Rules of the Road

Can you drive in or cross a bike lane? Can you walk in one?

A truck travels through a bicycle lane while turning from Elm Street to Broadway Street on April 20, 2016 in Bellingham. It’s illegal to drive in a bike lane except in certain cases, such as making a right turn across one, though any such move should be done with caution.
A truck travels through a bicycle lane while turning from Elm Street to Broadway Street on April 20, 2016 in Bellingham. It’s illegal to drive in a bike lane except in certain cases, such as making a right turn across one, though any such move should be done with caution.

Here’s the long awaited (or maybe long forgotten) part three of what I originally thought was a two-part series on bicycle questions.

Can a car drive in a bike lane? I sometimes see cars driving in the bike lane to pass a car turning left. Is that legal? How does a car make a right turn across a bike lane?

A car is not allowed to drive in a bike lane except when making a right turn. That includes no passing on the right to get around a car turning left.

Now for the tricky part of the question: making a right turn across a bike lane. You may have noticed the variety of ways that bike lanes are marked approaching an intersection. Sometimes the solid white line that separates the cars from the bike riders stays solid. Sometimes it turns into a dashed line. Sometimes it ends completely about 50 feet before the intersection.

Washington’s law on right turns directs the driver to make the turn from “as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.” That brings up another question. On a road with a bike lane, is the edge of the roadway the line that separates the car lane from the bike lane, or is it the curb? According to the Revised Code of Washington, the roadway is the portion of the highway “ordinarily used for vehicular travel.” Since a bicycle is considered a vehicle in the law, a bike lane is used for vehicular travel. That would imply that drivers should merge into the bike lane to make a right turn. However, many drivers understand a solid line in the roadway to mean “do not cross,” which confuses the situation. Many states have clear statutes regarding right turns and bike lanes; Washington doesn’t.

On a national level, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices encourages road designers to use dotted lines on bike lanes as they near intersections so drivers know they can move into the bike lane prior to the intersection. Here’s how it works: The driver signals a right turn, checks the bike lane for cyclists and, if clear, moves right. If a bike rider is in the lane, the car yields to the bike and then moves into the lane. A cyclist in the bike lane intending to turn right would stop behind the car instead of pulling up next to it on the right. A cyclist intending to go straight would go around the LEFT side of the car.

Why is this important? If a driver that wants to turn right remains in the traffic lane and a cyclist that wants to go straight pulls up in the bike lane, we have a right-turning vehicle positioned to the left of a vehicle going straight. This scenario can easily end up in a right-hook crash, and yes, it looks just how it sounds; the car travels in a hook-shape to the right and crashes into the cyclist.

Locally, traffic engineers are designing new bike lanes to include dotted lines at intersections, but we still have plenty of lanes with solid lines. So what do you do if you’re intending to turn right and there’s a solid white stripe for the bike lane? The law supports merging into the bike lane, but some motorists and cyclists may not expect it. Let’s use caution and give each other a bit of grace; drivers and riders are still learning to coexist on the roads.

Is it legal for pedestrians to use the bicycle lane?

According to the Revised Code of Washington, whenever a sidewalk is available pedestrians must use it. Since bike lanes are usually located on roads that also have sidewalks, pedestrians are not allowed to use the bicycle lane.

At first I couldn’t think of a reason a pedestrian would even want to use a bike lane, but if you’re a runner you may have at times coveted that lane. Some runners prefer to run on asphalt roads instead of concrete sidewalks, and running in a bike lane would mean not having to weave through pedestrians on the sidewalk. (I just talked up how great it would be to run in a bike lane right after I said it’s illegal. Sorry about that.)

On roads without sidewalks, pedestrians are restricted to walking on the left side of the road or its shoulder, facing traffic, and must move clear of the lane for oncoming cars. Conceivably, if a road without a sidewalk had a bike lane, a pedestrian could use it as long as he or she moved clear of the lane for oncoming bikes.

And finally, this question just makes me sad:

Why do some drivers treat cyclists so poorly? I was in the bike lane and not doing anything wrong when a big truck swerved toward me and revved the engine.

I can’t really answer that, because there is no good reason to act like that behind the wheel. I know that some drivers think bike riders shouldn’t be on the roadway, but I’ll be blunt: The law overrules any opinion about who should or shouldn’t be on the road. All I can do is implore drivers and cyclists to follow the rules and treat each other with respect.

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.