Cyclists and motorists often come into conflict with each other when it comes to sharing the road and who can go where, when.
The problem, of course, is the fact that many motorists and cyclists do not have a full understanding of the rights and responsibilities of the other vehicles; particularly motorists who often view cyclists as pedestrians rather than ‘drivers’ in their own rights.
In turn, cyclists can come across as being rude, inobservant, and just plain dangerous to be around since they seem more unpredictable.
One of the areas where cyclists and motorists can really get into trouble is figuring out right of way. A big part of the issue is the fact that drivers of both bikes and cars don’t know and, in many cases, neither does the law, leading to conflict.
In fact, ‘right of way’ is less a law and more of a nebulous concept, so you can see where trouble will arise depending on how the cyclist is viewed.
Right of Way and Cyclists
So, do cyclists have the right of way? Well, it really depends on what else is going on. The United States, by and large, has no right of way given to any group in particular; instead, focusing on who has to give up the right of way to someone else.
The idea underpinning this is one of crash avoidance with the onus being put on drivers and cyclists to do everything they can to avoid conflict rather than be governed by overarching laws.
Still, there is one thing that we can hang on to when we look at the wherefores and hows of right of way: bicycles are almost always considered “vehicles” which means that they are subject to the same rules as other drivers and thus do not always have the right of way.
The right of way must be yielded to other drivers in these cases:
- At a yield sign
- Pedestrians always have the right of way when using a crosswalk
- People with visual disabilities and using a guide dog or a white cane have the right of way
- When using uncontrolled intersections if there is already a vehicle there
- At “T” intersections to yield to drivers on the through road
- When turning left
- When driving on an unpaved road that crosses over a paved road
- When returning to the road after a car is parked
- You also have to yield to the Driver on the Right, which is the rule that works on intersections where people arrive all at the same time.
Cyclists, just like motor vehicle drivers, should never insist on a right of way or assume that other drivers will ‘back down’ and act accordingly. The idea, of course, is that drivers and cyclists will behave in a civilized manner towards one another while sharing the road. And of course, the most important thing to keep in mind is to drive and ride in such a way as to prevent accidents.
The Importance of Being Predictable
One of the big complaints which many cyclists deal with is the fact that they do not behave in a predictable manner and thus are more likely to get hit.
Treating your bike as a vehicle for the purposes of understanding the right of way is one way that you can make yourself predictable. When others sharing the road don’t have to worry as much about you darting out in front of them, weaving around them, or generally being difficult to understand, it’s easier to be harmonious.
Being predictable means doing things like obeying traffic signals, using hand signals to show intent to turn, stop, or slow down, and yielding the right of way when required to pedestrians, other cyclists and other drivers.
The more predictable cyclists are, the less the chance is of injury and crashes and the more drivers will take cyclists seriously and be respectful.
Cyclists and Pedestrians
In many cases, the emphasis is placed on drivers-cyclists and who has the right of way. This is understandable since cars outweigh bikes by an order of magnitude (1-2 tons or more to twenty pounds!) However, it’s also important to consider cyclists and pedestrians since cyclist and pedestrian crashes can also lead to injury.
While cyclists and drivers are considered the same so far as road rules are concerned, pedestrians are meant to be in a different space. When it comes to pedestrians, the rule of thumb is that pedestrians always have the right of way, even if they ignore traffic signals.
This is not enshrined in law though; the understanding is that since bikes are considered vehicles and vehicles must yield the right of way to pedestrians, bikes have to as well. As a result, pedestrians are under no obligation to yield to cyclists and it makes more sense for cyclists to yield to them.
The exception to this is if the cyclist is on the sidewalk. There, cyclists are considered to be pedestrians and must behave as such. This can mean doing things like riding very slowly, walking across crosswalks and giving audible signals to pedestrians when passing them.
However, riding on sidewalks is highly discouraged and cyclists could get in trouble with police for doing it. It’s also not a practical or safe thing to do unless the roads are truly congested, unsafe or in bad shape since there is more opportunity to get into crashes.
Right of way rules can be confusing, mostly because there really isn’t any overarching law governing it. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you want to ride in such a way that you are predictable and observing the rules of the road the same way you would if you were driving a vehicle.
When in doubt, it’s always best to yield the right of way to someone else as it’s generally safer and won’t cost you much in time.
It’s also important to keep in mind the ‘Drivers to the Right’ rule which states that you must yield the right of way to the driver to the right of you if you arrive at the same time at an intersection as someone else. This rule is often forgotten by everyone and leads to frustration.
Understanding right of way may not seem important, but it’s one of the best ways to stay safe on the road, be a good ‘ambassador’ for other cyclists to make drivers more comfortable around them and keep the flow of traffic smooth.
Remember that bikes are considered vehicles, cyclists have the same rights and obligations to stay predictable, signal intent, and be safe, and when everyone observes who is going where, the roads become overall safer.
Be responsible, pay attention, and when in doubt, just let the car driver go!