Rules of the Road

Road Rules: Are bike helmets required? Bike lights? Licenses?

A bicyclist coasts down Billy Frank Jr. Street on Thursday, Feb. 4, in Bellingham, Wash. Helmets aren’t required in Washington state but are recommended for safety.
A bicyclist coasts down Billy Frank Jr. Street on Thursday, Feb. 4, in Bellingham, Wash. Helmets aren’t required in Washington state but are recommended for safety.

Question: Welcome to the bicycle question roundup. Questions about bicycles have been pouring in, and I’m going to try to tackle them a couple at a time, so this is part one. I don’t usually edit the questions much, but some of these had a strong bias, either pro-bike or anti-bike. I’ve tried to cut the bias and keep the question. Whatever your perspective, I hope these answers help to create harmony among cars, bikes and pedestrians. Please use this knowledge for good, not evil. Now, let’s get started.

1. Are bicyclists required to carry license, registration and proof of insurance just like a car since they are to follow the “rules of the road”?

The simple answer is, no, they don’t. I’d be curious to see what kind of response you’d get if you tried register your bicycle at the auditor’s office or went to Department of Licensing to apply for a bicycle license, since those are not even options. The mandatory insurance law in Washington applies to registered vehicles (and even then has a few exceptions, including motorcycles), so bicycles are exempt from insurance requirements. While not very common, bicycle liability insurance is available and may be a good option for some cyclists. If you think bicycle insurance sounds odd, consider that much stranger insurance policies have been issued, including a cricket player who insured his moustache.

2. Is there a helmet law for cyclists?

Washington does not have a helmet law for cyclists, but cities and counties can establish their own local helmet laws. None of the cities in Whatcom and Skagit counties have helmet laws, but in the event that you go an a cycling trip, the Department of Transportation has a list of places where helmets are required.

Even though we don’t have a statewide bicycle helmet law, more and more cyclists wear them by choice. When I was a kid riding around the neighborhood with my friends, none of us wore helmets, except one kid that had a brain injury, caused by not wearing a helmet. I guess I didn’t get the irony of that at age 10.

3. Are there any rules around required lights on bikes — size, location, intensity, etc. — like there are for motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses?

Before we get to the rules, I want to remind cyclists that if you ride without lights or reflectors at night, you’re nearly invisible to drivers and you will lose any confrontation you have with a car.

Now the rules: When it’s dark, bicycles are required by RCW 46.61.780 to have a white light, visible from at least 500 feet, on the front of the bike and a red reflector, visible from 600 feet, or a red light, visible from 500 feet, on the back of the bike.

4. I see lots of cyclists texting while riding. Is that legal?

It’s legal, but it’s dumb. Washington’s texting law applies specifically to motor vehicles, so a cyclist couldn’t be cited for texting while riding. However, that doesn’t relieve cyclists from their duty to ride responsibly, and a big part of responsible riding is paying attention.

5. I have never seen a cyclist stopped by the police. Do the police police cyclists?

I’ve seen it a few times, but it doesn’t happen a lot. That makes sense, though. Cyclists make up about 4 percent of road users, so if police stopped cyclists at a similar ratio to cars, I’d expect that 96 percent of traffic stops I see would involve cars rather than bikes. Because speeding contributes to a significant portion of traffic stops, and most cyclists don’t even reach the speed limit, I’d expect that cyclists make up even less than 4 percent of traffic stops.

That’s it for today, but there are still more bike questions so stay tuned for bicycle roundup part two.

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.