a signal as required in this section plainly visible to the driver of such other vehicle of the intention to make such movement. (b) The signal herein required shall be given either by means of the hand and arm in the manner herein specified, or by an approved mechanical or electrical signal device, except that when a vehicle is so constructed or loaded as to prevent the hand and arm signal from being visible to the front and rear the signal shall be given by a device of a type which has been approved by the Department.

Whenever the signal is given by means of the hand and arm, the driver shall indicate is intention to start, stop, or turn by extending the hand and arm horizontally from and beyond the left side of the vehicle.

Notice that even in 1926, the UVC authors assumed that all vehicles had a left side beyond which the hand and arm could be extended and that although Section 13b required only drivers of motor vehicles to sound their horns, Section 18a required drivers of all vehicles, including nonmotorized vehicles such as bicycles and horse drawn wagons, to sound their horns, too, even though nonmotorized vehicles were not equipped with horns. Thus the original UVC authors were apparently already thinking that all vehicles were motor vehicles, a viewpoint that still exists among highway and transportation professionals today.

1930

Bicycles are not vehicles, but bicyclists have the same rights and duties as drivers of vehicles

In 1930, the UVC authors decided that bicycles would no longer be considered vehicles and instead inserted a provision giving bicyclists the rights and duties of vehicles:

“Vehicle.” Every device in, upon or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a public highway, except devices moved by human power or used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks.

Every person riding a bicycle or an animal upon a roadway and every person driving an animal shall be subject to the provisions of this act applicable to the driver of a vehicle, except those provisions of this act which by their very nature can have no application.

This seemingly innocent change had disastrous effects on bicycling. In 1975, the NCUTLO Panel on Bicycle Laws wrote:

A bicycle is not a vehicle, but a bicyclist on the roadway has the same rights and duties as the driver of a vehicle. Too frequently judges, attorneys and police don’t accurately perceive how the provisions work together to regulate bicycles, and if these people can’t figure it out, how can the bicyclists and vehicle operators be expected to do any better? Laymen view the existing Code provisions as a bunch of “mumbo-jumbo.” 4

Excluding bicycles from the definition of vehicles has been and is being used to justify the following inequities:

  • Police not preparing collision reports for bicycle crashes.
  • Highway engineers ignoring bicycles in the design of streets and highways.
  • Judges ruling that bicyclists are not intended users of highways, as an Illinois appellate court did.
  • Not treating bike paths as highways. This has led to treating bike paths as though they were walkways. For instance, instead of treating a location where a bike path crosses a street or highway as an intersection, with the same rules as a locations where a street or highway crosses another street or highway, a bike path crossing is usually treated as a crosswalk. Also, a California appellate court ruled that a bike path was equivalent to an unpaved walking trail, for which public agencies have immunity from liability for injuries of bicyclists caused by negligence of their employees in the design and construction of bike paths.

In his book, Fighting Traffic, Peter Norton writes about how during the 1920s motoring interests fought and won a battle to define streets as spaces that excluded pedestrians, horses, streetcars, and bicyclists:

[B]y 1930 most street users agreed that most streets were chiefly motor thoroughfares. 5

Removing bicycles from the definition of “vehicle” was just one way of consolidating that victory. Since bicycles were not motorized, they were not considered part of the normal movement of traffic.

1917 – NOW

The invention and proliferation of lane lines

Dead Man's Curve along the Marquette-Negaunee Road in Michigan, shown in 1917 with its hand-painted centerline.
Painted center lines were first used in 1911 on Trenton’s River Road in Wayne County. This photo, taken in 1917, shows the nation’s first center line on a rural state highway on Dead Man’s Curve along what is now County Road 492 in Marquette County.

As more and more motor vehicles were used on the roads, more rules were added and new road design features were created to regulate their operation. Although bicyclists often complain about stop signs and traffic signals, I believe that the one road design feature that had more impact on bicycling than any other was the lane line.

Today, lane lines are so common that it’s hard to imagine a time when they did not exist. But just like all other traffic control devices, they had to be invented. The first documented use of a lane line was a center line installed on a rural highway in Michigan in 1911. 6 In 1917, a center line was painted on Dead Man’s Curve along the Marquette-Negaunee Road in Michigan. That highway was only wide enough for two vehicles to pass, but there was a tight curve where drivers tended to cut the curve, resulting in head-on crashes. The line worked beautifully to keep drivers on their own side of the road, and by 1940 use of lane lines was common in the U.S., not only for center lines but also to designate multiple lanes in one direction.

But what is a lane? Here is the dictionary definition:

lane  (n.)
A narrow passage, course, or track, especially a strip delineated on a street or highway to accommodate a single line of vehicles. 7

Lane width is determined by the width of the widest vehicle likely to use the street or highway, which most often is a large truck. 8 The current (2000) UVC contains the following provisions related to laned roadways:

1-147 – Laned roadway
A roadway which is divided into two or more clearly marked lanes for vehicular traffic

11-309 – Driving on roadways laned for traffic
Whenever any roadway has been divided into two or more clearly marked lanes for traffic, the following rules, in addition to all others consistent herewith, shall apply. (a) A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.

One vehicle per lane on a motorway in Toronto
One vehicle per lane on a motorway in Toronto

The requirement that a vehicle must be driven within a single lane means that a vehicle cannot occupy two lanes at the same time (except when changing lanes, of course). You would think that if one vehicle cannot occupy two lanes, then two vehicles would not be able to occupy one lane, but that’s not true. Some lanes are wide enough for two lines of traffic, such as where the lane lines are striped far enough apart for two trucks to travel side by side or where both lines of traffic consist of narrow vehicles. In such instances, a driver is expected to share a single lane side by side with other drivers (with the notable exception of motorcycles – see below).

Rules for laned roads: One vehicle is not allowed to use two lanes, but two vehicles can use one lane if the lane is wide enough to share side by side. Normally, drivers change lanes to pass.
Rules for laned roads: One vehicle is not allowed to use two lanes, but two vehicles can use one lane if the lane is wide enough to share side by side. Normally, drivers change lanes to pass.

Even so, because two cars or trucks cannot normally fit within a single lane, it is common for car and truck drivers to act as though they are entitled to a full lane. For instance, it is expected that a car driver who encounters a hazard in a lane (such as a rock) will swerve sideways within the lane without checking first for another vehicle in the same lane. And it is expected that the driver of a car or truck who encounters slower traffic will change lanes to pass.

Image 13
Lane splitting in Paris

Lanes work well to promote the orderly movement of traffic as long as all vehicles (1) go about the same speed and (2) are wide enough that only one fits in a lane at a time. Almost all motor vehicles can go fast enough to keep up, even on freeways, but some, such as motorcycles and motor scooters, are narrow enough to fit two or more side by side in a lane or to slip between lanes (called lane splitting). Even when the driver of a motorcycle or motor scooter uses a full lane, though, car and truck drivers have no grounds to complain because these smaller motor vehicles have enough power to keep up.

Oops, the inventors of lane lines forgot about bicycles

AAA and LAB show that if leaving 3 feet of clearance means straddling a lane line instead of changing lanes to pass, that’s OK.

As a general rule, until lane lines were invented, bicyclists had the same rights and duties as other drivers. Just like any other vehicle, bicycles had to be driven on the right side of the road and, when slower than other traffic, had to keep right. A faster driver who could not overtake safely could honk, but if there was no place for the bicyclist to “give way to the right,” then the overtaking driver would simply have to wait until it was safe. Since most people underestimate the space a bicyclist needs for safety, the meaning of “keep right” and “give way to the right” is not always clear in the case of bicyclists.

Because a bicycle cannot generally go as fast as a motor vehicle and because a bicycle is narrow enough that a motorist can often squeeze by one (unsafely) in a normal width lane, such behavior has become expected. Therefore most people do not believe that a bicycle is entitled to full use of a lane. The result is a mismatch between the historic concept of the bicycle as a vehicle and the basic idea of a lane’s being for a single line of vehicles.

The California Drivers Handbook shows the "right" way to overtake a bicyclist
The California Drivers Handbook shows a motorist straddling a lane line to overtake a bicyclist, which violates the requirement to drive entirely within a single lane.

