Who You Callin’ Scofflaw? Middle of the Road

26 Aug

The other day I learned that one of my neighbors works in downtown San Jose and often sees me riding my bike to work. As we chatted, my mind quickly traced where he likely sees me on my bike. More precisely, could he have seen me rolling through a stop sign, riding on a sidewalk, or otherwise being a “scofflaw cyclist?”

I fully admit that when there’s no one else around I don’t fully stop for stop signs and that’s illegal. But I’ve come to realize that there are many perfectly legal things people do when they’re riding bikes that “give cyclists a bad name.” Many people, including “avid cyclists” and law enforcement, don’t know the laws. So I’m launching “Who You Callin’ Scofflaw,” a series to test your knowledge and foster a lively, but civil, bicycle discussion.

Running Red Light

Disclaimer: These situations are based on California Vehicle Code. Roadway laws in your area may be different.

Claim: Scofflaw cyclists ride in the middle of the road!

Ask the average person and they’ll tell you that bikes must stay as far to the right as possible on the road. In any news story concerning bikes, there will be someone angrily citing CVC 20212, which begins “Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.”


What the finger-waggers fail to mention is the long list of exceptions to the code which include (1) if you’re riding the normal speed of traffic; (2) if you’re overtaking someone; (3) if you’re turning left or right at an intersection or driveway; (4) avoiding obstacles; or (5) if the lane is too narrow to safely ride a bike alongside a motor vehicle.

In this case, the lane is too narrow for a vehicle and bike to share safely (exception 5). The guy in the green jacket needs to stay at least 3 feet from the parked cars to avoid being hit by opening doors. He and his bike are about 3 feet wide. Drivers need a minimum of a 3 foot buffer to pass in car that’s up to 8 feet wide. Add it up and you need a 17 foot lane if there are parked cars (14 feet otherwise). This lane is not 17 feet wide.

Assessment: The guy in the green jacket is not a scofflaw; he’s riding safely and legally.

Have you been called a scofflaw for taking the lane like this guy? If so, by whom? Is it legal where you live?


25 responses to “Who You Callin’ Scofflaw? Middle of the Road

  1. Mark Sauerwald

    August 26, 2014 at 2:00 pm

    One of my common routes to work is along Los Padres road in Santa Clara where in each direction there is a 12’wide travel lane, and a 12’wide space which is a bike lane/ on street parking. The space between the stripe and the parked cars is far too narrow to ride in safely, so I often position myself in the right tire track of the travel lane. Santa Clara traffic engineers make the situation worse by painting a double yellow line to make it illegal for motorists to pass safely.

    • ladyfleur

      August 26, 2014 at 4:21 pm

      Is this the stretch you’re talking about: If so, those bike lanes look like the really old, completely door zone ones we have on Rengstorff Ave and California St in Mountain View. The “BIKE LANE” marking vs the bike rider pictograph tells me they’re probably from the same vintage. Expect a post on the legalities of door zone bike lanes soon.

  2. savvybikes

    August 26, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    I LOVE this and look forward to the rest of the series! Thank you for posting.

  3. Richard Masoner

    August 26, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    Regarding “rolling through stops,” that’s also routine motorist behavior. If there’s no other traffic around, nobody – whether they’re motorized or not — stops fully at the stop sign. Stop sign compliance is very very low.

    • ladyfleur

      August 26, 2014 at 4:42 pm

      Yep, people only fully stop when they feel it’s needed for safety regardless of what they’re driving or riding. I think the reason why most people stop more fully when they’re driving than when they’re on a bike is because on a bike they’re approaching slower and can see and hear better than when they’re driving. The stop signs where driver compliance is the worst are the ones where they can see and react to other traffic sooner, like at a T intersection with good sight lines and a single lane of slow speed traffic.

    • Steve G

      August 27, 2014 at 5:14 pm

      I teach bike safety to kids and facilitate training rides for a charity ride where 100% compliance is required. I stop at signs and lights regardless of the presence of traffic as I have found having two riding styles only creates the need to break bad habits and having a kid spy me modeling scofflaw riding has the potential of encouraging behavior that could end very badly. I cannot be the only one who rides this way. The practice of rolling stops is one reason I generally don’t ride with clubs. The grief they give to those stopping is a secondary sport, despite the high visibility of their actions and ire rolling stops generate for all riders.

      • ladyfleur

        September 2, 2014 at 11:37 am

        I understand why as an instructor you are a hardliner about the rules and avoid groups that don’t ride to that standard. I personally get really annoyed with riders who barely slow down through intersections and run red lights without just cause (e.g. signal not detecting them).

        But I believe the motorists’ indignation about people slow rolling at stop signs is a red herring for their real issue, which is they simply don’t want to share the road with slower-moving traffic that forces them to pay more attention lest they injure someone.

        Drivers are more than willing to accept each other breaking the speed limit, and in some cases expect people to do it so that they won’t be stuck driving behind “road boulders.” People even brag about how fast they drive, like it’s a sign their time is too important to be wasted.

  4. archergal

    August 26, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    I used to say I treat stop signs on my bike the same way I do in the car: slow roll through if no other traffic is in sight.

    Car drivers who say they don’t do this are in denial. I see it every single day. It’s just somehow worse when someone on a bike does it. O.o

    • ladyfleur

      August 26, 2014 at 5:03 pm

      I’m done with arguing that point with people. I’d rather talk about behaviors that matter, like speeding. The vast majority of drivers break the speed limit on a daily basis, and excess speed is a factor in far more deaths and injuries than people rolling stop signs on bikes.

