Rules of the Road

Should cyclists ride on the left or right? Here are 5 reasons to make the right choice

If there is no bike lane, where should bicyclists ride?

The answer is a bit nuanced, but basically, bicyclists are really lucky: They get to act like pedestrians and they get to act like cars.
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The answer is a bit nuanced, but basically, bicyclists are really lucky: They get to act like pedestrians and they get to act like cars.

Question: I’ve been noticing in the last couple years that more and more adults and kids are riding their bicycles toward traffic. I thought the rule is that a bicycle should be riding in the right lane with the flow of traffic. Is that correct?

Answer: The simple answer is yes, you’re correct. Washington state law requires that when cyclists ride in the road they obey the rules of the road. One of the most fundamental rules is that we drive (or ride) on the right side of the road.

The bigger question is why people would do it.

Sometimes what feels safer and what actually is safer are two different things. Some Inexperienced (and even some more experienced) cyclists will say that the reason they ride the opposite direction of cars is so that they can see who is coming.

It seems like with increased concerns about distracted drivers some bike riders don’t trust that drivers will see them, so they ride against traffic hoping that it will give them more opportunity to spot and avoid dangerous drivers. It’s the, “I want to see who’s going to run me over” philosophy. Unfortunately, their reasoning doesn’t stand up against the data.

A study in Palo Alto, California, found that cyclists who ride against traffic are nearly four times more likely to be killed by a car than cyclists who ride with traffic.

The results of that study aren’t surprising; there are so many reasons why riding against traffic is a bad idea. In the interest of brevity, I’ll just cover a few of them.

Speed differential: If you’re riding with traffic at 15 mph and get struck by a car traveling 25 mph, there’s a speed differential of 10 mph. If you’re riding against traffic at the same speeds, the speed differential is 40 mph. A person who is struck by a car at 10 mph has a 98 percent chance of survival. At 40 mph it’s almost 50-50.

Reduced reaction time: This works off the same principles as speed differential. Given the same scenario as above, the closing distance is four times faster when riding against traffic. That gives drivers one fourth of the reaction time to respond once they notice a cyclist.

If a driver doesn’t notice an oncoming cyclist until there’s less than 100 feet between them the driver has about 1.5 seconds to react. If you’ve read my article on tailgating you know that 1.5 seconds is at the margins of a human’s ability to respond. That’s why we we’re taught in drivers ed to leave at least two seconds between us and the car in front of us.

If a cyclist rides with traffic, that same driver would have six seconds to decide how to respond; plenty of time to slow down or safely maneuver around the bike rider.

No alternative to passing: As long as you ride the same direction as cars travel, if a car catches up to you on a narrow road at the same time as an oncoming car approaches, the car behind you can just slow down for a few seconds and then pass after the oncoming car has gone by.

If you ride against traffic and there isn’t enough room for a driver to fit between an oncoming car and an oncoming bike and you’re forcing that driver to pick between hitting either you or another car. Our innate survival instincts compel us to make the decision that’s least likely to kill us, so a driver will almost always pick the cyclist.

Encounters with cyclists obeying the law: If you ride against traffic you’re eventually going to encounter a cyclist following the rules and one of you is going to have to get out of the way of the other. In this situation someone on a bike is either getting forced into traffic or into a ditch.

Cars won’t see you: Drivers look for hazards (like oncoming cars and bikes) where they expect to see them, and they don’t expect them in the wrong lane.

There’s also a misconception about the actual risk of being hit from behind. I think it stems from being more afraid of what we can’t see than what we can see.

Take, for example, sharks and bears. In North America bears kill twice as many people as sharks, but we all know sharks are still scarier. How do we know? There’s no Bear Week on the Discovery Channel. Why are they scarier? Because we know they’re out there but we can’t see them coming.

Cycling fatalities are similar – even though many cyclists are most of afraid of getting rear-ended, according to Cornell University only about five percent of car-bike crashes are caused by a motorist striking a cyclist from behind, while about one third of all car-bike crashes involve a wrong-way cyclist.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.

Mike Watkins, a certified cycling instructor with the League of American Bicyclists, gives tips for a pre-ride safety inspection he calls the ABC Quick check.