I can find no evidence that highway engineers, law enforcement officers or legislators gave any thought to how bicyclists might use lanes during the time that lane lines were proliferating. It was apparently assumed that bicyclists would be relegated to the right edge of the road and that motorists would only move far enough left to overtake them, just as they had on unlaned roads. That assumption, though, failed to address a number of questions about how bicyclists and motorists were to interact on laned roads:

  • What happens when a lane is not wide enough for a faster vehicle to safely overtake a bicycle within the lane?
  • What happens when riding far to the right means being close enough to parked cars to be “doored”?
  • Is it acceptable for motorists to pass bicyclists without changing lanes?
  • Where on a laned roadway should a slower bicyclist ride?
  • Image-15
    Passing a bicyclist riding in the door zone puts the bicyclist in danger of hitting a suddenly opened car door.

    Is a bicyclist prohibited from moving left or right within a lane without first signaling and checking to see if the movement can be made with safety?

The answer to these questions will be addressed in the remainder of this article.

“Slower Traffic Keep Right” or “Slower Traffic Use Right Lane”?

Image 17Recall that when all roads were unlaned, slower drivers were required to keep as close to the right edge of the roadway as practicable. With the introduction of laned roads, that law was revised so that slower drivers were only required to use the right-hand lane.

But all most people know about this basic principle is the highway signs that read “Slower Traffic Keep Right”. Even the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (the bible of traffic engineering for installing signs and stripes) admits that the sign should be used where slower traffic is not using the right-hand lane:

Section 2B.30 … SLOWER TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT Sign (R4-3)

Option:
The SLOWER TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT (R4-3) sign (see Figure 2B-10) may be used on multi-lane roadways to reduce unnecessary lane changing.

Guidance:
If used, the SLOWER TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT sign should be installed just beyond the beginning of a multi-lane pavement, and at selected locations where there is a tendency on the part of some road users to drive in the left-hand lane (or lanes) below the normal speed of traffic. This sign should not be used on the approach to an interchange or through an interchange area. 9

The idea that the speed of traffic increases in the lanes furthest from the right-hand edge of the roadway is called lane discipline, and is formalized as follows (a similar provision regarding use of the right-hand lane first appeared in 1930 but was deleted in 1934 – the current provision was added in 1948 10):

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. …

Image-16
A typical example of “Slower Traffic Keep Right” on a multilane road.

The last sentence (which was added in 1979 through the work of Chuck Smith and the Ohio Bicycle Federation 11) makes it clear that the reason for restricting slower drivers to use the right lane on laned roads and to drive near the right edge on unlaned roads is to facilitate overtaking and not, as commonly believed, for the safety of the slower driver. After all, overtaking drivers had always been prohibited from endangering the overtaken vehicle, whether the road had lanes or not. In any case, on a laned road the overtaking driver is expected to change lanes, which, because lanes are designed to be wide enough for the widest legal vehicle, usually means there is plenty of clearance between the two vehicles.

What does the “or” in “the right-hand lane or as close as practicable to the right” mean?

There has been a lot of confusion about what the “or” in UVC 11-301(b) means. Some people mistakenly interpret the “or” to mean “and”. By this interpretation, a narrow slow moving vehicle (such as a motorcycle) would have to be driven in the right side of the right-hand lane in order to comply with UVC 11-301(b), presumably in order to facilitate passing by faster vehicles in the same lane. Since the UVC specifically grants motorcyclists the right to use a full lane (see below), a driver could get a ticket for passing a motorcyclist without changing lanes. Therefore that interpretation must be incorrect.

A correct interpretation of the “or” in UVC 11-301(b) follows this line of reasoning:

The driver of a slow moving vehicle is in compliance with the law by meeting one of two conditions:

  1. Operating in the right-hand lane
  2. Operating as close as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway

On an unlaned road:

  • The roadway does not have a right-hand lane for traffic, so condition 1 does not apply.
  • The roadway does have a right-hand curb or edge, so condition 2 applies.
  • Therefore the driver of a slow moving vehicle operating as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway is in compliance with UVC 11-301(b).

On a laned road:

  • The roadway has a right-hand lane for traffic, so condition 1 applies.
  • The roadway has a right-hand edge or curb, so condition 2 also applies.
  • Condition 1 is less restrictive than Condition 2.
  • Only the less restrictive of the two conditions needs to be met in order to comply with the law.
  • Therefore the driver of a slow moving vehicle operating in the right-hand lane for traffic is in compliance with UVC 11-301(b).

In 1975, the NCUTLO Panel on Bicycle Laws came to the same interpretation when it considered what would be required of bicyclists on laned roads if the provision were deleted:

UVC 11-301(b) … will effectively require bicycles to stay in the right lane (although it will not require them to stay near the right edge of the roadway) when moving slower than other traffic.

Yet most people believe that it is OK to pass bicyclists without changing lanes, even when the lane is too narrow for a bicycle a vehicle to travel safely side by side. Also, people believe that cyclists are required to stay near the edge. Why is that, and how does it affect bicycling?

Do speed and might make right?

Notice that UVC 11-301 (slower traffic use right-hand lane or as close as practicable to the right) says nothing about a minimum speed for the slower driver. Before World War II, slow vehicles were still common on the roads. Deliveries of milk and other commodities in cities were still commonly made by horse and wagon. So any prohibition against driving too slowly would have to contain exceptions:

UVC 11-804(a) No person shall drive a motor vehicle at such a slow speed as to impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic except when reduced speed is necessary for safe operation or in compliance with law. 12

This law is commonly called the Minimum Speed Regulation. It was clearly not intended to prohibit slow moving vehicles from using streets and highways at all. For instance, at the time the provision was first adopted, trucks had solid rubber tires that prevented them from going as fast as cars. Now, technological advances allow trucks to go as fast as cars on level ground or downhills, although their limited power to weight ratio means that they still go slowly uphill. Clearly truckers going slowly uphill are not intentionally impeding other traffic, so the Minimum Speed Regulation is not applied to them. If it were, it would be tantamount to prohibiting trucks on uphill grades, which was clearly not the intent of the law.

Why is that same understanding not extended to bicyclists who, because of air resistance, are incapable of going as fast as cars on level ground? It is often assumed that because bicyclists are narrow they can get out of the way, and consequently that they must get out of the way.

Today it is virtually impossible to buy a motor vehicle that is incapable of going freeway speeds. That does not mean, though, that drivers of slower vehicles are no longer allowed to use the roads. In some places in Pennsylvania and Ohio, it is common to see Amish driving horse-drawn carriages. And Georgia’s Supreme Court found that the driver of corn combine going at its maximum speed of 15 mph was not violating that state’s Minimum Speed Regulation. 13

In some states, the Minimum Speed Regulation omits the word “motor” and so applies to drivers of all vehicles, including bicyclists. In one of these states, Ohio, an appellate court found that a bicyclist using a full lane was not in violation of the law. The Ohio court compared the bicyclist to the corn combine in the Georgia case:

In both cases, the vehicle was being operated at, or close to, the highest possible speed. In either case, holding the operator to have violated the slow speed statute would be tantamount to excluding operators of these vehicles from the public roadways, something that each legislative authority, respectively, has not clearly expressed an intention to do. 14

Still, many bicyclists are even today being found in violation of the Minimum Speed Regulation, even though they were traveling at or near their “highest possible speed.” Clearly, the wording of UVC 11-804(a) needs to be clarified so as not to apply to drivers of vehicles going at or near their maximum speed. For instance, bicycle advocates in Ohio recently changed that state’s Minimum Speed Regulation to explicitly say that drivers of vehicles being operated at, or close to, the highest possible speed are not impeding faster traffic.

As time went on and roads became more congested and speeds of motor vehicles increased, the number of horse-drawn vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians decreased. Some highway professionals saw that as a good thing. For instance, in 1950, Richard O. Bennett of the National Safety Council said:

The modern automobile driver resents the presence on the streets of horse-drawn vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians, despite the fact that he may have been a driver of a horse-drawn vehicle, undoubtedly was a bicycle rider, and definitely is a pedestrian whenever he finds himself on the street sans motor vehicle. He considers these with whom he must share the road as monkey wrenches in the wheels of his progress, bunkers on the clear fairways that make up our highway system. Despite his resentment, the motorist must tolerate the walker, the cyclist, and the wagon. Not only must he tolerate them, he must learn to cooperate with them, give way to them, and help make it possible for them to go their ways in safety. They cannot be removed from the highway as an engineer would remove a hazardous obstruction.

