Bicycle laws in the United States - past, present, and future.

Author:McLeod, Ken
Position:I. Traffic Laws for Bicyclists E. Sidewalk Riding Laws through Conclusion, with footnotes, p. 894-920
  1. Sidewalk Riding Laws

    What I call "sidewalk riding laws" are laws that dictate whether bicyclists can ride on sidewalks and what their rights and duties are while on a sidewalk. (145) This is an area of bicycling-related law that is often unclear because most states have not passed laws specifically stating when a bicyclist can be on a sidewalk and how a bicyclist should behave when on a sidewalk. (146) No state explicitly bans bicycles from riding on sidewalks in all circumstances. However, eight states seem to ban them as vehicles: bicycles are defined as vehicles, and there is no more specific law to provide for bicycles being allowed on sidewalks. (147) In ten states it is unclear whether bicycles are prohibited from sidewalks because they are not defined as vehicles. Nevertheless, a bicyclist has all of the rights and all of the duties applicable to the driver of any vehicle except as to those provisions that by their nature can have no application, and vehicles are prohibited on sidewalks. (148) In eight states no law specifically regulates the use of sidewalks by bicycles or vehicles, meaning that bicyclists can presumably ride on sidewalks and perhaps other vehicles can be used on sidewalks as well. (149)

    Unfortunately, the ill-defined current state of sidewalk riding laws is not particularly aided by examining compilations of bicycle-related laws in the past. Traffic Laws Annotated in 1979 notes that the UVC adopted substantially new rules governing bicycles on sidewalks in its 1975 version. (150) The rules adopted in the 1975 version of the UVC have remained unchanged through the 2000 version of the UVC. (151) Ten states had adopted at least part of the UVC rules by 1982. (152) Another examination, by NHTSA in 2002, found sixteen states to have similar laws. (153) Today, twenty-three states have some version of a sidewalk riding law that allows sidewalk riding. (154)

    There does not seem to have been a wave of adoption of sidewalk riding laws, perhaps suggesting that states do not feel that these are important rules, that the current model rules are not appropriate, or that states are not the right jurisdiction for setting these rules. The fact that nineteen states have provisions in their law that contemplate local restrictions, signage, or other geographic specific rules suggests that states feel this is a local matter. (155) This is also supported by the fact that this type of rule was initially included in the Model Traffic Ordinances published by NCUTLO rather than the UVC. (156) The reality for bicyclists is that they must be aware of local laws, even in states with statewide laws. This situation undermines the uniformity of traffic laws sought for in the UVC and sought for many state traffic rules. It may open the door to discriminatory or unfair enforcement of laws against bicyclists (157) and contribute the societal confusion about where bicyclists are supposed to ride. (158)

    It is unfortunate that more states have not adopted rules regarding sidewalk riding and that current rules contribute to the confusion about whether bicyclists can ride on sidewalks. Laws for bicyclists on sidewalks are necessary because bicyclists are drawn to sidewalks for utility and for safety. Utility is somewhat obvious, as destinations and bicycle parking are usually on sidewalks. (159) Safety can be more contentious, but is often given as a reason for choosing to use a sidewalk. (160) Both bicyclists and pedestrians have a common fear for their safety from cars, (161) but on sidewalks bicyclists are the biggest, heaviest, and fastest objects, and laws can give them the responsibility to act more like mechanized pedestrians than cars with special rights. States should provide rules for bicyclists on sidewalks so that bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists can have a common understanding of what acceptable bicyclist behavior looks like.