      • Steve G

        August 27, 2014 at 5:38 pm

        I don’t know if there is much to argue, the death and injury associated with both behaviors is unacceptable and in most cases avoidable. Elimination of speeding likely has a relationship with fatalities at stop signs and lights, but it is not a one to one relationship. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Analysis of Fatal Crashes Due to Signal and Stop Sign Violations makes it clear it is a bad practice for any type of vehicle.

  5. matt

    August 26, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    Another way to look at is that if the cyclist is the only vehicle (motor or otherwise), then the cyclist IS the speed of traffic! Take the middle of the lane! (Until cars come along).

    • ladyfleur

      August 27, 2014 at 8:41 am

      True, but in the scenario in the photo, whether the guy in the green shirt has cars behind him, the law gives him the right to stay in the middle of the lane. If there’s a backup behind him, it’s polite for him to pull over and let them pass. But that’s a story for another post. Stay tuned.

  6. Rick Warner

    August 27, 2014 at 5:23 am

    Nice article. Just one addition: besides the five exclusions there is the inclusion criteria: ‘operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction’. If there are no cars going the same direction or the bicyclist is moving at the ‘normal speed’ of traffic that direction then it is perfectly legal to take the lane. I have had drivers tell me I am breaking the law when I take the lane on descents, but I am usually doing at least as fast as the cars can go. The time I felt safest descending Hwy 84 East from Skyline was the time I positioned myself in the middle of the road in front on one CHP cruiser and behind another; no one argued with me that day.

    • ladyfleur

      August 27, 2014 at 8:33 am

      Yeah, that exclusion is #1 in the list. I have a photo prepped and ready to go for a post on descending at (or above) vehicle speeds. And guess what? It’s from descending Hwy 84 toward Woodside. (One of my favorite descents). Stay tuned.

  7. kghotz

    August 29, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    I’m looking forward to this series!

  8. fuel

    September 1, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    3ft really? I am feeling mighty lucky drivers have to give us 4ft in ABQ, and that we are pushing for 5ft. Taking the lane is legal in NM, in fact our law is vague enough that we have the right to the entire lane whenever the rider feels it prudent.

    • ladyfleur

      September 1, 2014 at 4:46 pm

      Three feet is the minimum passing in California as of next week. It took three tries to get that rather minimal distance passed, and there’s a loophole that says it can be less than that if the situation warrants it which is presumed to mean if the car is passing slowly.

      In truth, the law will most likely only be used when a driver hits someone riding a bike. Sadly, in many cases there’s been nothing illegal to pin on a driver who hits someone. Makes no sense, but it’s true.

  9. Biking in a Skirt

    September 2, 2014 at 11:11 am

    For those who want to learn more, this is an absolutely classic summary of why lane control is a good idea! It changed my riding style for sure.

    • ladyfleur

      September 2, 2014 at 11:22 am

      Yes, when given a lane that’s too narrow like the one shown above, controlling it is the safest route. The problem is that few drivers realize that it’s a legal way to ride and some will yell out to tell you that, if not otherwise harass you while you ride. That’s what this series is all about.

      I’m sick and tired of being harassed for riding legally and look forward to the day when (a) there are more streets where I don’t have to literally put myself out there to stay safe, and (b) drivers on the remaining, low-speed streets will chill out and not try to bully me.

  10. galen

    September 2, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    Good article. However, I would advise a five-foot clearance for parked cars, not three. If someone opens a car door, you don’t want to have to swerve left and possibly into the path of an overtaking vehicle. So you should be able to clear the open door by two feet +/- without changing direction. If you use a five-foot safety margin away from parked vehicles, you won’t have to worry about car doors at all.

    • ladyfleur

      September 2, 2014 at 12:40 pm

      I agree that three feet is not enough room to ensure safety and ride five feet away myself. But what I was detailing here was a minimum number that’s defensible legally, and three feet is what the I’ve seen in the CA DMV guidelines.

  11. Bike-Scoot

    September 2, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    or c) when anti-harassment ordinances, like the one proposed in Menlo Park, are in place for all bay area cities. Action cams are becoming cheaper, smaller, better, and with features like auto-loop and auto-upload. I see more riders with them all the time. The time seems right to push for anti-harassment ordinances that will at least allow for the official documentation and collection of VRU harassment incidents in a central database, so we can start to push for better and statewide anti-harassment legislation for VRUs. Harassment using lethal weapons (cars) simply should not be acceptable in a modern society.

    • ladyfleur

      September 3, 2014 at 3:36 pm

      Wearing a bike camera is akin to having a security camera on your front door. It’s useful if you’re a victim, but I’d rather live and ride where crime is less of a threat.

  12. Moore Beicwraig

    December 18, 2014 at 9:51 pm

    I was illegally cited by LAPD for taking the center of the slow lane (that was too narrow to share = 12 ft). The training officer instructed the junior officer to lie on the citation and claimed I was in the fastest of 3 lanes. I fought it and the judge found me more credible than the LAPD officer who perjured himself. I am about to testify against those officers in court on behalf of another person harassed by those same abusive LAPD officers. And today, as insurance, I now always ride with a go-pro on my helmet.

    • ladyfleur

      December 18, 2014 at 10:50 pm

      Unbelievable. Such dirty cops. I’m glad the judge saw through the lies. It pains me to hear that people ride with GoPros just to defend themselves.


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