Rules of the Road

Is it OK for a cyclist to ride right on the edge of the bike lane close to traffic? 

Question: Is it OK for a cyclist to ride right on the edge of the bike lane although they have the whole bike lane to ride in?

I understand that they might have to move for a second to either go around junk or glass in the bike lane, but staying on the line is the question.

Answer: I’m going to take the liberty of interpreting “OK” several different ways. You might be able to come up with more meanings, but I came up with these: “Is it OK?” could mean “Is it legal?”, “Is it culturally acceptable?” and “Is it safe?”

Let’s try to answer all three.

Is it legal?

On roads without a bike lane or shoulder, the general rule (that has some exceptions) directs cyclists to ride as far to the right as is safe.

As a side note, the law doesn’t require cyclists to ride as far to the right “as possible.” Sometimes the safest place for a cyclist might be in the center of the lane.

If there is a shoulder or a bike lane, the law states that a cyclist may use the shoulder or bike lane.

“May” is an intentional word choice. When the law requires a behavior, it uses the word “shall.” When an action is a legal option but not a legal requirement you’ll find the word “may.”

Because this law uses “may”, a cyclist could choose to ride in the roadway, even when a bike lane is available.

Why would a cyclist choose to ride in the road when a bike lane is an option? Didn’t we build bike lanes to keep bikes and cars separate? I’ll get to that in a bit.

Is it culturally acceptable?

Just the fact that the question was asked suggests some level of opposition to the behavior.

Digging into cultural attitudes is fraught with peril; I should have addressed this point last, so if I ran out of space I could skip it. But I think cultural attitudes and safety are connected.

Think about the last time you saw a driver do something you thought was unacceptable. Now be honest, did your inherent feelings of kindness toward that person increase or decrease?

Yeah, me too.

That in itself is just a normal human reaction, but those feelings might subtly be expressed in how we drive.

In the case of the cyclist at the edge of the bike lane, maybe a passing driver doesn’t leave as much room as he could.

When our cultural attitudes are consistent with the law and oppose serious hazards we get positive changes, like decreases in impaired drivers and more serious consequences for people who do drive impaired.

But if our cultural attitudes are in conflict with what is legal, and possibly even what is the safest choice for a particular situation, it’s time to evaluate our cultural attitudes and adapt them to encourage safer behaviors.

Is it safe?

Generally speaking, bike lanes are a safer option for bike riders than riding in the roadway, but there are some old relics of early (and lousy) bike lane design still hanging on in some parts of the state. In those situations a cyclist might choose to ride in the roadway or on the far left side of the bike lane.

For example, some bike lanes were created by narrowing the parking lane on the side of the road and squeezing a skinny bike lane between the parking lane and the roadway. This results in a bike lane that can be completely blocked by the open door of a parked car.

Those kinds of bike lanes are becoming extinct as road engineering evolves, but when a cyclist does encounter that kind of lane, it’s likely safer to ride in the roadway if there are any parked cars.

Similarly, some bike lanes can be partially blocked by a car door. Here’s where you might have a cyclist that rides the line between the roadway and the bike lane.

Lane position, whether you’re riding a bike or driving a car, is an important, if often overlooked, part of safe driving.

The law requires you to keep your car within your lane, but it’s up to you how you use that lane to maximize your safety.

When an oncoming car is approaching, do you shift toward the fog line? When you see a car pull onto the shoulder, do you shift toward the center line in anticipation of a car door opening?

Maybe those behaviors are so ingrained in your driving that you don’t even notice them. Good cyclists make those same kinds of adjustments in their riding environment.

And that’s what it’ll take to eliminate serious crashes; a commitment from all of us to be aware and to make driving choices that protect ourselves and the others on the road.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.
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