Reforming Bicycle Traffic Laws

by Fred Oswald, Chuck Smith, Riley Geary, John Schubert,
Paul Schimek, Sarah Etter, Steve Gottlieb, Kirby Beck, Preston Tyree,
Ray Thomas, Alan Wachtel, Steve Magas

Related Links

State Laws

Right to the Road Cases
Cyclist Legal Defense
Rating local bike laws
Model Municpal Bicycle Code
How to

Yes, you can fight city hall** and your state legislature.

"I don't want to see Brook Park get an F in anything."

--- Councilman Danny Colonna of Brook Park, Ohio, on why his city voted to improve its bicycling ordinances in response to a failing grade from a local bike law reform project.

** Actually we didn't "fight" city hall in Brook Park.  We published a critical review of the bicycle ordinances to get their attention, then we worked with city government to make the laws better.  When the problems were fixed, the Ohio Bicycle Federation presented a "Good Cycling Laws" award to the city.  Everyone won this "fight".
--- Fred Oswald, leader of a law reform project in NE Ohio.

And you'll improve conditions for cycling.

Better traffic laws make cycling safer and more enjoyable.

What's Wrong With Bicycle Traffic Laws?

Traffic laws are supposed to promote your safety if you obey them, and protect your rights if someone else causes a collision.  The core principles of traffic law do this very well for both motorists and cyclists, but there are many add-ons in bicycle traffic law that degrade both our safety and our rights.

There is no federal traffic law.  Traffic law is a state function, and the troublesome add-ons are state (and local) laws.

This is not a problem for motor vehicle operators.  Motor vehicle traffic laws are generally uniform throughout the 50 states.  A motorist traveling from state to state need not learn a new set of laws with each border crossing.  Also, local authorities have only limited powers to enact special ordinances and notice must be given via signs.  The standard traffic laws promote safe practices.

Cyclists do not enjoy this uniformity or benevolence of bicycle operation laws.  State laws differ widely and local laws are often loose cannons aimed at our rights.  Well-meaning but misguided lawmakers treat cyclists like children.  Moreover, many troublesome laws betray a lack of knowledge of the actual causes of bicycle crashes.

Many state and local laws trample cyclists' rights.  We are treated as incompetent children and third-class citizens.  Some laws forbid cycling on roadways, but instead direct us to use more dangerous facilities such as sidewalks and pathways beside the road.  Other directives confine us to the edge of the road, even where the road edge may not be safe.  In many states, local ordinances form a crazy-quilt of dangerous and discriminatory rules that vary from community to community and that conflict with the known best practices of bicycling safety.

The safest way to operate a bicycle is as the lawful driver of a vehicle.  This means riding on the roadway while following the same traffic rules as other drivers.  Cyclists who operate this way have one-fifth the accident rate of the average bicycle operator.  Paradoxically, the best and safest practices are sometimes prohibited while dangerous mistakes of novices are encouraged.

Why are traffic laws important to cyclists?

The safety and mobility of cyclists depends on equitable traffic law.  Traffic laws influence:

What's Being Done to FIX the Problem?

Starting in 2002, a small committee has been working on improvements to bicycle traffic laws.  Below is a capsule of what we've been doing:

(A)  First we studied the current UVC (Uniform Vehicle Code) to identify deficiencies from the standpoint of safe, efficient and equitable use of roadways for cycling.  We developed "Model Laws" starting with portions of the UVC.  (We "incorporate by reference" the portions we find good.)  This model is the standard against which laws of the various states, and the existing UVC are rated.  We consider any rules that impact cyclists, not just those specific for cycling.  For example, the "slow vehicle rule", 11-301(b) in addition to the bicycle "far right rule", 11-1205(a). See our proposed Model Laws, which explains how these two rules affect cyclists.

(B)  In developing ratings, we briefly describe problems and determine how serious they are.  A really dangerous law, such as mandated riding on the left (wrong-way), or that requires riding on sidewalks, is treated much more seriously than "nuisance" requirements for ineffective safety equipment such as a bell or front reflector.

To calculate a score, we start with 100 points and then deduct for the defects.  We may add a few points for any good features not in the model.  For example, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Arizona and Idaho have a good "bicycle drivers' manual", based on the booklet Bicycling Street Smarts by John Allen.  A good drivers manual, besides being a great teaching tool, defines proper cycling practices.  This helps police and the courts to interpret the law so that it enhances safety.  Police training is an essential element.