Little is known about the number of animal-drawn vehicles in service today. It is known, however, that many domestic supply companies, such as dairies, ice and fuel distributors, fruit peddlers, and brewers have found it expedient to retain animal-drawn vehicles for door-to-door deliveries in densely populated urban areas. Some farmers with prejudices against motorized equipment or for economic reasons still depend on wagons and horses to transport farm products and for other purposes. … It is most fortunate in this era of high speeds and traffic congestion that the number of animal-drawn vehicles has diminished to this extent. Were it not so, our traffic accident situation would be much aggravated. 15

Today, almost no horse-drawn vehicles use our roads. Pedestrians are accommodated on sidewalks along roads and crosswalks to cross roads. That leaves mainly bicyclists for modern drivers to resent. Where do bicyclists belong on modern roads, almost all of which are divided into travel lanes?

1944

If you can’t keep up, you don’t belong (in the lane)

Until 1944, bicyclists on laned roads had the same lane use rights as other drivers. In that year, however, a new provision was added to the UVC requiring bicyclists to ride at the right edge of the roadway regardless of whether the road had lanes:

UVC 11-1205 – Riding on roadways and bicycle paths
(a) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right-hand side of the roadway as practicable, exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction. 16

I have not been able to find any background on this addition, but we can be pretty sure that no bicyclists were involved in the discussion. The end of World War II was still a year away, and most people who would have cared were either in the service or otherwise occupied.

For those of you have spent all your life under this law, this change might seem minor, but denying bicyclists the right to use travel lanes like other drivers is actually the biggest legal challenge to bicycles using roads that has ever happened in the US.

Notice the similarity between the wording of this provision and the second half of UVC 11-301(b). The driver of a vehicle moving slower than other traffic has the option of either using the right-hand lane, or, if none, driving as far right as practicable. What UCV 11-1205 did was to deny all bicyclists, not only those moving slower than other traffic, the option of using the full right-hand travel lane.

Basically, this law requires bicyclists to ride “Far to the Right” (FTR), even if the road has lanes. What the FTR law did was to create a third class of road user. Before, there had been only two classes: drivers and pedestrians. But now a new class of bicyclist was created, one without the rights of either drivers or pedestrians. The UVC had clear and well-understood rules for drivers and pedestrians, but bicyclists were treated like drivers of vehicles except they were denied the right to full use of travel lanes like other drivers.

The UVC therefore gave bicyclists the superficial appearance of being drivers, but without the right to use travel lanes like drivers. Although a travel lane is intended for a single line of vehicles, bicyclists were told that they could not use travel lanes like real drivers. Bicyclists were told they had to ride at the right edge and if they strayed from the edge, they were doing so at their own peril. Bicyclists were now officially second-class road users.

The UVC gives no reason for this new restriction on bicyclists, and I have been unable to find any from other sources. But what I have found about the FTR laws in a couple of states give clues. New York’s FTR law says that its purpose is to “prevent undue interference with the flow of traffic.” 17

And when California adopted its FTR law in 1963, the California Highway Patrol, which sponsored the legislation, wrote a memo to the governor requesting his signature with this reasoning:

This will enable the development of a more effective safety program when the youngsters can see the simple and clear cut rules they are to obey. 18

A staged right hook crash in the 1950's  educational film, You and Your Bicycle, Progressive Pictures, Oakland, CA
A staged right hook crash in the 1950’s educational film, You and Your Bicycle, Progressive Pictures, Oakland, CA

In effect, the CHP was saying that the ordinary rules of the road were too complicated for “youngsters” (there were virtually no adult cyclists at the time) to obey. In reality, the result of the new provision has been the exact opposite of being “simple and clear cut,” a fact that was illustrated in an educational film from the 1950’s warning children of the danger of riding next to a right turning car, inviting what came to be known as a right hook. It was not until a large number of adults began bicycling during the “bike boom” of the early 1970’s that the actual effect of the new provision became clear. 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. 19

Despite the widespread misperception that it is dangerous for bicycles to mix with motor vehicles (as well as the desire to facilitate overtaking by faster traffic), what the proponents of this new provision apparently did not realize was that relegating bicyclists to the edge of the road increased the risk for the following types of crashes:

  • Right hooks
  • Left crosses
  • Driveway and intersection pull-outs
  • Sideswipes and rear ends during overtaking maneuvers
  • Door zone crashes
  • Road edge hazards

I was one of the new adult bicyclists who started bicycling during the “bike boom” of the early 1970s, and soon thereafter became involved in bicycling advocacy. During one of my first organized rides, I recall a group of us approaching a red traffic signal when one rider started to pass some stopped cars on the right. I distinctly remember a more experienced rider yelling, “Never pass a right turning car on the right!” That was my first exposure to the possibility that bicyclists need not expose themselves to unnecessary danger by hugging the curb.

1968

Motorcyclists, but not bicyclists, are entitled to full use of a lane

The NCUTLO took a very different approach to motorcyclists and travel lanes. On an unlaned road, of course, any driver, including a motorcyclist, who is traveling slower than other traffic is required to drive as far right as practicable. But since a motorcycle is narrow, the question arises about whether a motorcyclist is entitled to full use of a lane.

In 1968 the NCUTLO decided to grant motorcyclists the full use of lanes by adopting this provision:

UVC § 11-1303 – Operating motorcycles on roadways laned for traffic
(a) All motorcycles, other than mopeds, are entitled to full use of a lane and no motor vehicle shall be driven in such a manner as to deprive any motorcycle of the full use of a lane. This subsection shall not apply to motorcycles operated two abreast in a single lane.
(b) The operator of a motorcycle shall not overtake and pass in the same lane occupied by the vehicle being overtaken. This subsection shall not apply to a motorcyclist passing a bicycle, to the driver of a moped, nor to a police officer in the performance of the officer’s duties.
(c) No person shall operate a motorcycle between lanes of traffic or between adjacent lines or rows of vehicles. This subsection shall not apply to police officers in the performance of their duties.
(d) Motorcycles shall not be operated more than two abreast in a single lane. 20

On an unlaned road, a slower motorcyclist is required to ride as far right as practicable (like any other driver) and other drivers are required to pass at a safe distance.
On an unlaned road, a slower motorcyclist is required to ride as far right as practicable (like any other driver) and other drivers are required to pass at a safe distance.
On a laned road, however, a slower motorcyclist is entitled to full use of a lane and other drivers are required to change lanes to pass.
On a laned road, however, a slower motorcyclist is entitled to full use of a lane and other drivers are required to change lanes to pass.

Lane position is important to motorcyclists – so much so that it is taught in training classes. Since many law enforcement officers are also motorcyclists and have undergone that training, they understand how important full use of a lane is for motorcyclists. These law enforcement officers know that it would be silly to expect a slow moving motorcyclist to use the right edge of the right lane.

The contrast with bicycles is notable. Even though bicycles are lighter and less robust than motorcycles, the NCUTLO believed that motorcyclists, but not bicyclists, should be entitled to use a full lane, meaning that bicyclists did not deserve the same protections as motorcyclists.

1975

Bicycles once again defined as vehicles, but still not entitled to use of a full lane

In 1975, the NCUTLO Panel on Bicycle Laws made two major recommendations: that bicycles be defined as vehicles and that the bicyclist-specific FTR law be repealed. The panel considered but rejected a proposal to extend the provision entitling motorcyclists to use the full lane to bicyclists. The full NCUTLO accepted the recommendation to define bicycles as vehicles but decided to leave in place the bicyclist-specific FTR law. This was another disaster for bicyclists.

Due to the way the UVC had developed over the years, changing the definition of vehicle to include bicycles was not simple. Numerous other changes had to be made to provisions related to things like sidewalk bicycles, criminal and civil liability, etc. Perhaps due to the complexity of changing their laws, few states have followed suit, so little has actually changed as a result. Even in states that do define bicycles as vehicles, roads are still seen as motor thoroughfares and bicyclists as interlopers. That experience has made it clear that even though changes in the law are necessary for bicyclists to be seen as legitimate users of the road, such changes are not sufficient. It has been so long since bicycles were defined as vehicles that it will take a lot of effort for highway engineers, law enforcement officers, judges, and the public to see bicycles once again as vehicles.

