Rules Of The Road
What cyclists and motorists should know about sharing the streets
Now that we’ve covered how to behave on the trails, it’s time to tackle the roads.
I suspect many of you are at least a little intimidated by riding in traffic. Well, I’m here to tell you that while those fears are not entirely unreasonable, it is possible to ride on local roads safely. A few basic rules, some common sense, and a state of constant alertness will serve you well. I can't possibly cover everything you need to know here, but I'll cover some basics and point you toward some other sources of good information.
The first thing you have to get used to is the idea that bicycles have most of the same rights and responsibilities on the road that cars have. This means:
- You must obey all traffic signals and signs, just like a car.
- Stop at all stop signs and red lights
- Wait for the light to turn green before proceeding.
We’ve all seen bicyclists ignore these rules, and I’d wager we’ve all felt anger and frustration at such behavior. This sort of behavior is not just rude, I believe it creates even more friction between motorists and cyclists, something none of us need. More importantly, it is just plain dangerous. Running a red light or stop sign is a very good way to cause an accident, very likely with the cyclist getting the worst of the situation.
Road position and how to behave at intersections is an area of some confusion and misunderstanding among both cyclists and motorists. The law essentially says that cyclists must ride on the right hand side of the roadway, WITH the flow of traffic. Riding against traffic increases the effective speed of impact if you are hit by a car. For example, if the car is going 35 mph, and you’re going 10 mph, riding with traffic makes the effective impact 25 mph, while riding against traffic makes it 45mph. In addition, a cyclist riding against traffic approaches intersections from a direction motorists don’t expect, and are always in a more dangerous position than a cyclist riding with traffic.
The law also states that if a cyclist is riding at a speed that is less than the “normal speed of traffic” at a given time and place, they are required to ride as far to the right as is practicable*. That does NOT mean you must always hug the curb or ride in the gutter. If you are riding at the same speed as traffic around you (not hard in heavy, slow-moving traffic), you are allowed to “take the lane” and ride with motorists. If there are hazards near the edge of the road, you may ride further to the left as well.
Cyclists are also expected to obey turn lanes in the same manner as cars.
- When turning left, use a left turn lane when available, or position yourself on the left edge of the lane if there isn’t a turn lane.
- When passing straight through an intersection with a right turn lane, stay OUT of the right turn lane and use the through lane.
It takes a little getting used to -- taking your place in the road where you belong -- but it is ultimately the safest way to ride.
Finally, the law and common sense dictate that you must signal your intentions to other road users. Most of us have probably never used the hand signals we were taught in driver’s ed while driving, but they are useful and essential for a bicyclist.
- The standard hand signal for turning left is extending your left hand out fully, as if pointing, to the left.
- To signal a right turn, the “official” approach, based on automotive use, is to extend your left upper arm straight out, with your elbow bent such that your forearm is pointing straight up. From a practical standpoint, most cyclists find it easier and clearer to simply “mirror” the left turn signal, that is, extending the right arm out to the right to signal a right turn.
- The “stopping” or “slowing” signal, with the upper left arm straight out, forearm pointed down, is honestly not used that much by cyclists, but it’s a good one to know and use from time to time.
It takes some practice, and yes, a certain amount of courage to venture out on the roads for the first time, but it’s very often the best way to get where you need to go. Trails can only take you so many places, and if you want to use your bike for more than recreation (which I strongly urge), then you owe it to yourself to learn how to safely navigate the roads.
Some additional tips and information:
- VDOT has a page on traffic law specific to bicyclists.
- Washington Area Bicyclist Association has a wealth of information and also works for cyclists' rights in the region.
- John Allen has published a great booklet that is available online here.
Be alert, be safe, and have fun out there!
*This sentence has been edited to reflect the language of the traffic law.