After we total up the score, we assign a letter grade (on an A-F scale).  More information about this process can be found in Criteria for Rating Bicycle Traffic Laws.  Most states that we have examined are worse than the UVC; many rate lower than "C" and several fail.  (We would not bother to do a project like this if there were not serious problems.)

The UVC gets a grade of B-minus.

(C)  Paul Schimek's article "A Guide to Improving U.S. Traffic Laws Pertaining to Bicycling" gives more information about the philosophy behind traffic laws, especially from a knowledgeable cyclist's perspective.

(D)  We have started rating state laws against our standard, beginning with some of the states near where committee members live or from where others have sent us data.  You can see preliminary ratings (in pdf files) for states shown below.  Note, this is a work in progress.  Thus, as we work on various parts of the project, you may find inconsistencies between these ratings.

Preliminary Bicycle Traffic Law Summaries & Ratings

Note: occasionally revise some of the criteria, thus some ratings change.  We have incomplete information for many of the states.  We need help to go further.  (See below.)

Ohio passed major reforms that became effective 21 Sep 2006.

(E)  As we work on other states, we seek input from the larger cycling community to include any concepts that did not occur to our small group.  If you wish to help, see below.

(F)  Once we get several states rated we can begin to write articles publicizing the work and pointing out where and why improvement is needed.  We expect this project will be tremendously useful to state cycling organizations trying to improve their state laws or to stop a proposed bad law.

Ultimately, it is up to state organizations to get problems fixed.  This article is intended to be a reference.

(G)  We hope to finish the project to encompass all 50 states.

(H)  Over time, revise the ratings as (hopefully) laws are improved.  The ratings and supporting documents will be extremely useful whenever bad laws are introduced in some state legislature.  For example, an attempt to mandate wrong-way riding in Montana (2001) or an exorbitant bicycle license fee proposed for Vermont in 2003.

The committee is well along with tasks A, B and C above.  We have at least preliminary ratings for a few states (D above).

Most of the UVC rules that we used in this effort came from "PedBikeLaws" a database downloaded from the NHTSA Web Site.  We copied these to a file of excerpts from the UVC.  We also added a few rules from printed copies of the UVC that were missing from PedBikeLaws.

Related Projects to Improve Cycling Laws

How Cyclists Can Help

If you have read Parkinson's Laws, you know that the committee must be small to be efficient.  But we need working task groups and individuals to get information from around the country.

We solicit input from the broad cycling community.  As we evaluate each state, we hope to have a state resident to help rate the laws.

If you want to help, first contact this author,  (No point in duplicating work that someone else might be doing.)  Then, get an up-to-date copy of your state's laws.  You can find information on state traffic laws on the website.  Read the examples in the links above to see how we work this project.

Copy your state's laws to a working file and then copy laws of interest to a "template" file (rich text format) for the rating.

We need to look at ALL traffic laws, not just the bike ones.  In many states, specific (and often bad) rules can be found in a "bicycle section".  But we must also search for the word "bicycle" in the entire traffic code to check for other rules.

For example, the Ohio Revised Code includes two places (outside the bike section) where local authorities are given powers for "regulating the operation of bicycles."  These were serious defects (until the recent reforms).  See 4511.07 "Local traffic regulations" and 4511.711 "Driving upon sidewalk area."  The reforms allow local regulations only so long as they are not "fundamentally inconsistent with the uniform rules of the road" and "no such regulation shall prohibit the use of bicycles on any public street or highway."

Review your state vehicle code for regulations that should apply only to motor vehicle operators and thus not to cyclists, and see whether your state's laws are written properly, so as to exclude cyclists from those laws.  These regulations include "following too closely", racing prohibitions, and any requirement for continuous turn signals among many others.

Bike = Vehicle?  To be or not to be?

All 50 states fall into one of two categories:  either they define the bicycle as a vehicle, or they give the cyclist the rights and responsibilities of a vehicle operator when operating the bicycle on the roadway.  Either of these can be good for cyclists, but it depends on other aspects of the vehicle code.

Occasionally, we hear from people who believe all 50 states should define the bicycle as a vehicle.  This seems to make sense, because a bicycle is actually a vehicle and because "Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles."

To this we say, "Be careful what you ask for."  This is not a matter of changing one line in the vehicle code, but rather a matter of going through the code line by line and possibly making dozens of changes, all of which must be approved by numerous large committees.  Once you start this process, there is a substantial danger that mistakes, mischief and mediocrity will make things worse than they were to begin with.  So unless you find your state code is squeaky-clean of these problems, stick with the format your state already has, and make the best of it.