The discussion among the panel members came down to these opposing viewpoints:

Some members of the Panel expressed concern that a bicycle could ride anywhere in the right lane, and that where this is the only lane available, this would hold up traffic unnecessarily. Others noted that such an obstruction is no more than any other slow moving vehicle would cause when there is only one lane for the direction of traffic, and that the bicyclist should have no greater duty to pull over than any other driver of a slow moving vehicle. Most bicyclists will pull over as far as they think is reasonable and safe. They will not maliciously obstruct traffic, even though the law may entitle them to do so, because they are very much unprotected and they are unlikely to thumb their noses at several tons of steel kicking at their heels. Nevertheless, it should be left to the bicyclist to determine when he should pull over on the basis of his perception of what is safe and reasonable. If he has a good reason for not pulling over, he should be allowed to stay out in the lane, and the law should not suggest to other drivers that they have a legal right to substitute their judgment for the bicyclist’s and demand that he pull over.

Unfortunately, during the meeting of the full NCUTLO in November 1975, the viewpoint opposing the deletion of the bicyclist-specific FTR provision prevailed.

The proposal to extend the provision entitling bicyclists to use of the full lane did not even make it through the bicycle panel:

Motorcyclists are entitled to the use of a full lane and can’t lawfully be passed within that lane. Shouldn’t bicycles have the same right? The difference, of course, is potential speed — the motorcycle can keep up with traffic while the bicycle often cannot. One Panel member nevertheless favored the motorcycle rule for bicycles. Where speed differential is high there is even greater need for vehicles to leave the lane to pass a bicycle. When they pass too close it creates a vacuum which makes control of the bicycle difficult. Others noted that the Code requires passing at a safe distance, and that there are lots of conditions under which cars can pass bicycles safely in the same lane, such as where the car is small and the lane is wide. The Panel decided to recommend no change.

So, the decision made in 1975 was that even though bicycles are vehicles, bicyclists themselves are not entitled to the same right to use of a full lane as drivers of vehicles are.

Exceptions to the FTR law are better than nothing, right?

With the failure of the attempt to delete the bicyclist-specific FTR provision, attention next turned to clarifying what was meant by having to ride “as near to the right-hand side of the roadway as practicable”. In 1979, the NCUTLO decided to adopt amendments intended to clarify the FTR law. These amendments had originally been developed by the California Statewide Bicycle Committee in 1974 and became law in January 1976.

I was one of many bicycling advocates who took part in that effort. Our intent was to make it clear when bicyclists were not required to ride at the edge. Here is what we came up with:

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 motor vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.
4. When riding in the right-turn-only lane. [Added in 2000.]

Slow moving bicyclist controlling narrow lane on 2-lane road - lawful or not?
Slow moving bicyclist controlling narrow lane on 2-lane road – lawful or not?
Slow moving bicyclist controlling narrow lane on multilane road - lawful or not?
Slow moving bicyclist controlling narrow lane on multilane road – lawful or not?

This time, the NCUTLO documented the reason for the change:

The proper position for a bicyclist on a roadway has been misunderstood by bicyclists, police officers, and judges. There clearly is a need for a special rule to replace the inadequate description designed for motorists in UVC §11-301(b). The 1979 revision closely follows an earlier change in the laws of California which was based on a study of its laws. 21

The opinion that UVC § 11-301(b) is intended for motorists is a mystery, as the 1975 NCUTLO Panel on Bicycle Laws had clearly described the intent in its report.

Although the exceptions should have clarified the situations when bicyclists were not required to ride as far right as practicable, that fact is not well known. Until this year, for instance, the CHP Redi-Ref guide only mentioned that there were exceptions to the FTR law without actually listing them. 22 And a police captain told me a couple of years ago that bicyclists can never “stray” from the right edge of the roadway. All across the country, bicyclists who do stray from the right edge of the roadway are being cited and convicted. Thus our efforts to lessen restrictions on bicyclists’ lane use rights failed.

NOW

No room on the road for bicycles

Teaching children to ride at the edge of the road Bicycle Safety, Centron Corp, Lawrence, KS
Teaching children to ride at the edge of the road Bicycle Safety, Centron Corp, Lawrence, KS

Like millions of other children, I was taught to ride my bicycle at the right edge of the road. When I started riding seriously as an adult, I continued to ride the same way. I simply accepted the commonplace thinking that bicycles should not mix with cars and that I should stay as far from cars as possible. Thus when I started my bicycling advocacy, I remember thinking, “I need to do something about the fact that there’s no room on the road for bicycles.”

Adult bicyclist riding in the gutter Source: Dan Gutierrez
Adult bicyclist riding in the gutter
Source: Dan Gutierrez

That attitude wasn’t always commonplace. When bicyclists won equal access to all roads in the 1890’s, they weren’t worried whether there was enough room on the road for bicycles. Since roads were built for carriages and wagons, every road had plenty of room for bicycles. All vehicles were governed by the same rules of the road, including the requirement for slower vehicles to be driven near the right-hand edge of the road. Bicyclists weren’t affected much by that law, since they were usually faster than the horse-drawn vehicles which dominated the roads at the time. But as motor vehicles became popular, bicycles went from being the fastest vehicles on the road to the slowest, and so were relegated to the right edge most of the time. But then, lanes were invented and shortly thereafter bicyclists were denied the right to use them. Despite the introduction of the exceptions to the bicyclist-specific FTR law, most people today believe as I once did, that bicyclists cannot stray from the right edge of the road. Indeed, most people believe that bicycles should never mix with motor vehicles at all.

With the exceptions added to UVC § 11-1205 being largely unrecognized, where are we? Edge riding leads to close passes (what some people call being buzzed), which is scary. And many crashes result between edge riding bicyclists and passing motorists, some leading to the death of the bicyclist. But bicyclists who ride in the travel lane are resented by motorists, who sometimes bully the bicyclist, as in my story at the beginning of this article. The danger of riding at the edge and the fear of bullying have made bicycling relatively rare in most places in the US. Most people believe, like I once did, that there is “no room on the road for bicycles”.

The reasons given for requiring bicyclists to ride at the right edge were bicyclist safety and to facilitate passing by faster traffic. Inevitably, as they got older, children stopped using bicycles for transportation and once they got a driver’s license, never bicycled for transportation again.

For their part, highway professionals in the U.S. never thought much about building roads to accommodate bicyclists riding at the edge (or anywhere else, for that matter). Their design vehicle was a large truck, but they gave no thought to how the roads would accommodate bicyclists. Today, roads are built as though they were motorways, with high speed limits, multiple lanes, widely spread intersections, and high speed merges and diverges. No wonder people believe that roads are for cars. Traffic law already requires slower drivers to use the right lane, but bicyclists don’t even have that right.

If a road has a paved shoulder or a bike lane or a sidepath or a sidewalk, then is a bicyclist who chooses to use a travel lane guilty of impeding faster traffic? A court in Texas found that a bicyclist using a travel lane on a high speed rural highway with what some people said was a “perfectly rideable shoulder” was guilty of reckless driving. 23

Keri Caffrey and Dan Gutierrez have written:

Cyclists inadvertently, or forced by the combination of ill-conceived infrastructure and/or discriminatory laws, make it more difficult for motorists to do the right thing. The resulting conflict creates the animosity between cyclists and motorists with both thinking the other careless and stupid. 24

Is the FTR law discriminatory against bicyclists? When I ask this question of law enforcement officers, they insist that the FTR law is attribute-based, as though bicyclists were always slower than other traffic and that other narrow slow moving vehicles also had to drive at the right edge of the road. But what other slow moving vehicles are there these days? Horses have disappeared, and virtually all motor vehicles are capable of freeway speeds. What the law enforcement officers are expressing is a prejudice in favor of faster motor vehicles, and that because bicyclists are narrow and can safely (in their view) get out of the way, that’s what they must do in order to facilitate the movement of faster vehicles.

What the law enforcement officers don’t realize is that such FTR thinking is incompatible with the whole idea of travel lanes.

