Monday, May 11, 2009

On Washington Bicycle Traffic Laws

I hear a lot of bicyclists complain that motor vehicles don't respect their rights to the road, and a lot of drivers complain that bicyclists are in the way and unsafe. And in some ways, they're both right, as often neither really accounts for the actual state laws dictating bicycle traffic. As Bike To Work Week begins in Tacoma, perhaps a quick review is in order.

First, to the drivers: "Every person riding a bicycle upon a roadway shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle."

And to the cyclists: "Every person riding a bicycle upon a roadway shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle."

That (the beginning of RCW 46.61.755) sums up the core of the rules, and the core of most disputes. YES, we (cyclists) are allowed to ride on the street. YES, if the street is not designed for bikes, we are allowed to take up a whole lane of traffic. NO, we are not allowed to run red lights, run stop signs, ride in an opposing lane, even if there is no car coming. If you can get a ticket for it in a car, you can get a ticket for it on a bike. (And yes, geniuses who ride your bike to the bar so you can get hammered and won't be drinking and driving: drinking and biking is illegal, too. And more likely to get YOU killed. Drunk drivers are often saved by being loose and relaxed. That is not enough to save a drunk cyclist that jets in front of a sober driver.)

RCW 46.61.770 provides the essential details of this interaction:
Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a rate of speed less than the normal flow of traffic at the particular time and place shall ride as near to the right side of the right through lane as is safe except as may be appropriate while preparing to make or while making turning movements, or while overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction.
This does NOT mean that we have to stay as far to the right as possible. There are three facets of this that I think escape a lot of drivers:
  1. "the right side of the right through lane" - this does not include the shoulder (marked or otherwise), parking lane, or sidewalk. This means as far to the right of the actual moving traffic lane.
  2. "as near to the right... as is safe" - This is at the discretion of the cyclist. We know our capabilities, and have a good view of the road. There are aspects of the far edge of the street that make it less safe for cyclists than for cars. Riding right at the curb is unsafe. If you clip the curb in a car you hear a funny noise and get jostled a bit. If you clip the curb on a bike, you crash. Similarly, potholes, debris, puddles... anything a driver would move to avoid, a cyclist has to do so for a smaller version. As such it is often safer to stay out in the middle of the lane. Which is more likely to cause you trouble: a cyclist in your way, that you have to wait for a safe moment to pass by changing lanes; or a cyclist off to your right who has to swerve out in front of you to avoid something you can't see from your car?
  3. "except..." - Yes, just as you must pass even the fastest cyclist, sometimes we must pass a slower one. This means sometimes we will move the middle of the lane. Sometimes we will enter the traffic lane from a single-file bike lane. We are also permitted to turn left. There are still a remarkable number of drivers who think a left-turning cyclist ought to stay to the right and use the crosswalks.
And now, since I've ranted at drivers for a bit, back to bikes for a second: GET SOME FRICKIN' LIGHTS. There are a lot of cyclists that I see riding at night with lights, reflectors, shiny jackets, etc. But there are still way too many riding around virtually invisible. It is not just a good idea. It is the law.

That's the gist of it. Drivers: get used to us. Our numbers are growing, and we really are helping you. You may be annoyed on the rare occasions that you're stuck behind us, but that also means we're not clogging your freeways or taking your parking spaces. Cyclists: take your mom's advice. "I'll treat you like an adult when you start acting like an adult." Start behaving like a car and cars will treat you like a car. Darting in and out of traffic on a whim, running red lights because you don't think you can be ticketed: you are making the drivers assume that we're all jackasses just like you. Stop it.

That is all.

P.S. No, Washington State does not require bike helmets. The City of Tacoma does, though. As does Not Being A Dumbass. Follow the city law and don't be a dumbass. Get a helmet.