Things to check for

Many states require brakes that can make the "braked wheel skid".  Besides encouraging irresponsible operation, this is impossible to meet for the front wheel of most bicycles.  The UVC has a much better rule (stop in 15' from 10 mph.)  Some states have a stricter brake requirement that may be troublesome for a rear-brake-only bike. [1]

In addition check that a right turn hand signal may be given by the right hand and arm, not just the left.  Finally, state laws are unlikely to include the following (these are not currently in the UVC):

We generally oppose laws requiring wearing of helmets, mainly because this creates too much emphasis on "safe crashing" rather than "not crashing".  Helmet laws may also deny a cyclist the right to compensation from negligence of a motorist, because of "contributory negligence".  In addition, we have seen evidence that any safety benefits from increased helmet use are overwhelmed by the loss of health benefits to persons discouraged from cycling by such rules.

Follow-on Projects:

(A.)  Write up standards for police training and for equitable law enforcement.  This should be coordinated with the International Police Mountain Bike Assoc.  There is a very promising National Police Bicycle Awareness Curriculum, developed through a grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

(B.)  Write up a position paper that can be used as support for cyclists wrongly accused of traffic offenses (such as Selz in Ohio, Clark in Michigan and several from the Boston area).  We should get advice from attorneys experienced in defending cyclists (such as Steve Magas of Cincinnati, Ray Thomas of Portland and Andrew Fisher of Boston).  In addition, attorneys should be taught best cycling practices.

(C.)  Support state organizations trying to get state versions of the booklet Bicycling Street Smarts by John Allen.  This booklet is a significant help to interpret bicycle traffic laws in a manner consistent with the best and safest practices.  It has been adopted as a "bicycle driver's manual" in PA, OH, FL, AZ, ID and pending in other states.

(D.)  Look at what are appropriate penalties for serious traffic offenses (e.g. hit-and-run, vehicular homicide, vehicular assault, reckless driving).  At present, the penalties for many of these crimes are far too trivial to act as much of a deterrent to dangerous drivers.  Only recently Maryland finally reclassified fleeing the scene of a crash (i.e. hit-and-run) as a felony (it had been just a misdemeanor, even where fatalities were involved).


[1] A handy way to compare brake specifications is to express the performance in terms of "g" (Earth's gravitational constant).  The UVC requirement (stop in 15' from 10 mph on flat, dry, level pavement) is equal to 0.22 g.  This is calculated from the formula:

        a = -V^2/(2*D)

        a = acceleration (a negative number for stopping)
        V = initial speed and ^2 means to square V
        D = stopping distance
        g = gravitational constant = 32.2 feet/sec-squared

The UVC requirement (15 feet from 10 mph) computes as follows:
V = 10 mph (multiply by 5280/3600 to convert this to 14.67 fps), thus
a = -(14.67)^2 / (2*15) = -7.17 f/s^2 or -0.22 g

John Forester determined [2] that a rear brake alone on a typical bike is capable of about 0.3 g (then the wheel skids).  He also found that the maximum deceleration possible from the front brake is 0.67 g (then the bike will pitch over).  With both brakes, the limit is still 0.67 g (at the limit, the rear brake contributes nothing).  A typical cyclist on a bike with dual brakes is doing well to produce 0.5 g.

Forester measured the heat dissipation ability of rim brakes vs. coaster brakes on a 2040 ft. descent.  He found that rim brakes did not reach an excessive temperature but the coaster brakes burned-up completely. See "Safe" Brakes that Burn Up.

The previous version of the UVC (prior to year 2000) required brakes that could stop in 25 feet from 10 mph, or 0.13 g.  The Pennsylvania brake requirement is 15 feet from 15 mph (0.5 g).  This may be impossible for rear-wheel-only brakes (i.e. coaster brakes).

[2] See Forester's discussion on bicycle brakes on page 36 of Effective Cycling, MIT Press, 1993.

© Copyright 2002-2012 Fred Oswald and Bicycle Law Reform.
Material may be copied with attribution.
For comments, questions and especially offers to help, contact fredoswald_AT_yahoo_DOT_com.

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This page and documents linked from it will be revised occasionally as more state laws are rated.
Check for updates at
revised 18 Jun 2012