FTR thinking and laned roads are incompatible

FTR thinking permeates every aspect of bicycling on public streets and highways. What follows is a listing of what happens when bicyclists engage in FTR thinking:

Edge behavior

Snapshot from a video by the late Sheldon Brown showing him riding too far right and inviting a motorist to overtake without completely changing lanes.
Snapshot from a video by the late Sheldon Brown showing him riding too far right and inviting a motorist to overtake without completely changing lanes.
  • Overtaking slower traffic on the right
  • Creating two lines of traffic in one lane
  • Being hidden from opposing left-turning drivers
  • Inviting motorists to overtake without changing lanes
  • Inviting motorists to overtake on the left before turning right
  • Riding in the door zone where parking is permitted, otherwise in the gutter
  • Riding through surface hazards
  • Making left turns from the right edge of the road
  • Jumping onto the sidewalk and riding in the crosswalk to overtake stopped or slow vehicles

Infrastructure

gutterlane
This bike lane is a product of FTR thinking. Source: Dan Gutierrez
  • Bikes May Use Full Lane signs
  • Shared lane markings (sharrows)
  • Share the Road signs
  • Bike lanes
  • Bike boxes
  • Two-stage left-turn queue boxes
  • Separated bikeways
  • Sidepaths

Education

  • Teaching children to ride FTR
  • Treating bicyclists as though they were incapable of learning or following the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles
  • Teaching people that being hit from the rear is the greatest danger
  • Thinking of travel lanes as “car lanes”
  • Thinking of roads as being intended only for cars

Enforcement

  • Citing bicyclists who stray from the right-hand edge
  • Citing bicyclists for delaying faster traffic
  • Forcing bicyclists who use a full lane to justify their choice
  • Failure to cite bicyclists and motorists for violations that are the major causes of bicycle collisions
  • Assigning fault for collisions to cyclists on the grounds that they were too far from the edge
  • Not assigning fault to motorists for going too fast for conditions
  • Not assigning fault to motorists for overtaking without enough clearance

LeImage-29gislation

  • The bicycle-specific FTR law itself
  • 3-foot passing laws
  • Making use of shoulders mandatory
  • Making use of bike lanes mandatory
  • Making use of sidepaths mandatory
  • Prohibiting bicyclists from roads that do not have separated bicycle facilities

If bicyclists don’t feel that they have the same right to use lanes as drivers of vehicles, then why should they feel like they have the same duties as drivers of vehicles? That kind of rationalization leads to the following unlawful behaviors:

  • Riding the wrong way
  • Running stop signs
  • Not stopping for red lights
  • Not yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks
  • Not using lights at night

FTR thinking causes bicyclists to act like victims and not to be aware of how their own behavior affects their risk. Bicyclists don’t know what the real risks are or how to avoid them, leading to a misjudgment of the actual risks and to the following types of collisions:

  • Sideswipes
  • Right hooks
  • Left crosses
  • Drive-outs

FTR thinking distorts the way that bicyclists and motorists think of courtesy:

  • Bicyclists using travel lanes are viewed as being rude
  • Bicyclists see courtesy as being more important than their own safety

FTR thinking reduces bicyclist use of high speed or high traffic roads

FTR thinking leads bicycle advocates to:

  • Favor segregation
  • Refer to general purpose travel lanes as “car lanes”
  • Think of being pro-bicycle as the same as being pro-separation
  • Promote bicycle facilities that are inconsistent with the rules of the road for drivers of vehicles

Finally, FTR thinking has resulted in many, if not most people growing up with the belief that roads are for motor vehicles. Roads for motor vehicles do exist, of course – they are what Americans call freeways or tollways and Europeans call motorways. But FTR thinking causes highway engineers to treat conventional streets and highways (on which bicycle travel is explicitly permitted) as if they were motorways (on which bicycle travel is explicitly prohibited).

It is now generally accepted that if bicyclists cannot keep up, then both for their own safety and for the good of society they must either ride at the right edge of the road or on the sidewalk or bike path – or not at all. It is as if every street and road is a motorway, with the understanding that bicyclists are tolerated only as long as they stay out of the way of “real” traffic. The victory that the LAW celebrated in 1897 was for bicyclists to use the roads the same as other drivers, but once bicyclists were denied the right to use travel lanes like drivers of other vehicles, they were no longer a “normal” part of traffic.

What do we do now?

Keri Caffrey on a shopping trip pulling a trailer. She is using the full right-hand left turn lane at a traffic signal.
Keri Caffrey on a shopping trip pulling a trailer. She is using the full right-hand left turn lane at a traffic signal.

Suppose there were a law that required bicyclists to endanger and inconvenience themselves for the benefit of drivers in faster vehicles.

Well, there is such a law – it’s the FTR law requiring bicyclists to ride as close as practicable to the right edge of the roadway. And we do have bicyclists who accept that law and routinely ride much further to the right than is practicable. And we do have motorists and police officers and judges and legislators who see that system as just.

But there’s also a law that says bicyclists have the same rights and duties as drivers of vehicles. If drivers of other vehicles who are traveling slower than other traffic don’t have to drive at the right edge of the right lane, then why should bicyclists? That contradiction within the laws needs to be addressed.

The FTR law has led to a dysfunctional set of beliefs related to bicycling. Keri Caffrey writes:

Beliefs are the number one impediment to cycling. The belief that it is too dangerous. The belief that it is too difficult. The belief that human beings driving different types of vehicles can’t coexist on unadulterated roads.

The belief was created by motordom in the 1920s, has been the dysfunctional doctrine of “safety material” for almost a century, and now is being perpetuated by shortsighted bike advocates in the name of getting more asses on saddles. 25

The FTR law needs to be repealed in order to once again give bicyclists the same rights and duties as other drivers. Unfortunately, since that law has been on the books longer than most of the readers of this article have been alive, most people see the law as normal and reasonable. But it is not. It is the result of the mistaken idea that bicyclists cannot control travel lanes. Not only is the idea that bicyclists cannot or should not control travel lanes responsible for the FTR law, it is also responsible for low mode share. FTR thinking leads to the belief that bicyclists controlling travel lanes is somehow rude or more dangerous than riding at the edge of the road or on the sidewalk.

Image 31Along with repealing the FTR law, we need to encourage cities, counties and states to design roads and to install traffic control devices that recognize bicyclists as having full lane use rights. Instead of designing only for fast motor vehicles, highway engineers need to design streets and highways for a variety of speeds. On all streets and highways where bicycling is permitted, we need squared-off intersections that encourage motorists to drive more slowly and yield to bicyclists instead of high speed ramps that discourage yielding to slower bicyclists. Instead of the Share the Road sign, we need to expand use of the Bikes May Use Full Lane sign. Instead of shared lane markings (what some people call sharrows) in the gutter or in the door zone, we need them in the middle of the lane.

Also, along with repealing the FTR law, we need better education. For instance, instead of telling children to stay out of the way of cars, we need to teach them how to interact with motorists as drivers of vehicles. By teaching school children how to drive their bicycles in traffic, they will have a jump start on learning how to drive cars better when they grow up.

But the first step is repealing the FTR law. As long as the FTR law is on the books, bicyclists will continue to be marginalized and denied full lane use rights.

Notes:

