Cycling and the Law: Where Does Education Begin?

Today, in honor of bike month on the Streetsblog Network,
we hear from a cyclist in Long Beach, California, who was forced into
the position of (unsuccessfully) educating a police officer about the
right of a bike to ride safely out of the door zone. This via the Long Beach Cyclists blog:

243671612_cef9ee7ae7.jpgWhat’s the law where you are? Photo by tandemracer via Flickr.

of the day. Hardly any traffic and I just got pulled over for not
riding on the "right side." I’m no racer but 15mph on 2nd Street isn’t
going that much slower than car traffic through there.

I tried to explain to the officer that any closer and I would be in the "door zone." He seemed nonplussed.

cited the vehicle code and told him that it said I was to ride to the
right as "practicable" which is a big difference than "possible",
because it was up to me to determine if there were any hazards. He
didn’t seem to care.

told him that I was riding exactly where the new sharrows would be on
2nd street in a few months. The new wha? I don’t see them now.

I was holding him up. Although I was on the right travel lane and he was on the left and he wanted me to know about it.…

about as law-abiding a cyclist as you can get in Long Beach. I ride in
the correct direction of traffic. I don’t ride on the sidewalk. One of
the first things I keep trying to advocate for is that we have to
educate the enforcement on the laws regarding bicycling. Maybe NOW
might be a good time to start.

Given the rising number of commuting and recreational cyclists in New York and elsewhere
around the country, and the welter of conflicting laws in different
states and municipalities, education of law enforcement (as well as
drivers and cyclists) on cyclists’ rights and responsibilities would
seem to be an obvious area for police departments to focus on.

But does anyone know of municipalities where this is actually happening in an organized way?

Bonus from bike lawyer Bob Mionske’s "Road Rights" column: a story
about an encounter between two cyclists and a cop on a rural Ohio road
in which a disagreement about the letter of the law escalated into
violence; and a thoughtful response from a cop who is also a cyclist, and who says, "Bike-friendly communities around the county were ‘built on sugar, not
salt,’ as they say in the South. They took time, planning and folks
willing to do the right thing; forcing legislation probably won’t get
us anywhere. You can make a law but if it’s unpopular, enforcing it is
something else, à la prohibition."

  • It’s worth mentioning in the Long Beach cyclist’s case that the issuing officer listed a CVC code that has to doe with equipment and nothing to do with riding right:

    21201(a): No person shall operate a bicycle on a roadway unless it is equipped with a brake which will enable the operator to make one braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement.

    It was pointed out that the officer will have the opportunity to “correct” the code when submitting the ticket for processing, but even so this discrepancy furter demonstrates the officer’s lack of understanding of the laws and could and should be used as cause for dismissal.

  • Stats Dude

    Yet in Treasure Valley, a League of American Bicyclist won his trial

    (begin quote)
    “…Both the judge and the prosecutor commented that it had been a learning experience for them, and while the judge acknowledged that Officer Lim was just trying to do his job, given that the law is less than clear about what is “as far right as practicable”, the final verdict was Not Guilty.

    After my trial there was a Sheriff’s department bike officer there who was talking to Craig Quintana from ACHD. The officer was interested in setting up some seminars for the Sheriff’s department so that we could explain what the League of American Bicyclists is trying to teach in the Smart Cycling program and why. He took Craig’s card and will contact him to see about setting something up. TVCA has also been in contact with the Sheriff’s department and we met with representatives during the April Board meeting. One of the goals from that meeting was for TVCA to try to set up some seminars for the Sherrif’s department to help the officer’s to better understand what we are trying to teach bicyclists and why. Hopefully with requests for the seminars coming from multiple fronts it will help to convince the decision makers that it would be a good thing.”

    (end quote)

  • I received an email from Chief Batts (Long Beach Chief of Police) to call the office and describe the incident. After doing so, I wrote this email to the Chief. Trying to make it into a teachable moment.

    Dear Chief Batts,
    I called and spoke with a Sergeant regarding the citation and he is looking into it. With regards to your incident, I don’t think that is the same “gentleman” we’re talking about. This incident occurred on Anaheim as he was commuting to work. He is also a trained cycling safety instructor.

