Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Bikes and the Law

Why do some drivers feel entitled to yell at cyclists?  My working theory is that the power and relative anonymity of the automobile provides people with a space in which to give their anti-social tendencies free reign.  That, combined with the fact that many drivers do not understand the basics of the vehicle code as it applies to bicyclists, and you have the recipe for misunderstandings on the roadway.

I was reminded of this on a recent ride home from my local REI.  For a brief stretch of about a block, I must ride on Arcadia’s busy Santa Anita Blvd., a four-lane arterial roadway that lacks bike lanes or a right lane wide enough for bikes and cars to ride side-by-side (I’ve written about Arcadia’s woeful lack of bike-friendly infrastructure here).  In such cases, the California Vehicle Code allows bicyclists to “take the lane.”  I’ve never enjoyed “taking the lane” because it can be stressful to have car traffic riding up your ass, revving engines as they pass, and so on, but make no mistake, my taking the lane is legal, and, in such circumstances, safer, because it prevents an unsafe pass by the automobile.  In this particular instance, there was little stress, insofar as I merged onto Santa Anita and took the right lane with no traffic behind me.  As I approached the next block, I stopped at the red light, in line with traffic in front of me. During the red, a car pulled up behind me.  As the light turned green, I proceeded to the corner, signaled, and made a right turn onto a side street.  The driver who’d been behind me at the light yelled as he passed, “get on the sidewalk!” This, despite the fact that I hadn’t slowed him at all, and riding on the sidewalk would have made me less visible to any motorist who might have been turning right (moreover, in many municipalities sidewalk riding is illegal).

Like all of the other times I’ve been yelled at by drivers, I’ve been riding legally and safely, and the driver’s “advice” was wrong from a legal and a safety standpoint.  In one or two of these cases, my presence on the roadway may have forced the driver to slow down for a second or two at most, but in most cases (such as the one above), my presence did not even cause any inconvenience to the motorist.  Hence my theory that the automobile turns normal people into assholes.

Many drivers are ignorant of the basics of traffic law as it applies to bicyclists, as a recent column in the San Jose Mercury News demonstrated.  The columnist took her written test at the DMV and noticed on one question that California’s Vehicle Code requires bicyclists to ride in the road (not on the sidewalk) “as far to the right as practicable,” and not to impede traffic.  She then complains about a cyclist she encountered who was riding in the middle of the lane making it “impossible to pass him.”  When she finally did pass him, she “beeped lightly” and then was shocked when he gave her a middle finger salute.  She was convinced the cyclist was in the wrong, but more likely it was the other way around.

Here’s the thing: CVC 21202 does require cyclists to ride as far to the right as practicable, but that does not mean as far to the right as possible.  Moreover, there are numerous exceptions to this rule, such as when preparing to make a left turn, or passing parked cars, when the cyclist needs to leave about 3 feet on her/his right to stay clear of the “door zone,” or if there is debris or other road hazards on the shoulder.  This year, motorists in California are required to leave 3 feet of space when passing a bicyclist.  That takes up about half of a 12-foot wide lane and most cars are at least 6 feet wide.  Therefore, by law the bicyclist may “take the lane” any time the lane is less than 14 feet wide, and thus too narrow for a bike and a car to safely occupy side-by-side.  For this same reason, you may occasionally see two bicyclists riding side-by-side taking the lane.  Chances are, they’re not being inconsiderate, they’ve made a judgment that the lane is too narrow for cars to pass safely.  The proper thing to do is slow down, wait until it’s safe to pass, and then give the cyclists 3 feet of room as you do so.

In any case, don’t honk or yell.  It’s neither helpful nor necessary.  Curing yourself of the antisocial behavior caused by the automobile?  That will require you to get out of your metal box and propel yourself under your own power once in a while.

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6 thoughts on “Bikes and the Law

  1. Cynthia C. on said:

    sigh. There are some major misunderstandings with drivers. At the LA Commuter Festival on Sunday, we had this exact discussion at the “Know Your Rights” Talk. The bike attorney noted that we are obstacales and drivers don’t expect bikes to be on the road. There was also a study on how drivers become psychopaths when they are in the car. For example, if someone bumped into you in a room, they would politely say excuse me, not yell at you for being in their way. This is a call for education, but who will do it? The only thing that I can do, is educate my friends, collegues, etc. That way they can personally understand.

    • Cynthia, Thanks so much for your comment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the commuter festival. I wanted to go but had other obligations that day. I’ve often thought about the contrast between how people treat each other face-to-face as opposed to when they’re in their cars. For example, I find people on public transit generally to be much more civil to each other than when in their cars, despite the fact that people are often rushed and busy in both situations. I also know that I am a different person in my car than when I’m on my bike, which leads me to believe it is the automobile, not people, that is a big part of the problem. Do you, by chance, have a link to the study about drivers? Best, John.

  2. Sara White on said:

    And, not being a person who rides bicyles I am concerned that bike rides DO NOT STOP at stop signs. WHY????????

    • Sara, thanks for your, um, “question.” My answer is, “I don’t know.” As I explain in my post, I stopped at the light and signaled my turn, as required by law. I was following the law, and I know the law better than the driver who yelled at me. Why do you expect me to answer for other bicyclists who don’t? I regularly see drivers who DO NOT STOP at stop signs or who are ON THEIR CELLPHONES while driving. Would it be fair for me to ask you to explain their bad behavior as if it were somehow your fault? I don’t think so. Moreover, the dangerous driver puts many other road users in mortal danger, while the cyclist who doesn’t stop at a stop sign (maybe) only puts himself in danger. In terms of seriousness, I’d say scofflaw drivers are the far greater threat to public safety. Tell you what. I’ll follow the law, you do the same, and I won’t blame you for the bad behavior of others.

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