Rules of the Road

Road Rules: Do skateboarders have to obey street laws?

Tanner Hinrichs rides his skateboard at Bellingham Skate Park before heading to work on Aug. 27, 2015. Skateboarders are treated like pedestrians on roads in Washington state, but local jurisdictions, including the city of Bellingham, have their own restrictions.
Tanner Hinrichs rides his skateboard at Bellingham Skate Park before heading to work on Aug. 27, 2015. Skateboarders are treated like pedestrians on roads in Washington state, but local jurisdictions, including the city of Bellingham, have their own restrictions. eabell@bhamherald.com

Question: What are the rules for skateboarders? Can they (or should they) use bicycle lanes? What about being on a road where there are no bicycle lanes? Do they need to obey traffic signals and signs? Should vehicles yield to them, as we do for pedestrians?

Answer: There are a couple issues that complicate our understanding with where skateboarders fit into the transportation spectrum. The first is that it’s hard to even find any state laws specifically about skateboards. That’s because skateboards actually fit into the definition of pedestrians in Washington’s traffic laws. The legislators expanded the traditional definition of a pedestrian (a person who travels by foot) and included “means of conveyance propelled by human power other than a bicycle” (RCW 46.04.400). Whether you’re on a skateboard, roller skates, pogo stick or a red wagon, you’re a pedestrian in the eyes of the law. So let’s go through the questions within the original question and see what’s required for skateboarders.

▪ Can they use bicycle lanes? What about being on a roadway where there are no bicycle lanes? Because skateboarders fit into the classification of pedestrian, they are not allowed to use bicycle lanes. Pedestrians (including skateboarders) are required to use sidewalks rather than the roadway unless there are no sidewalks. If there are no sidewalks, the skateboarder should travel in the left lane of the road, facing traffic, and move off the roadway for oncoming cars. I’ll get to the practicalities of this in a moment.

▪ Do they need to obey traffic signals and signs? I’m guessing that this question was included because the person posing the question has witnessed so many skateboarders disregarding traffic laws that it seems like the rules don’t apply. Well, they do.

▪ Should vehicles yield to them, as we do for pedestrians? Based on what I’ve written above, you’ve probably already answered this for yourself, but yes, vehicles should yield to skateboarders, just like you would for a pedestrian.

Relying on state law, you could conclude that skateboarders can travel wherever and however a pedestrian is allowed to travel, but local jurisdictions can make additional rules. That’s the second reason it’s not easy to understand the rules for skateboarding.

In our region there are some local rules about skateboards. For example, the city of Bellingham has an ordinance that prohibits riding skateboards in the Central Business District, the Fairhaven business district and around the Bellingham Public Library. Mount Vernon prohibits skateboards downtown. Western Washington University, like many universities in the state, has a thorough set of rules for skateboards, even including speed limits. If you’re a skateboarder, I’d recommend checking your local municipal code or asking a police officer about skateboarding laws in the community.

By creating these rules, the local jurisdictions acknowledge an important fact: Even though skateboarders are grouped with pedestrians in state law, they are two distinctly different modes of transportation, and lumping them together can cause some problems.

The law I mentioned earlier that requires a pedestrian to step out of the roadway for an oncoming car is easy when on foot, but not so easy on a skateboard; the road shoulder often has scattered gravel, a very skateboard-unfriendly riding surface. The speed of skateboarders is also a factor; riders on longboards can travel at bicycle speeds, so they might be a better fit in a bike lane than a sidewalk. I’m sure the skateboarders out there can think of a lot of other scenarios where being treated like a pedestrian doesn’t work out so well.

Despite some skateboarders’ feelings that the rules are there to wreck their fun, the ultimate goal is to move people safely through our communities. If you ride a skateboard, recognize that sidewalks and roadways are intended for transportation, not recreation. Just like the full performance of a sports car should only be experienced on a track, you should keep your speed and tricks to the skate park or other areas without pedestrians and traffic. And as long as skateboarders are traveling on pedestrian routes, drivers should be alert to extra-fast pedestrians.

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. Ask a question.

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