There is often some confusion around where cyclists are allowed to ride, and in this case, it’s not so much which part of the road, but which side.
The reason for this is because cyclists and pedestrians are supposed to be opposite one another, which may not seem intuitive, but there are good reasons for it.
One of the early questions which cyclists ask is which side of the road should they be riding on to both be legal and safe?
The short answer is that pedestrians should walk against traffic and cyclists should bike with traffic. (In other words, you should always ride to the right).
Now, in the case of pedestrians, if there’s a sidewalk, it hardly matters since the sidewalk is meant to protect the pedestrian anyway.
But cyclists don’t have that protection since their bike lane (assuming there is one at all) is on the same level as the road and is rarely separated by anything save paint.
Why is it safer for cyclists to ride with traffic?
- It’s much easier to blend in with the traffic and help it flow easily when you are going the same direction as those around you
- Motorists will have an easier time seeing cyclists in front of them rather than sneaking up behind them, cutting down on the number of traffic accidents.
- There is a right-hand bias which means that people tend to expect to see other people to their right (or traveling right) and so the brain shortcuts to check for trouble to the right, not to the left. It’s, therefore, safer to ride on the right because it’s more likely you’ll be seen on the right.
- And you’re less likely to crash into pedestrians because they will be (or should be) on the opposite side of the road in most cases since they travel against traffic rather than with traffic or better still, on a sidewalk where you shouldn’t be riding anyway! You’re also of course less likely to smack into other cyclists who are going the right way and will be irritated with you ‘salmoning’ (the term refers to going against the stream).
- Many accidents between bikes and cars occur when cars are entering or leaving roads at intersections and driveways. This can be cut down by making sure you ride on the right side because your actions become more predictable.
- Riding against traffic rather than with it reduces reaction time, again, causing accidents. Motorists can also be forced into making a choice of crashing into the cyclist or into another car in cases where the driver finds he has to pass. There’s no chance to slow down and wait until it’s safe to pass because the cyclist is clogging things up!
- If you’re riding on the wrong side, you won’t be able to see traffic signs and signals and that means you cannot obey them or be protected by them. And again, in places where bikes are considered vehicles, this can cause you to be ticketed as well.
- Headlights will blind you at night
- You’re more likely to get smacked by a car door opening around you which causes serious injury
All in all, it’s far safer to ride with traffic than it is to ride against traffic.
Remember that in many states, bikes are considered to be vehicles and so they have to adhere to the same rules of the road and the same predictable way of moving.
Cars in the United States all tend to go in straight lines and bikes that weave around are in greater danger of being struck!
Can I Be Ticketed for Riding On the Wrong Side?
You certainly can get a ticket for riding on the wrong side of the road, especially in any state where bikes are considered vehicles. Whether you will is another matter: it depends on the traffic officer, how dangerous you are riding, and whether you do it chronically.
It’s more likely you’ll get a warning (or glared at/sworn at/told off by drivers, other cyclists, and even pedestrians). It is certainly considered rude to ride on the wrong side of the road, even where you may not get ticketed.
So Why Do Some People Ride on the Wrong Side?
If it’s so much safer (and legal) to ride with traffic, why do some cyclists ride against traffic? Well, in many cases, it’s a matter of being taught the wrong way as children and then never learning any better.
Riding against traffic feels intuitively safer; we are told that by doing this, we are more visible to traffic and will, therefore, be safer.
The other major reason why people will risk injury or a ticket to ride on the wrong side is because of problematic infrastructure. Riders on the wrong side may feel that they were forced there because the route that was ‘legal’ was in too bad a shape to ride on, takes them a long ways out of their intended path to go from point A to point B or because the wrong path is better lit, flatter, easier to ride on or a myriad of other reasons.
After all, most people don’t really want to do something that is very unsafe, but if the alternative is worse than the risk, there is a certain amount of weighing which happens, and the result can be a rider on the wrong side.
Of course, it’s still wrong to do it, but when the difference can save you a ton of extra time and energy, it’s awfully tempting to take the shorter, but incorrect way!
We still wouldn’t endorse going the wrong way. It’s illegal, far more dangerous to yourself and those around you, and while it may seem less risky at the time, hindsight may prove you very wrong.
With cycling becoming more common, there is an increased need to understand and follow the rules of the road for the sake of everyone around you.
For cyclists, one of the easiest things you can do is make sure you are riding with traffic rather than against it. It’s safer, far more polite, and it’s the legal thing to do. Ride safe!
Head on over to our Bike Laws section if you want to check out the various laws for your particular state.