    What I hope to come from all this is the start of a dialogue between the bicycle community and the police. I know that there are many lawless cyclists out there and they SHOULD be ticketed. Cyclists riding the wrong way. Cyclists blowing through red lights. Cyclists on the sidewalk. Cyclists under 18 riding with no brakes and a helmet. They should be ticketed. I think we have so many with an utter disregard of the law because there is NOT ENOUGH enforcement.

    That said, the police should also be sensitized to identify what is lawful and safe riding. Riding as far to the right as you can is NOT safe. Riding closer to the middle of the lane IS safe, it increases visibility, lets the rider avoid the door zone, etc., The phrasing in 21202 allows for this, cyclists only have to ride to the right as long as it is “practicable” (a big difference from “possible”). “Practicable” allows us to claim the lane when we deem it unsafe to ride to the right. Many cities make this point clear with signs that say “BIcyclists allowed full use of the lane.”

    I believe that the police is one of the most important keys to making Long Beach bicycle friendly. Without proper enforcement we will just see a rise in unlawful cyclists and more hostile interactions between motorists and cyclists that will escalate into violence (there are many incidents of this happening in Los Angeles right now). That is why it is paramount that officers on your force that work in areas with a high concentration of cyclists (downtown, Belmont Shore, CSULB) should receive training to differentiate when a cyclist is lawfully riding in the street (claiming the middle of the lane when need be) and when they are putting themselves and others in danger. Further, I would also like to see the bicycle mounted police follow the CVC. It is very difficult for me to defend my rights to a motorist who is yelling at me to “get on the sidewalk” or “you don’t belong here”, when the bicycle mounted police can often be seen riding on the sidewalk, against traffic or in the door zone.

    If you are willing, the bicycle advocacy group I work with, The Long Beach Cyclists, has trained bicycle safety educators from the League of American Bicyclists. We would very much like to set up a program with the police department to slowly train the force with issues regards to bicycles in traffic. The League offers a curriculum specially tailored to law enforcement. I think this would more quickly and efficiently make Long Beach more bicycle friendly than any thing else we can do.

    Thank you once again for responding to me personally. I hope you will seriously consider bicycle training for some of your force.

    Russ Roca

  • Russ, that’s an excellent letter you wrote.

    That sign used to illustrate this article, by the way, is illegal in California. California municipalities are forbidden by state law to enact any laws (and post signs to that effect) that are more restrictive than the state vehicle code.

  • Good on you for catching that illegal sign, Yokota.
    A neighboring city of Long Beach, Signal Hill, has illegal signs prohibiting cyclists from using the roadway on Hill St.

  • Sarah Goodyear

    Just to clarify, the sign is not from Long Beach…it’s a picture I pulled from Flickr to illustrate the confusing range of laws governing bicycles around the country. It was taken in Belle Meade, Tennessee.

  • Thanks Sarah,
    Regardless, Tennessee Vehicle Code 55-8-175 allows cyclists to ride as far right as “practicable”, not requiring them to be within 3 feet of the road edge.

  • Will Campbell

    I noticed in his letter to Chief Batts that Russ grouped “cyclists on the sidewalk” as a subset of those lawless who deserve ticketing. Is it indeed illegal in Long Beach to ride on the sidewalk? Because that’s one law that varies drastically between municipalities. For example it is legal to do so in the city of Los Angeles, but not in parts of Culver City, or all of Santa Monica or West Hollywood (though for a while there the WeHo city council was considering reversing that ordinance).

  • CA State law does not prohibit cyclists from using the sidewalk, but rather, allows municipalities to decide what is right for their community. A City cannot legally require cyclists to ride on a sidewalk, but can certainly say that they are not allowed.

    Long Beach municipal 10.48.070, makes it illegal to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in a business district; upon the sidewalks of bridges; in pedestrian underpasses; on pedestrian overpasses; upon sidewalks adjacent to any school building, church, recreation center, playground, or senior citizens’ residential development; within the area south of Ocean Boulevard between the Long Beach Museum of Art on the west and Bluff Park on the east; on the northerly side of the Downtown Marina mole which directly abuts said marina, between Gangway A and Gangway P.


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