Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bike Law in California

So I've realized, with yesterday's troubles, that many cyclists in my social circle have at least a few misconceptions about bike law in California. Thus, this post. I intend it to be a quick summary of cyclists' rights and responsibilities under the California Vehicle Code and Riverside Municipal Code, so that riders can at least be fully-informed in their decisions about conduct in the streets. Here goes! (Disclaimer: I'm still not a lawyer.)

The first thing that you need to know is that, unlike skateboards, roller skates, kick scooters, and any other sort of human-powered wheeled conveyance, bicycles are considered vehicles under California law. That means that, for the most part, you have all the rights-- and all the responsibilities-- of motor vehicles in the public right of way. That means that, yes, all of those pesky car laws apply to you too, cyclist. Ride on the right-hand side of the road, with traffic. Stop at all red lights and stop signs, signal your turns, and obey the speed limit (although that's usually an easy one on a bike). For turn signals, hold out your arm straight and level in the direction of your intended turn. (CVC 21200(a))

On the flip side, bicycles are permitted on nearly all public roadways in the state. They're banned from most freeways (but not all), but that's it. As a cyclist, you're entitled to use the right-most lane that travels in your intended direction. That means that you're allowed to use left-hand turn lanes, and you do not need to stay in a right-hand turn lane unless you're turning right. Ordinarily, you're required to stay as far to the right as possible practicable, but there are several important exceptions to that rule. It does not apply:
  • when turning left.
  • when passing another vehicle traveling in the same direction.
  • when approaching a place where a right turn is permitted.
  • when necessary to avoid road conditions such as debris, surface hazards, other bicycles, pedestrians, parked cars, etc. or when the lane is "of substandard width"-- that is, when the lane is too narrow for a "vehicle" to safely pass a cyclist. I generally interpret this section by replacing the word "vehicle" with the words "full-size bus," and the words "safely pass" with the words "pass with 3 feet of clearance."
  • You may also ride on the left-hand side of a one-way street.
    (CVC 21202)
There is no number of bicycles in a group which permits you to take the lane-- you have that right even if riding alone, should any of the above conditions be met. When utilizing the full travel lane, you should position your bicycle either in the center of the lane, or slightly to the left. This sends a message to cars behind you that there isn't room for them to pass, and that they should go around. If you position yourself in the right half of the lane, expect some cars to try and pass you.

If a bicycle lane or path is provided along your travel route, you are generally required to use it. That said, you are allowed to leave the lane should travel conditions within it become unsafe, or in order to pass another vehicle or avoid a hazard. (CVC 21208)

Your bicycle must be equipped with a brake that will cause one braked wheel to skid on dry, level, clean pavement. Fixie riders, this means that going brakeless is illegal, although you'll probably get a fix-it ticket if caught. Invest in a front brake. You must also be able to put your foot down, as well as hold on to the handlebars without raising your arms above your head. On most bikes, this isn't a problem. (CVC 21201)

If you're riding at night, you are required to have a white headlight and reflectors on your pedals (or shoes or ankles- these are good if you're riding clipless), sides, and rear. Everything should be either white or yellow except the rear reflector, which should be red. Your bicycle should come with all of these reflectors already installed. You may use a red light in lieu of the red rear reflector, and a headlamp attached to you in lieu of one attached to your bicycle. So you should already have the reflectors-- an inexpensive LED light set can have you legal for night riding in no time. (Of course, tiny LED lights won't make night riding safe. If you plan on riding at night a lot, you should look into getting a much brighter headlight.) (CVC 21201)

All of the above are state regulations, but there are also a few local laws to be aware of. RMC 10.64.170 requires that you park your bicycle in a bike rack while downtown-- a feat made much easier with addition of a couple dozen new bike racks downtown, which I'll post about in a bit. It only applies if a rack is available within 150 feet. 10.64.310 prohibits riding on the sidewalk unless there are signs specifically permitting cyclists. (The only such signs in the City that I'm aware of are at University/Iowa, in Arlington Village where the bike lane joins the sidewalk, and along the Victoria Ave. path.) There are also a good number of provisions that simply restate requirements in the CVC, albeit often less elegantly. (RMC 10.64.330, for example, is the equivalent to 21201, but it doesn't make the exceptions to riding to the right clear.)

Sorry that was long, but this is a reasonable summary of the rules and regulations that apply to you while you're riding your bicycle. I'm not going to say that you should always obey every law, but by knowing them you can make an informed choice about them.

6 comments:

Steven said...

left side is dependent upon which direction you are headed, though the law does not make it clear, I beleive that the "left" is the left of the direction of travel for the one way traffic. Thus for the rider it would be on the right.

JN said...

Steven- No, you're not allowed to travel against traffic on a one-way street. You *are* allowed to travel *with* traffic along the left hand edge of the street. (CVC 21202(b)) Nothing in the law suggests that you can travel against the flow of traffic on a one-way street-- and, indeed, this is a really bad idea. Remember, on a bicycle, you're considered a vehicle, and are subject to the ordinary prohibitions against going the wrong way.

John said...

I've heard it argued that if you can pedal backwards on a fixie quickly enough to make the skid, you don't need the brake.

JN said...

John- Based on my reading of the law, I agree, but I did some research and there's plenty of cops and traffic court judges who are interpreting it to mean that a *brake* is required. There's mixed opinion on the subject. I don't want to give advice out here that will result in anyone being in a grey area with respect to the law-- following the above guidelines will put a cyclist firmly in compliance, and any tickets they get will be the result of police ignorance.

examinedspoke said...

"Ordinarily, you're required to stay as far to the right as possible."

I believe the statute reads "as close as practicable to the right-hand," not "as close as possible." The distinction has raised much discussion on the interwebs, with the general consensus being that "as practicable" allows cyclists to take the lane, while "as possible" would not.

JN said...

I've always read it as the various exceptions in CVC 21202(a), ie paragraphs 1-4, that give cyclists the right to take the lane. However, you are right on the language, so I'll change it in the post.