Bike Laws in Washington

Washington FlagIf you’re looking at cycling in Washington, it’s important to stay on top of the cycling laws because the state has been making changes (especially in regard to how electric bikes are treated). Washington also has fairly set laws around vulnerable road users such as cyclists. Conversely, it’s one of the many states which does not make it illegal to ride without a helmet (even for children). It’s also important to keep track of local laws as some cities such as Seattle and Vancouver have more bylaws to ensure that pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers are as harmonious together as possible. What should you know about bike laws in Washington?

Bikes and the Roads

Cyclists, while they are riding on the roads, are given all the rights and duties of drivers on the road (except for those which would obviously not work for cyclists). If the cyclist is traveling on a sidewalk or crosswalk, they are given the same rights and duties as pedestrians (assuming the cyclist is allowed on the sidewalk at all-this tends to depend on the city rather than the state). –RCW 46.61.755. Bicycles are therefore treated as vehicles.

When riding on the roads, bikes are to ride as far to the right as possible. The only exceptions to this are the following:

  • When preparing to or making a turn
  • When passing another bike or vehicle going the same direction

It also may be necessary to ride away from the right for the sake of safety. Washington does not mandate the use of separate bike lanes or bike paths even when they are provided, though many cyclists may choose to use them anyway in the name of safety. Bike can also ride in shoulder or travel lanes if it would be safer to do so.

Bikes are also permissible on most sidewalks (unless a city bylaw states otherwise, such as for a business district); however, riders must yield the right of way to pedestrians on the sidewalk or in the crosswalk. Failure to do so actually incurs a fine of up to $500, fifty percent of which is put into a school zone safety account.

Since bicycles are treated as vehicles for the purposes of the law, it’s also of course expected that they will obey all traffic lights and signals. However, there is an exception to this. Washington observes a variation on the Idaho stop law whereby the cyclist, having come to a complete stop at a traffic light, may go through a red light if the lights go through a full cycle without having registered the bike due to its size. This also covers mopeds and street legal motorcycles. You can only do this if the intersection is clear and safe to go through and again, if the lights have gone through a cycle without detecting the bike. –RCW 46.61.184.

Washington has also made the roads safer for cyclists by putting through safe passing laws. These laws dictate that drivers can only pass a cyclist at a safe distance to avoid striking the cyclist (or the pedestrian). Drivers cannot go back to the right side of the road until they are safely clear of the cyclist. However, the safe passing laws do not dictate a specific distance, just a safe distance. Cyclists are also covered under vulnerable road users (along with things like pedestrians, people riding animals, people on tractors, e-bikes, mopeds, motorcycles or motorized foot scooters). Vulnerable road users are protected because the law goes after drivers who are shown to have been driving in a negligent or dangerous way which caused death or great/substantial bodily harm to someone defined as vulnerable. People who are found guilty of this are fined and can have their driving privileges suspended for ninety days.

It is legal to ride your bike while intoxicated (it’s not a good idea, but it’s legal). This is because the DUI laws are written in such a way as to cover vehicles, not bikes. However, police officers are allowed to offer to transport a bike rider to wherever they need to go in order to get off the road. The bike rider in turn can refuse this offer. The police can also impound a bike if the rider is deemed to be a danger to public safety, but the bike must be returned for free.

Cyclists and Riding Safely

Washington, like many states in the country, does not require cyclists to wear a helmet. However, in some counties and cities, it is a requirement to wear one. It can be very hard to find those laws and as a result, it may be unevenly enforced. For example, in King County, the law to wear a bike helmet is buried in the King Count Board of Health Code (hardly the first place you’d check!) There’s a thirty dollar fine for not wearing your helmet, but most police don’t enforce this because they don’t know it exists and rely on the (lack) of state law around helmets to dictate their obligations.

When riding at night, a white front light must be used that is visible for five hundred feet and a red rear reflector. You can also use a red rear light in addition to the reflector.

Electronic Bikes in Washington

Electronic bikes have been getting more scrutiny under law in the recent months. In the summer of 2018, the laws around e-bikes changed with a major change being that electronic bikes were allowed on sidewalks, if they are slower than 20 miles per hour.

The new laws also cover labeling guidelines for e-bikes. In Washington, e-bikes are grouped into one of three classes. Class 1 electric bikes can pedal-assist up to twenty miles per hour and Class 2 e-bikes can be motor-propelled up to twenty miles per hour. They have no age restrictions and they are allowed on sidewalks unless local law prohibits it. Class 3 e-bikes are bikes that can be assisted to go faster than twenty miles per hour. They are not allowed on sidewalks and riders must be age 16 or older to ride one. Labels must be clearly and permanently affixed in a prominent location on the bike.

Washington has many laws around trying to keep cyclists safe on the road, but also to ensure that they are treated fairly compared to pedestrians and drivers of motor vehicles. It’s of particular importance to pay attention to county and city laws as there are often extra bylaws (such as sidewalk riding or helmets) which are not outlined in the state law but can be enforced in a town or county. Most of all, ride safely and keep your wits about you to ensure that you can keep riding whenever you want!