Bike laws in the District of Columbia (DC) are covered largely under the DC Municipal Regulations, Title 18, Chapter 12 which is part of the larger laws around traffic, driving, and vehicles. This primarily means that people on a bike have the same rights and duties as any other vehicle (when riding on a highway), but there are other things that cyclists must keep in mind when they are riding in order to stay on the right side of the law.
The one weird thing to bear in mind is that DC is part of the Washington metropolitan area, which includes parts of Maryland, Virginia and a portion of West Virginia. These areas have their own bike laws which may or may not overlap with DC’s bike laws, so make sure you understand all the laws wherever you are biking. For the purposes of this piece, we are looking at the bike laws in the actual city of the District of Columbia. If you want more information, the Washington Area Bike Association published a nice little handbook that you can download and use whenever you need.
Riding with Cars
The big thing that all cyclists must keep in mind (no matter where they ride) is the law around riding with traffic. In order to keep riders and drivers safe and sane, many laws are tied up in ensuring that everyone drives and rides with each other. So, what can you expect in DC?
Like most other states, DC requires that cyclists must ride in the right lane if they are traveling slower than the normal speed of the traffic (which, let’s face it, will be most of the time). They must ride as close as possible to the edge of the roadway, excluding any instance where it would be unsafe. But a cyclist can ‘split lanes’ if the lane is partially occupied by stopped, standing, or parked vehicles. Cyclists don’t have to ride in their own bike lanes even if they are provided, unless traffic signs override that by specifically indicating that people must ride in the bike lanes.
DC does not have any vulnerable road user laws and no standard laws for their protection. DC does practice the Idaho Stop rules meaning that cyclists are supposed to full stop at every stop sign.
It is legal to ride your bike on a sidewalk, unless you’re in the Central Business District. You can find out where you can ride and where you cannot ride most easily by referring to this map. When riding on the sidewalk in other parts of DC, make sure to give pedestrians plenty of warning when coming up on them and yield the right-of-way to them.
Finally, when passing a cyclist, a driver must leave a safe distance of no less than three feet. This is standard in most parts of the United States.
In the District of Columbia, several safety measures are upheld by the law when riding a bike:
- All riders less than sixteen years of age must wear a properly fitted helmet. But if you’re over sixteen, you don’t have to (though we would recommend it!)
- You don’t have to register your bike, but again, it’s a good idea because it can help retrieve it if it is stolen.
- Bikes have to have a bell or some other sound device that can be heard from at least one hundred feet.
- As for lighting? DC actually has some incredibly specific regulations: “Each bicycle, when in use at night, shall be equipped with a lamp on the front which shall emit a steady or flashing white light visible from a distance of at least five hundred feet to the front and with a red reflector on the rear which shall be visible from all distances from fifty feet to three hundred feet to the rear when directly in front of the upper beams of head lamps on a motor vehicle.” (DCMR 18-1204.2)
- It is legal to talk on your cellphone while operating a bike in DC, but it’s a terrible idea. This is because the District of Columbia has a legal doctrine of contributory negligence, meaning if that if a jury finds a rider even 1% negligent in a bike accident, the rider could be barred from any sort of recovery (i.e., money, bills payments, etc.). Depending on the jury, talking on a cellphone could certainly find a rider negligent if he or she was talking on a cell phone when the accident occurred. DC is one of the few areas left in the United States with this doctrine.
Again, because of outlying overlap areas between DC and other states, it’s important to follow all the laws to keep from getting into trouble.
Motorized (Electronic) Bike Laws in the District of Columbia
The District of Columbia does have a couple of laws around the use of electronic bikes.
Motorized bikes in DC are bikes which have two or three wheels which are at least 16 inches in diameter, have a maximum speed of 35mph on level ground, and an engine that is no bigger than 1.5 brake horsepower. If your bike exceeds those, then you have a motorcycle (as far as the law is concerned) and so fall under motorcycle jurisdiction. Motorized bicycles are prohibited from driving anywhere cars can’t drive, which means no sidewalks, off-street bike paths or bicycle routes, even if you’re propelling yourself without the motor!
Bike laws in DC are a little sparse, but much of that is because the laws in areas of overlap cover much of what would be needed anyway. The main thing to keep in mind is that the rules outlined here are primarily for the city of DC and wherever there is overlap from the other states, you must conform to their rules as well as any for DC. This means it’s very important to stay on top of your cycling laws! That being said, biking safely and legally in DC is easy enough to do and fun, especially since it means skipping much of the massive commuter traffic and seeing more of the area. Enjoy!
There’s a nice pocket guide by The Washington Area Bicyclist Association if you want to check that out.