  1. Court Decisions, Legal Opinions &c. regarding the Rights of Cyclists in Streets, Parks, &c., League of American Wheelmen, Boston, 1897. retrieved 5/5/2012
  2. William Phelps Eno, Street Traffic Regulation, The Rider and Driver Publishing Co., New York, 1909. retrieved 5/5/2012
  3. Uniform Vehicle Code, National Conference on Street and Highway Safety, Washington, D.C., August 20, 1926. retrieved 5/5/2012
  4. Report of the Panel on Bicycle Laws and Supplementary Agenda for the Subcommittee on Operations, National Committee on Uniform Laws and Ordinances, Washington, D.C., January 27, 1975.
  5. Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City , MIT Press, 2008.
  6. Inventor of highway centerline receives international honor, Michigan Department of Transportation.  retrieved 9/27/2012
  7. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language , Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. retrieved 4/11/2012
  8. A Policy on Geometric Design of Streets and Highways, Sixth Edition, American Association of Street and Highway Transportation Officials, Washington, D.C., 2011.
  9. Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, Federal Highway Administration, Washington, D.C., 2009.
  10. Traffic Laws Annotated, National Committee on Uniform Laws and Ordinances, Washington, D.C., 1979. retrieved 9/17/2011
  11. Fred Oswald, Ratings — Local Bicycle Traffic Ordinances. retrieved 5/7/2012
  12. Traffic Laws Annotated, National Committee on Uniform Laws and Ordinances, Washington, D.C., 1979. retrieved 9/17/2011
  13. Smith v. Lott, et al., Georgia Supreme Court, 1980. retrieved 6/2/2013
  14. Trotwood v. Selz, Court of Appeals of Ohio, Second District,  Montgomery County, 2000. retrieved 6/2/2013
  15. Jean Labatut and Wheaton J. Lane, eds., Highways in our national life; a symposium, Princeton University Press, 1950 . http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/jean-labatut/highways-in-our-national-life-a-symposium-hci/page-38-highways-in-our-national-life-a-symposium-hci.shtml retrieved 5/7/2012
  16. Uniform Vehicle Code, National Committee on Uniform Laws and Ordinances, Washington, D.C., 1968
  17. § 1234, Laws of New York, http://public.leginfo.state.ny.us/LAWSSEAF.cgi?QUERYTYPE=LAWS+&QUERYDATA=VAT1234. retrieved 5/12/2013
  18. Memo from CHP requesting that Governor sign AB 1296, May 9, 1963.
  19. Report of the Panel on Bicycle Laws and Supplementary Agenda for the Subcommittee on Operations, National Committee on Uniform Laws and Ordinances, Washington, D.C., January 27, 1975.
  20. Traffic Laws Annotated, National Committee on Uniform Laws and Ordinances, Washington, D.C., 1979. retrieved 9/17/2011
  21. Supplement to Traffic Laws Annotated, National Committee on Uniform Laws and Ordinances, Washington, D.C., 1979.
  22. Redi-Ref, California Highway Patrol, Sacramento, CA, various years.
  23.  Cycle Dallas: Reed Bates found Guilty of “Reckless Driving”. retrieved 5/12/2013
  24. Private communication, November 4, 2012.
  25. Private communication, May 16, 2012.

Making The Case For Equality

I live in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Late in 2011, I began an effort to remove discriminatory language from my city’s bicycle ordinances, an effort that concluded late in 2012. As part of the effort, I attempted to educate city officials, most of whom had little knowledge of or interest in cyclists’ right to the road, about the true nature and consequences of these laws. As a result of my attempt, I was able to greatly expand and refine the way I explain these topics.

CONTENTS

Laws That Discriminate Against Cyclists

Bicycles must be considered and treated as equal road vehicles and bicyclists must be treated as full and equal drivers of vehicles in traffic laws and policies. Inequitable laws, which discriminate against bicyclists compared to other road users by allowing non-uniform local regulation, restricting access or movement must be repealed.

From the I Am Traffic Equality Goals
uniformity mapEvery state in the United States has a law that initially grants those traveling by bicycle all of the rights enjoyed by those who travel by motor vehicle, or by vehicle in general. And every such law goes on to make broad exceptions this rule. Some of these laws, in acknowledgement of the exceptions’ breadth, go on further to make exceptions to the exceptions. These laws often restrict, beyond what is required of other drivers of vehicles, the roads a cyclist can drive on and the position on a road that a cyclist can occupy. They can also require or prohibit certain equipment. These laws tend to be vague and arbitrary. Some states permit municipalities to impose further restrictions. The map on the right, provided by Dan Gutierrez, shows which states permit local traffic regulations and which states guarantee uniform statewide traffic regulations.

Many of the city ordinances that concerned me were contrary to the Massachusetts traffic code. (I use the term “code” loosely, as Massachusetts statutes are notoriously disorganized.) This raised a debate over whether Massachusetts law permits municipalities to enact their own traffic regulations. I, along with a number of my colleagues, am under the impression that Massachusetts does not permit local traffic regulations, and that is what I argued. However, some have expressed a contrary opinion, and I have been unable to find a clear demonstration of either position.

The Far Right Rule

By far the most problematic of all common elements of bicycle laws is what I call the “Far Right Rule”, also known as “(As) Far Right As Practicable”, “AFRAP”, “FRAP”, “Far To Right”, and “FTR”. The National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances (NCUTLO), “a private, non-profit membership organization dedicated to providing uniformity of traffic laws and regulations through the timely dissemination of information and model legislation on traffic safety issues,” (defunct as of 2008) expresses the Far Right Rule in its last (2000) version of their Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC) as follows.

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.

lawmap_3ftrMany state vehicle codes include similar language, and in those states the language has caused great confusion, conflict, hardship, and expense for bicyclists. This map, provided by Dan Gutierrez, shows which state traffic codes include far right rules and which do not.

My home state of Massachusetts does not have a far right rule. The city ordinance that concerned me most, the one that inspired and motivated my effort, was a far right rule. At the time, city ordinance, Section 3-41 read as follows.

Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right-hand side of the roadway as practicable, exercising due care when passing vehicles or approaching vehicles proceeding in the same direction.

Problems with the Far Right Rule and other related language were recognized at least as early as the implementation of a far right rule in California in the early 1970s. California lawmakers sidestepped the problems by adding on many qualifications and exceptions to the rule, and more have been added since then (see the UVC excerpt above). In fact, with so many exceptions, the rule rarely applies, but that does not eliminate the problems. As early as 1975, NCUTLO’s bicycle subcommittee issued a report pointing out these problems and recommending removing the language from the Uniform Vehicle Code, although the full committee voted by a narrow margin not to take their recommendation. (Information about the history of the UVC was gathered through a conversation with Bob Shanteau, who has tracked down and reviewed primary source documents.)

So why is the Far Right Rule so problematic?

It is confusing. Few people are familiar with the word “practicable”, its meaning or implications for the law. Instances of the Far Right Rule that include qualifications and exceptions are long and complicated. It is difficult for most people to follow or remember them. The term “substandard width lane” is used idiosyncratically, and a whole other sentence is included to explain it.

It is vague. Few people have the expertise needed to competently judge what is and is not a practicable position for a cyclist to occupy, what constitutes an unsafe condition, when moving left helps to avoid one, or how wide a lane is needed for a bicycle and a “vehicle” (the UVC and many state vehicle codes explicitly define “vehicle” as excluding bicycles) to travel safely side by side within it.

It is prejudicial. Most people (cyclists, motorists, police officers, etc.), assuming they are aware of a far right rule in their jurisdiction, interpret the rule not by its technical implications, but by its overall message, especially if that message accords with their own attitudes and beliefs. Exceptions and qualifications aside, the overall message of the rule is that cyclists must stay to the right. That is the number  one priority, the law insinuates. This accords with the common attitude that roads are for cars. Bicycles are toys, not real vehicles. Cycling is a frivolous activity, and cyclists have no compelling need to use the roads, or to use all features of the roads. Bicycles don’t belong on the road but can be tolerated as long as they stay out of the way. It accords with the belief that going slow is dangerous and that closer to the edge is always safer if you’re going slow. Through its vague and confusing language and its insinuation of priority for motorists over cyclists, the Far Right Rule begs to be misinterpreted by those who would see a cyclist riding confidently in line with other traffic and think, “That’s so wrong. It can’t possibly be legal.”

A New Home, A New Discovery

I moved to Easthampton, Massachusetts, from nearby Amherst, in July, 2011. In November, 2011, I had an unpleasant encounter with an Easthampton police officer, who did not acknowledge my legal right, as a cyclist, to use the road in the same manner as a motorist. I have had similar conflicts with police officers in other departments, and some of them escalated to extremes. Fortunately, this one did not.

When I reported the encounter to my friends, one, a fellow cyclist and Easthampton resident, wrote a letter of complaint to the police chief. He shared the chief’s response with me. The chief’s response was a non-sequiturial reference to city ordinance Section 3-41. The ordinance had no direct bearing on the conflict. The officer had never even accused me of violating it. From there, I read the city’s bicycle ordinances thoroughly. I found the entire body of bicycle ordinances to be replete with problems.

I contacted my ward representative to the City Council and voiced my concerns. As it turns out, he is also a cyclist, and he had his own concerns about the ordinances. He invited me to write up my concerns and send them to him. As it turns out, he is also the chair of the ordinance committee. He agreed to have the committee review the bicycle ordinances. With the help of another friend, who is also a fellow cycling instructor and Easthampton resident, I turned my complaint into a proposal.

