If you’re a cyclist, you’ve probably had to deal with motorists who don’t want to share the road. And if you’re a motorist, you’ve probably had to deal with cyclists who don’t want to obey traffic laws.
Although cyclists and motorists are sometimes at odds, the truth is that everyone has a right to use the public roadways. Whether you use the roads as a cyclist, motorist or pedestrian (or all three at various times), it’s important to learn the rights and responsibilities of each so that you can do your part to share the road and maintain safety.
If You’re a Cyclist
Sometimes cyclists act more like pedestrians, assuming they always have the right-of-way and using crosswalks to avoid traffic lights. But in the eyes of the law, you are legally operating a vehicle and are responsible for complying with all traffic laws. This means you must yield to pedestrians, signal before turning, stop for stop signs and red lights, and travel with the flow of traffic. In the United States, this means traveling in the same direction as other vehicles—on the right-hand side of the road.
If bicycle lanes are available, cyclists should make every effort to use them. If you are riding in a bike lane and need to turn left (which may require that you cross traffic flowing in the same direction as well as the opposite direction), signal first and wait for an opening before you steer into the main traffic lane.
Note that on many roadways, bike lanes are not available and cyclists and motorists must share the same lanes. Slower traffic (i.e., bicycles) should stay to the right, allowing faster traffic (i.e., motor vehicles) to pass when it is safe to do so. However, if the road is narrow, cyclists should ride in the middle of the lane rather than to the right. This will notify the motorists behind them that it is s unsafe to pass.
In addition, because cyclists are considered vehicle operators, they must yield to pedestrians. In most places, it is illegal for cyclists to ride on sidewalks because sidewalks are for pedestrians. If you’re cycling in an area in which cycling is allowed on the sidewalk, you must still watch carefully for pedestrians and yield the right-of-way to them.
And remember, if you get off your bike and walk alongside it, you are a pedestrian and, at that point, you have the rights and responsibilities associated with pedestrians.
If You’re a Motorist
Although motorists must yield to pedestrians, they should treat cyclists as fellow drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In some cases, that may require patience, as bicycles usually travel slower than other cars on the road. But safe driving always requires a measure of patience, whether it’s because you’re sharing the road with a cyclist or traveling behind a trailer with a wide load or stuck in a traffic jam.
Of course, as a motorist, you can pass slower traffic in the left lane, but only when it’s safe to do so. If you try to pass a cyclist on a narrow roadway without a shoulder, you could potentially run the cyclist off the road, causing injury or death. So instead, slow down and wait to pass when it’s safe: A good rule of thumb is to allow a cyclist at least three feet of space when passing.
You’ll also want to avoid following cyclists too closely, or using your horn when you are immediately behind them. The noise is likely to alarm the cyclist and could cause a crash. Instead, try to be patient and view the cyclist as a legitimate roadway user, just as you would a slow-moving motor vehicle.
If bike lanes are available, remember that they are primarily for the use of cyclists. However, if you’re turning right, you may use the bike lane as needed. First, check for bikes approaching in the bike lane. If the way is clear, you may move into the bike lane to turn right.
And as always, avoid distracted driving. Performing any activity while driving—including adjusting the radio or temperature controls or eating—can impair your ability to drive safely. Every day, more than 1,100 accidents are reported and more than eight people are killed due to distracted driving in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Don’t use your mobile phone or other device while driving and remain as vigilant as possible, keeping in mind that cyclists and pedestrians might suddenly appear on the road.
If You’re a Pedestrian
When traveling by foot, you are considered a pedestrian, even if you are walking alongside your bicycle. This means that if there is no sidewalk and you are forced to walk in the street, you must travel against the flow of traffic in order to see the vehicles coming toward you. In the United States, this means walking along the left side of the road. If a sidewalk is available, use the sidewalk to maintain safety.
Even though cyclists and motorists are supposed to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians, everyone makes mistakes. Take your safety into your own hands by looking both ways before crossing the street, even if the traffic signal gives you the go-ahead to cross. Always give special attention to vehicles that are turning. Make eye contact with their drivers before crossing to ensure that they not distracted.
Whether you are a cyclist, motorist, or pedestrian, you have a right to use the public roadways. But with that right comes the responsibility to use the roads safely in accordance with the law.