Riding on the Right – Don’t do the “Possible.” Do the “Practicable.”

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When I started this blog, I wanted to do something different than the usual race reports, equipment reviews, etc.  Being a lawyer, I also wanted to blog about bicycling and sports law and policy. I must qualify blogs on such topics by stating that I specialize in neither of these areas (I practice water and natural resources law). This blog is not legal advice, so if you need representation in such matters, you should consult with a licensed attorney who specializes in, and is knowledgable of, bicycle law (they do exist). I should also add that, although I do my research, this is not a peer reviewed law review journal. If you need a references, check my references.

If you want to know more about bicycle law, I highly recommend Bicycling and the Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist, by Bob Mionske, J.D. (available on Amazon). The League of American Bicyclists has a summary of bicycle-specific laws for each state on its website. If you live in California a good reference is Bicycles and the Law: The Case of California (8 ENVIRONS, ENVIRONMENTAL LAW AND POLICY JOURNAL 105–124 (May 1995) University of California, Davis, Environmental Law Society). The first place you should look, however, is the vehicle or traffic code of your state. While traffic and tort laws vary from state to state, many have adopted portions of the Uniform Vehicle Code, a model code developed by the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances to assist state and local governments in developing traffic laws. Sometimes local ordinances may apply. In California, however, state traffic laws preempt local laws unless state law specifically says otherwise. (Cal. Veh. Code sec. 21.)

Probably the number one issue have run into with motorists is how far to the right you must ride your bike.  In California, the applicable law is Vehicle Code section 21202. The language in Vehicle Code section 21202 has been incorporated into the Uniform Vehicle Code and adopted by  a number of states, although others adhere to earlier, more restrictive language requires bicyclists to keep to the always keep right. (Uniform Veh. Code, sec.  11-1205.) The most important paragraph in 21202, and the focus of this blog, is paragraph (a), which states:

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 except under any of the following situations…

(Cal. Veh. Code sec. 21202(a).)

Rosscott-Bike-Comic2

Available for purchase at http://hilariawesome.com/19.

This is often referred to as the “slow bicycle rule.” There are several exceptions to this paragraph, but they are not the immediate focus of this blog.

There are some things to keep in mind that Vehicle Code section 21202 applies when –
  1. You are riding a bicycle.
  2. You are riding on a “roadway.” The “roadway” is the part of the road that is improved, designed, or ordinarily used by vehicular traffic. (Cal. Vehicle Code sec. 530.) It is generally the section between the white lines. (Caltrans letter ) It does not include the shoulder, because the shoulder is not improved, designed, or ordinarily used by vehicular traffic, and neither does it include the sidewalk (although such areas are considered part of the “highway”). Bicycles are allowed to ride on the shoulder, but they are not required to ride on the shoulder. (Cal. Vehicle Code sec. 21650.1.)
  3. You are riding slower than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction and at that time. If there is no other traffic, section 21202 does not apply. If you are riding in traffic and traffic is either at a stand-still or moving very slowly this does not apply.
Assuming the above requirements are met and the slow bicycle rule applies, you must ride your bike as close as “practicable” to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway. The key word here is “practicable.” Practicable does not mean “possible” and neither does it mean “practical.” If the Legislature had intended for you to ride as close to the right as “possible” or as “practical” then it would have used one of those terms instead. What it means is that you need to ride as close to the right as is reasonable under the circumstances. If the statute required riding as far to the right as “possible,” you would have to ride through broken glass and debris on the side of the road or risk other hazards. If the statute required riding as far to the right as “possible,” you would have to ride through broken glass and debris on the side of the road or risk other hazards. It is not reasonable to ride far to the right on the roadway if the right side of the roadway is full of broken glass or debris. Neither is it reasonable to ride less than three feet away from a line of parked cars, because then you would risk colliding with a car door that suddenly opens. In other words, you don’t have to ride farther to the right than would be unreasonably unsafe.
There is also a subjective element, which means that you only need to ride as far to the right that you subjectively believe is practicable. If you are a skilled cyclist, then you are probably much more comfortable and capable of riding close to the edge of the roadway than would a less skilled cyclist. Children still learning to ride on two wheels will probably also feel like they need more space. However, I really see little point to this element, just as I see little point to any subjective element in law, because its subjectivity makes it pretty much irrelevant in the legal analysis.
It sounds pretty simple, and it should be, but while a lot of cyclists understand this, many drivers do not and, unfortunately, fail to recognize when a cyclist will need passing space, because the cyclist can only ride as far to the right as is practicable.
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One response to “Riding on the Right – Don’t do the “Possible.” Do the “Practicable.”

  1. Pingback: Riding on the Right – Exceptions to the Practicable | Ken Petruzzelli – Opinionated triathlete and lawyer·

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