Over the next several months, I met with the ordinance committee to discuss my proposal. In these discussions, they concurred with me on many of the more minor problems, but they repeatedly put off discussing my greatest concern, Section 3-41, what I call the “far right rule.” I got the sense that the notion of repealing the far right rule would be controversial because the committee, like the general public, was not all that enlightened about the issues for cyclists regarding lane position. I would have to educate them. Toward this goal, I gave a presentation to the committee on the subject of lane position for cyclists. I am quite proud of the result and am fortunate that it was recorded so that I can share it with you (it is embedded at the end of this post).

Presenting the Case

The Role Of Traffic Regulations

A bicycle is a vehicle. A cyclist is a driver of a vehicle. It is important to acknowledge this from the start because it has implications that surprise, and even offend, many people. But it is true under the common meaning of the word “vehicle”. Moreover, every jurisdiction either explicitly encodes this fact into law or makes a technically equivalent declaration.

This is important because the Rules of the Road, the basic principles on which traffic laws are based, are what they are because of the general characteristics of roads, vehicles (how they move) and of people driving vehicles on roads (how they perceive and react to their environment). Bicycles, cars, and many other vehicles possess all of the characteristics that make the Rules of the Road effective in facilitating safe and convenient travel. The Rules of the Road were formulated at the beginning of the 20th century, when the dominant vehicle was the horsecart. They were adapted from rules for waterways, which are far older. We often take them for granted now.

What do we expect of traffic regulations? Please excuse my presumption, but I will speak for all of us on this. As you read this, think about how actual traffic regulations accord with these expectations? Try to imagine what traveling would be like if traffic regulations did not meet these expectations.

We expect traffic regulations, like other laws, to be clearly specified. We want to know precisely what acts are lawful and what acts are unlawful, so that we can be sure to act lawfully, and so that can defend ourselves against accusations of acting unlawfully. We also want to be sure that others clearly understand what the law requires, so that they can act lawfully, so that they can be held responsible for acting unlawfully, and so that they cannot mistakenly accuse us of acting unlawfully.

We expect traffic regulations to be uniform over large areas. Most laws pertain to what we do in one particular place. But driving is about moving from place to place. We often pass through many jurisdictions on a single trip. Learning and remembering many different sets of rules, frequently switching from set to set, keeping track of which set to use when, researching new sets of rules before traveling to and through new jurisdictions: we would probably find this to be extremely burdensome. It would render us quite vulnerable to accusations of acting unlawfully. What did I do? Did I break the law? What law? What jurisdiction? Was it an accident? How can prove it was an accident?

We expect traffic regulations to be the same for all drivers and all vehicles. Again, we don’t want to have to learn different sets of rules for driving different types of vehicles. We also want to be able to readily anticipate what other drivers will do, readily enough for it to be instinctive. We want to be able to do this under a wide range of conditions, including at long distances, at high speeds, and in darkness. Hmmm, let’s see. What kind of vehicle is that? It’s a ?-mobile. And what is the rule for a ?-mobile in this situation? I remember. No, wait. That’s not it. Oh, right, the rule is–

We expect traffic regulations to be compatible with the way vehicles move and the way people perceive and react to their environment when driving. For example, the rules should not require us to move from side to side because vehicles can’t generally do that. The rules should have us focus our attention to the front most of the time, not the rear or side, because people are not made to focus their attention to the rear or side, particularly while moving. This is why other drivers are required to yield to us when approaching us from our rear or side, but we must yield to other drivers in front of us.

We expect traffic regulations to offer us trust and flexibility. Conditions on the road are dynamic and complex. No one but us, as the drivers of our respective vehicles, is in as good a position to assess our circumstances and to choose the best course of action. We need to have the flexibility to do what conditions demand. Lawmakers must not attempt to micromanage our actions before the fact. They must trust us to respond to conditions that only we, not they, experience.

We expect traffic regulations, like other laws, to solve more problems than they create. A rule that isn’t part of a solution is part of a problem. We expect the law to respect our dignity and liberty by imposing no more limitations on us than is necessary to solve a genuine and compelling problem, with side effects that are substantially milder than the original problem. We expect the arguments connecting cause (problem) to effect (solution) to hold up to rigorous intellectual scrutiny.

Positioning Narrow Vehicles

While most vehicles have the basic characteristics of vehicles that make the Rules of the Road what they are, vehicles are distinguished from each other by many additional characteristics, and driving a vehicle of a particular type comes with additional issues beyond those of driving in general. One such characteristic shared by a very substantial class of vehicles is that of being narrow (or substantially narrower than is typical). Here are some examples of narrow vehicles.

narrowvehicles

When driving a vehicle of close-to-typical width, people rarely think about their lateral position on the road. But when driving a narrow vehicle, choosing a position is far more complex and far more critical then when driving a wider vehicle. With a narrow vehicle, there are more options to consider and the decision has greater consequences. Advantages of a good position include

  • avoiding stationary hazards,
  • being able to travel along a predictable course,
  • having a clear view of the road ahead and around corners,
  • noticing and reacting to changing conditions early,
  • being readily noticed and correctly judged by others,
  • discouraging dangerous maneuvers by others, and
  • having room to maneuver around or escape from hazards that take you by surprise.

Likewise, disadvantage of a bad position include

  • encountering more stationary hazards,
  • being prone to making erratic maneuvers,
  • having an obstructed or cluttered view of the road ahead and around corners,
  • being prone to overlooking or reacting poorly to changing conditions,
  • being easily overlooked or misjudged by others,
  • encouraging dangerous maneuvers by others, and
  • having no room to maneuver around or escape from hazards.

Here is a list of factors that influence a cyclist’s choice of position.

  • DESIGN – curvature, configuration of lanes (i.e. number/direction/ destination), lane width, edge features (e.g. parked cars, shoulder, curb, guardrail, signs, trees, rumble strip), driveways/intersections (e.g. frequency, size, busy-ness), intersection designs (i.e. sight lines, merges, diverges, turn lanes, slip ramps, traffic lights), approaching changes
  • SURFACE – facilities (e.g. sewer covers, storm drains, expansion joints, demand actuated traffic signals), damage (e.g. potholes, cracks), foreign material (e.g. water, snow, ice, sand, gravel, tree debris)
  • WEATHER – precipitation (e.g. rain, snow), ambient light (e.g. darkness, low sun), wind
  • TRAFFIC – other drivers’ speed, vehicular traffic volume, possible pedestrian traffic, possible pedestrian-like vehicular traffic, animals, motorist behavior trends
  • CYCLIST – bicycle equipment, destination, speed, familiarity with road

I meant what I said about it being a complex decision. Fortunately, it is usually an intuitive decision rather than an intellectual one. The skill of choosing a good position is improved with training and practice. Below are some photographs of road conditions in my area (click each image for a closer look). They are frames taken from video I captured with a helmet camera while cycling. Try to identify the conditions shown in these photographs that might influence the choice of position for a driver of a narrow vehicle. Or better yet, look at the conditions on the roads in your area. Try to identify those that might influence the choice of position for a driver of a narrow vehicle.

Driving too close to the edge is dangerous and burdensome. For safety and convenience, cyclists should stay well away from the edge. Sometimes this means being in the middle, or even on the left side, of a lane. Sometimes it means being in a lane other than the rightmost lane. Watch the animation below for a demonstrates.

LANE CONTROL ANIMATION

This video is a real-life demonstration of the difference between an assertive position and a timid one (http://vimeo.com/17300276).

And this video shows a number of potential crashes that are easily avoided with an assertive position (http://vimeo.com/11539932).

How do we decide what the best position to take is? As I said before, traffic is dynamic and complex. There are many factors that influence the decision. Hence, there can be no simple rule or algorithm for determining the best position. It can only be made by someone who is present and fully aware of the conditions. And conditions can change rapidly. There is no time to apply a rule or algorithm that accounts for all factors, even if one could be formulated. While the decision can be evaluated intellectually after the fact, it must be primarily an intuitive decision. Also, the knowledge, training, and experience needed to select a good position or competently evaluate one after the fact are frustratingly rare. A cyclists position should not be evaluated before the fact, and it should not be evaluated by any of the majority who lack the necessary knowledge, training, and experience.

While there can be no rule or algorithm for choosing the best position, there is one very important guideline. More adverse conditions demand a more assertive position. Let me repeat that because it is important.

More adverse conditions demand a more assertive position.

Occupying more space is almost always safer. It is only a question of how much is enough.