    Laws should strive to provide a clear indication to bicyclists that they are guests on sidewalks meant for pedestrians, and more dangerous users on shared use paths where they mix with pedestrians. High quality bicycle lanes may mitigate the need for sidewalk riding, (162) but bicyclists will always find reasons where it is sometimes convenient to use a sidewalk. Simpler, and more uniform, laws coupled with education will do more to mitigate any dangers to pedestrians caused by bicyclists than the creation and adoption of more complicated or prohibitory laws. (163)

    When the law shifts between local jurisdictions, or within the central business district of a jurisdiction, it becomes extremely difficult for bicyclists, and others, to be aware of the sidewalk riding law that applies to bicyclists. (164) Signage may help, but it seems technically difficult to provide information to bicyclists, who can move in any direction and access sidewalks anywhere a pedestrian can. Signage that tells bicyclists that they are not allowed on sidewalks may not be intuitive for bicyclists, who are sometimes told by motorists to use the sidewalk (165) and who must go on a sidewalk to park in most circumstances. When bicyclists find themselves on a sidewalk, signage telling them they cannot be there is unlikely to make them choose to use a road that they feel is unsafe and does not necessarily signal to them how to behave appropriately while on the sidewalk. (166) Prohibition alone does not address the actual experience of bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists, and it does not create a shared understanding that helps people behave safely.

    Traffic laws for bicyclists are important so that bicyclists can safely and predictably follow traffic laws. Good traffic laws for bicyclists help bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists have shared expectations of proper behavior and should be based on data, or at least experience. Most of the evolution of traffic laws for bicyclists has occurred due to states modifying laws originally written primarily for motor vehicles so that they address issues experienced by bicyclists. In most cases this has meant modifications that give bicyclists more control over where they ride and relaxing the prescriptive rules that were put in place to keep bicyclists out of the way of motor vehicles. Helmet laws and sidewalk riding laws are examples of traffic laws being created for situations that only, or mostly, (167) apply to bicyclists. These laws have not been as widely adopted as the early prescriptive laws. While I would like to see more evidence that mandatory helmet use laws accomplish their purpose of increasing safety, it is good to see traffic laws written with bicyclists specifically in mind and tailored to the situations bicyclists face. I hope that the trends discussed in this section continue and that this discussion helps policymakers considering how to regulate bicyclist behavior in the future.


    Treating bicycles as vehicles has sometimes been used to promote the idea that bicycles do not need any special accommodations. More recently, there has been recognition of the risks imposed on bicyclists and other non-motorized road users by motorists. This has led to the creation of laws focused on motorist behaviors when they interact with bicyclists and other people who are not in motor vehicles while on our roads. This Part will look at two types of laws that regulate driver and vehicle occupant behavior and that have been adapted to provide additional protections for bicyclists, pedestrians, and other people outside of vehicles, and at one type of law that provides different penalties for crashes that involve a non-motorized road user.

  2. Safe Passing and "Three-Foot" Laws

    Laws that require an overtaking vehicle to pass at a safe distance to the left of an overtaken vehicle have existed since at least the original UVC in 1926, (168) but laws focused on the safety of overtaken bicyclists have taken more time to be adopted. In 1972, all of the states except for Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia required that vehicles pass at a safe distance to the left. (169) On the other hand, Wisconsin is credited as the first state to pass a law requiring motor vehicles to pass bicyclists at a safe distance of no less than three feet in 1973. (170) During this same time period, Massachusetts also passed a safe passing law specifically targeted at motorists passing bicyclists. (171)

    There is little information available on safe passing laws for motorists overtaking bicyclists until almost forty years after the first one was adopted. Laws that defined a safe passing distance for motorists overtaking bicyclists were not promoted or comprehensively examined by Kearney in 1982, Scheib in 1998, or NHTSA in 2002. (172) The first compilation of state safe passing laws that defined a safe distance for a motorist overtaking a bicyclist did not appear until 2011, (173) although there were earlier online compilations that did not define safe distance. (174)

    In the intervening years, without apparently much official prompting, (175) bicycling advocates successfully enacted "three foot passing" laws that defined a safe passing distance of three feet in eighteen states and the District of Columbia. (176) In 2014, these "defined distance" laws reached the milestone of being the law in more than half the country. (177) Oregon and Rhode Island take an alternative approach, setting a safe distance as "a distance that is sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the driver's lane of traffic," (178) sometimes called a "fall over" distance standard. (179) This trend has been strong, with at least one state adopting a three-foot passing law in every year since 2006. (180)

    The rise of "three-foot passing" laws has not been without problems. Although defining a measurable standard distance seems like a good way to increase the enforceability of a safe passing law, most states have...

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