When we think of getting a ticket from a police officer, we most often think of automobile tickets for things like speeding, drunk driving, and broken signal lights. However, cyclists are not immune from getting tickets for their own moving violations.
Even though a bike is not really much like a car, cyclists still have to be cognizant of many of the same potential violations they can pull down on their heads which results in a ticket.
The tricky part is that on the federal level, there are very few violations, but on a state or local level, there can be many opportunities for pitfalls.
It is extremely important to check your local laws before riding to make sure you know what is expected of you.
That being said, there are a few commonalities across state lines and observing them will make it far less likely that you will be ticketed.
Some bikes have turn signals, but cyclists are still required to use the proper hand signals when turning, stopping, or changing lanes while they ride. This helps to warn other cyclists, vehicles, and pedestrians of the intent of the cyclist. Failure to do so often results in tickets, not to mention the increased chance of an accident.
Hand signal meanings are universal:
- Right hand extended straight out: a right turn, right lane change
- Right hand bent upward 90 degrees at the elbow: Left turn, left turn change
- Right hand bent downward 90 degrees at the elbow: Stopping
Lights and Reflectors
Pretty well every state in the country does require that a bike have red lights/reflectors on the back and white light lights on the front. Many states will also advise the use of side reflectors on the pedals, but a lack of side reflectors is not grounds for a bicycle ticket moving violation.
The smaller details such as from how far away the reflectors are visible vary a bit from state to state, but generally speaking, being visible from at least five hundred feet is common and advisable.
Lights and reflectors have caused the occasional mix-up between cyclists and police. Reflectors must be used on bikes, but only when they are being ridden at dusk, overnight, or during dawn (it’s common for the law to cover a half hour before dark, full dark, and a half hour before sunrise).
Some municipalities also enforce the use of lights and reflectors when the weather is bad and makes lighting dim. However, if you were riding your bike in the daylight, you should not be cited for not having reflectors. This tends to come up with older bikes as newer ones all have reflectors built into them already. (We have a page here on our recommended bike lights)
Where You Can Ride
The question of where cyclists are allowed to ride is really what gets people tangled up in bicycle ticket moving violations, with both riders and often police, confused.
It doesn’t help that many cities do not have much in the way of bicycle lanes or bike paths and even when they do, it’s rarely enforced for cyclists to stay in their lanes and cars to stay out of their lane (especially in the winter when there’s snow).
There are a few things you can do to help prevent trouble for yourself and others in terms of accidents as well as saving some money on tickets.
- Sidewalk riding: Unless you can find (and are willing to carry) the bylaws that say otherwise, assume that you’re not allowed to ride on sidewalks unless you’re a child. Pay close attention to the signs in your city though as some cities allow you to ride on sidewalks, but not on certain streets! Generally speaking though, riding on the sidewalks will increase the chances of a violation, not to mention annoy the pedestrians around you. If you do have to ride on the sidewalk, make sure to go slowly and warn pedestrians that you’re coming. Most cities that do allow sidewalk riding also stipulate that you have to walk your bike across crosswalks.
- Bike lanes. Where bike lanes are provided, it’s a very good idea to use them. Most cities won’t force cyclists to ride on them, but they are safer and if more cyclists use them, hopefully, that will encourage more cities to build them.
- Riding on streets. Wherever bikes are considered to be vehicles (which is in many states and will be charted below), they have every right to be on the road with traffic. Cyclists must ride as far to the right as possible though and can only ride away from the right if riding to the right would be too unsafe (such as debris, moving vehicles, pedestrians, animals, other cyclists, etc.)
- Riding on the interstate: Mostly, it’s illegal to ride on the interstate. However, there are a few exceptions and will be explored in future blogs.
|State||Considered a Vehicle?|
|Arizona||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|Arkansas||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|California||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|Delaware||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|District of Columbia||Yes|
|Illinois||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|Indiana||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|Iowa||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|Kansas||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|Maine||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|Massachusetts||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|Michigan||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|Missouri||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|Nebraska||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|Nevada||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|New Jersey||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|New Mexico||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|New York||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|South Carolina||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
|Vermont||There is no definition of a vehicle. Cyclists are considered vulnerable users with the same rights and duties as a driver of a vehicle.|
|West Virginia||No (but has all the rights and duties of a driver)|
Whether a bike is considered a vehicle or not is important because it often provides the grounds for fighting a traffic ticket or for police to issue one.
Obeying Traffic Signals
As bikes are considered vehicles one way or another (either absolutely yes, or no but with the same rights and duties), it follows that a typical way people get moving ticket violations is by not obeying traffic signals.
In particular, it’s common for cyclists to do things like go through stop signs, not stop at stop lights, and not yield properly. Any of these things are grounds for a ticket and the Idaho Stop may not be a good enough defense.
Many police officers and judges don’t know much about the Idaho stop and not every state allows it (in fact, the states that do tend to be in the minority and only under very select circumstances).
If you do get a ticket and you know that the Idaho Stop is legal in your state, be ready to back up your argument and be ready to pay the fine anyway.
In any event, even if you think the law is on your side, better to just obey all the traffic signals and avoid trouble.
Will Getting a Ticket on My Bike Affect My Status as a Driver?
A bike ticket should not show up on your driving record because you don’t need a driver’s license to ride your bike. The ticket should say bike or bicycle on it and if not, the court has to know that you were cited while riding your bike, not while driving.
Tickets can be challenged in court, but just like motor vehicle tickets, make sure you’ve done your homework before your court date and you may be able to get your fine reduced.
After your time in court is done and everything settles out, check your driving records just to be sure. Sometimes there’s a clerical error and you’ll have to contact the court again to get the citation removed.
Getting a ticket as a cyclist may seem like a faintly surreal experience, but it’s quite common and is most often caused by not signaling properly, riding on the wrong part of the street and not obeying the traffic signals (with that one being the most common).
Remember that bikes are generally considered vehicles or the cyclist at least is supposed to comport him/herself like a driver would and behave accordingly. If you do get a moving ticket violation, deal with it promptly and politely to minimize fees and know that it won’t have any impact on your driving record.
Above all, stay safe and aware on the road; that alone goes a long way towards preventing run-ins with the law.
If you want to be aware of all of the bike laws in your state, we have a whole page over here.