The Role Of Courtesy

So if it is safer and more convenient for a cyclist to keep away from the edge, what obligation does a cyclist have to make room for other drivers pass? Regardless of what ill-conceived and carelessly drafted laws might insinuate, your first priority as a driver should be safety. You should always drive defensively. Your second priority should be your own convenience. You have the right to travel on public roads, and you have the right to a trip that is as easy and carefree as anyone else’s trip. You should feel free to exercise that right fully. You should not curtail your exercise of that right for what is usually the trivial or imaginary convenience of another. Your third priority is courtesy. You should facilitate passing when it is safe and convenient. Laws and norms sometimes implicitly penalize caution or efficient travel for cyclists. These laws and norms should be resisted. We should not penalize cyclists for using caution or for traveling efficiently, as long as it is done with caution.

When you, as a cyclist, want to determine whether you should move over, you should ask yourself the following questions. If you answer YES to all of them, then by all means, do the courteous thing and let others pass you.

  1. Are other drivers present?
    AND
  2. Do they want to pass?
    AND
  3. Are they currently unable to pass safely?
    AND
  4. Are they refraining from passing?
    AND
  5. Is it likely that they will be unable to pass safely for a substantial period?
    AND
  6. Would they be able to safely pass right away if I were to change position?
    AND
  7. If they passed me, would they then be able to move freely?
    AND
  8. Would my new position be safe and convenient for me to travel in?
    AND
  9. Would my new position be safe and convenient for me to move to now?

An argument I had earlier compels me to point out that it is not safe to change your position until you fully assess the situation, yield to anyone you are required to yield to, communicate your intention to other drivers, and achieve confidence that they will not interfere with your move or make any sudden moves of their own. This takes at least a few seconds under the mildest of conditions.

In this excerpt from my presentation, I explain the control and release technique.

Questions 8 and 9 are the only ones involving the cyclist’s convenience, and it might be surprising how rarely they need to be asked. The chain is almost always broken before that. The chain breaks at Question 7 in a traffic jam or approaching a red light. It breaks at Question 6 on a narrow road, and at Question 5 on a wide road, including a multi-lane road. It breaks at Question 4 if they blow past you when it is not safe to pass. Sometimes I move right to enable a motorist to pass only to find that they are correctly preparing for a right turn by waiting behind me. They didn’t even want to pass. It is rare for a motorist to have to wait for a substantial period to pass a cyclist, even an assertive one. In the rare cases when there is a substantial wait, the cyclist rarely has any reasonable way to shorten it.

For example, here is some footage I took while preparing for a left turn. As I am trying to move left in preparation for my turn, several motorists make aggressive and somewhat risky last-second passes. Since I am scanning and yielding they did not create a problem for me, but they could have simply passed me on the right after the roadway widened. Also notice that they end up alongside me or BEHIND me in the other lane at the intersection. Remember the car with the flames painted on the front? Followed by the white pickup truck? I turn and look back at them while I wait for the light.

And here is another example demonstration of the real cause of delay (hint: it’s not a cyclist) from Keri Caffrey.

It is important to understand that cyclists and motorists (and other travelers) largely want the same things. They want get where there are going safely and conveniently. They want to share the road cooperatively and harmoniously with their fellow travelers. Cyclists do not want to make anyone’s life more difficult. If anything, they tend to be overly accommodating at the expense of sacrificing their own needs. They even tend to make concessions that offer no practical benefit to anyone else, just to avoid conflict. They want to help others whenever they reasonably can.

The narrowness of a bicycle gives its driver a special ability to facilitate passing, which drivers of wider vehicles do not have. They are almost always happy to use that special ability when doing so does not involve sacrificing their own needs. Other vehicles give their drivers other special abilities, which can be used to help others. But the special ability offered by a bicycle is treated differently. Cyclists’ special ability is often used against them. They are often pressured or bullied into using that ability to help others at the expense of sacrificing their own needs. A cyclist who moves over to help us pass could have decided that it was too dangerous or too inconvenient, or they could have decided to drive a wider vehicle. We should not resent cyclists for being in the way. We should appreciate that they selected a vehicle that, unlike many others, often gives them the ability to get out the way. When they use that ability to help us pass, we should recognize that they did so for our benefit.

Effects Of Discriminatory Laws

Discriminatory laws put those who would travel by bicycle in a vulnerable position. They can render safe and effective bicycle travel unlawful or legally ambiguous. Or they can subject cyclists’ behavior to excessive scrutiny, so that they must anticipate being called to defend their behavior at any time. Lawmakers’ failure to unequivocally affirm the right to travel by bicycle (or by any simple means, for that matter) contributes to harassment by motorists and police officers and hinders justice for cyclists who are harassed or who are involved in a crash.

Discriminatory laws that use confusing, vague, prejudicial language can foster widespread misinterpretation of the law by public officials of all kinds, including police officers, as well as motorists generally, and even cyclists themselves. They frustrate the efforts of cycling educators to teach defensive driving techniques. Laws that use vague language implicitly dump the responsibility for interpreting them primarily on police officers and secondarily on prosecutors, judges, etc., a responsibility that they are not necessarily prepared to handle. This is the case with the vague language, “as near to the right-hand side of the roadway as practicable,” from the old Easthampton ordinance Section 3-41. In fact, few police officers receive any substantial training in effective cycling or bicycle law enforcement (a major problem for cyclists), let alone what would be needed to judge something as subtle as a cyclist’s position. This makes cyclists who drive defensively legally vulnerable.

Using bicycles for transportation offers vast benefits. It should be encouraged, not discouraged. Many people (including me) rely on bicycles as a means of transportation. Many of them could greatly enhance their lives by learning to use those bicycles more effectively. Many more people could greatly enhance their lives by replacing some or all of their travel using mass transit or personal automobile by cycling, assuming that they were made to feel comfortable using defensive techniques. These changes can make travel quicker, easier, more reliable, more flexible, less stressful, and less expensive, thus enhancing the possibilities for homes, education, jobs, shopping, health care, entertainment, socializing, political activity, and/or capital investment. For those who make the change, it opens up new dreams and ambitions and elevates their overall quality of life.

Beyond the benefits to individuals, using bicycles for transportation offers vast benefits to communities, governments, and societies. More cycling leads to less use of motor vehicles, which leads to to less congestion, less demand for motor vehicle parking, fewer crashes, less environmental and noise pollution, and less money diverted from the local economy. Expanding people’s options in life leads to more economic and cultural productivity, and hence more tax revenue. Fewer crashes leads to less public expense for health care and emergency services. Safe cycling behavior leads to less stress and conflict for everyone on the road.

However, discriminatory laws often prevent these benefits from being realized. Legal vulnerability makes cycling in a safe and convenient manner more stressful. Such laws can discourage people from cycling in such manner. Those who have other transportation options be discouraged from cycling entirely. Even those who have no inclination to travel by bicycle are deprived of the public benefit of bicycle transportation.

The Result of My Effort

I consider my effort to amend the Easthampton bicycle ordinances a success. The ordinances were, in fact, amended as a result of my work, and all off the changes were positive. However, I did not get all of the changes I wanted. There will be opportunities for further changes in the future.

Section 3-41 was not repealed, but it was changed. Whereas it previous read

Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right-hand side of the roadway as practicable, exercising due care when passing vehicles or approaching vehicles proceeding in the same direction.

it now reads

Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right-hand side of the roadway as is safe, unless, preparing to make a left turn, riding in a lane which is too narrow to share safely, avoiding degraded street surfaces (“broken pavement”) and sewer grates, avoiding the “door zone” of parked automobiles, avoiding obstructions such as pedestrians and stopped vehicles or avoiding debris which could damage the bicycle or degrade handling (sand/gravel/glass).

The word “practicable” has been replaced with “safe”, and some exceptions have been added. I have some concern that the changes give an air of legitimacy to an inherently illegitimate rule. For this reason, I did not participate in drafting the new ordinance.

pyramidBut changes to the ordinances is not the only result, or even the most important one. I believe that the greater success was in using the ordinances as a platform to educate and raise consciousness about cycling, paving the way (no pun intended) for future improvements not only in law, but in culture as well. And as the pyramid indicates, we cannot change behavior without changing culture.

For more information about my effort to reform the Easthampton bicycle ordinances, see my article Partial But Definite Success Amending Easthampton Bicycle Ordinances.