Bicyclists: You Are Traffic!

Bicyclists: You Are Traffic!

Steve Langendorfer, City of BG Bicycle Safety Commission

Did you know that when you ride a bicycle, scooter, golf cart, or even wheelchair on a designated street, you automatically become a “vehicle” just like an automobile, truck, or motorcycle? That means that according to the Ohio Revised Code, you have all the same rights and responsibilities of an automobile driver! We often call the responsibilities of driving “the Rules of the Road.” Do you know what those “Rules” are when applied to bicycles?

You probably actually know many of those rules just from being a passenger in a car. You may not realize that the first “traffic rules” were adopted in major cities in the early 1890s. They were originally intended to regulate how bicycles, not automobiles, should behave on the streets. In the late 19th Century bicycling had become a real transportation craze over a decade before motorized cars were common and they were causing problems by running into pedestrians and not moving in any orderly fashion. Today, we think of traffic rules, regulations, and laws as focused on motor vehicles, but that is a result of how dominant automobiles became in the Twentieth Century.

As a bicyclist, you must ride on the right and go the same way as the rest of traffic. On one-way streets, you can only ride in the same direction as the cars. No fair going against traffic: Not only is it illegal, it is also downright dangerous not to pedal with the direction of traffic! The Ohio Revised Code advises that bicycles and other human-powered vehicles should ride as far right on a roadway “as practicable.” Notice that it does not say “as far right as possible.” The subtle differences between “practicable” and “possible” are important. When a bicyclist rides right against the edge of the paved road, several dangerous things can happen. You can encounter loose gravel, litter, broken pavement, and drainage grates, all of which can cause you to take a disastrous spill onto the road or to need to swerve to avoid them which can take you unexpectedly into the path of a faster moving automobile. If you ride far to the right, it is also more likely that a motorist will try to pass you without maintaining the legal 3-foot distance – or they may not see you at all.

Where should you ride in the lane? We advise that you should ride where the right passenger side wheel of cars travel which takes you about 1/3 of the way out into the lane. Most people’s first reaction is that “cars will run me down” or “blow their horns and get mad.” Surprisingly, neither of those things is likely to happen. No motorist wants to run into another auto or a bicyclist. Think about it: it would ruin their whole day, not to mention delay them for a long time while an accident is being investigated. By riding in the passenger wheel path of the road, it becomes evident to motorists that they cannot pass you without moving into the other lane. By law, if a vehicle such as a bicycle is traveling 50% or less than the posted speed limit (e.g., 12.5mph on a 25mph speed limit street; 17.5mph on a 35mph speed limit street), it is absolutely permissible for an overtaking vehicle to cross a single or double yellow line, assuming the other lane does not have an oncoming vehicle. From my personal experience, few, if any, motorists get aggravated or blow their horns when following my bicycle. I do like to advise that if several cars do get backed up behind you and the oncoming lane is not open to allow passing, you may want to pull over momentarily and let the cars pass just as a common courtesy. When you do that, everyone is happy. You don’t have impatient cars wanting to pass and you don’t have to feel like you are being an obstruction.

What are some other common “Rules of the Road” that cars are expected to follow and that bicycles also should? One extremely important rule is “Come to a Complete Stop on Red.” This means that, just like automobiles, when you come to a traffic signal or a stop sign, you must stop, not just slow and roll through. Despite the general perception that only bicycles run stop signs, research has shown that in any given community, the tendency to roll through or run red lights is similar between cars and bikes! In communities with strong traffic enforcement, both cars and bicycles tend to come to complete stops. In other communities with lax enforcement, both cars and bikes tend to roll through stop signs and sometimes traffic signals.

It is important to know that research has shown that the most likely place for a car-bicycle accident to occur is at an intersection. It makes unfortunate sense that when different directions of travel cross, there is a greater chance for a crash or close call, especially if one or both vehicles don’t come to a complete stop and follow the rule of “right-of-way.” This “right-of-way” rule says when two vehicles arrive at an intersection at the same time, the one to the right should go first. This applies whether it is two cars or a car and a bicycle or even two bicycles.

Some people are so worried about riding in the road that they ride on the sidewalk. It seems safest on the sidewalk, doesn’t it? Did you know that over the past decade, around 90% of all bicycle-car crashes in Bowling Green have occurred when the bicycle is on the sidewalk?! The explanation is fairly obvious: motorists are not expecting bicycles on sidewalks. Compared with pedestrians, bicycles are moving at least 5 times faster than a walker. Also, when you are on the sidewalk do you realize that every driveway becomes a potential intersection? Cars backing out of the driveway or pulling in from the street usually are expecting only other cars and perhaps pedestrians, but not a quickly moving bicycle.

When driving an automobile it is well understood that you are expected to use your turning indicators when making a turn or changing lanes. While riding on a bicycle, you are required to do the same thing although many bicyclists do not seem to realize that necessity. Some modern bicycles actually do have electronic turning indicator lights, but the most effective strategy is to use your hand and arm. When turning or moving right, stick the right hand and arm straight out from the shoulder and point in the direction you intend to go. The same thing goes for a left turn except you use your left hand and arm straight out to the left. I believe a third hand signal, although rarely used, is particularly important. That is a slow or stop signal where you hold your arm straight down and at a slight angle with the palm facing back. On a bicycle it indicates the same thing as the brake lights of the car to alert a following vehicle that you are slowing and/or stopping. If you think about it, it is just common courtesy as well as important for safety to let other vehicles around you know the direction you intend to go and if you are changing your speed. Don’t make cars guess what you are going to do: show them with your arms! They will appreciate it and you will be much safer.

Some other bicycle-related aspects of the Ohio Revised Code include the need to have lights and reflectors on all bikes as well as a sounding device such as a bell or horn (but not a siren device!). Bicycles also need to have well-functioning brakes that can stop the bike on dry pavement. New LED light technology allows you to put a bright white front-facing and red rear-facing light that draws a minimum of battery charge. You may argue that you rarely ride after dark, but you still should have lights on your bike and you should use them in rainy, foggy, or other low-light conditions. Some bicycle safety advocates suggest you should always have your lights on for the same reason many automobiles drive with their lights one: to be seen! Being seen is a critical safety factor and nice bright LED light alert surrounding vehicles to your presence at quite a distance even in broad daylight. We also strongly recommend wearing brightly-colored garments especially those that have reflective tape on them.

I have discovered one other safety procedure that I try to use anytime I see an automobile in a driveway, parking spot, or at an intersection. Always try to make eye contact with the other driver! If you can see their eyes, it means they are able to see you as well. Whenever I encounter a car where the driver is not looking in my direction or they have tinted glass so that I cannot see the driver, I assume that they don’t see me, and I slow way down until they look at me. An automobile weighs hundreds of times more than you and your bicycle. In the case of an unfortunate collision, the bicycle and bicyclist always lose! Don’t be a loser!

Now, let’s see if you remember some of the Rules of the Road by trying out the following “friendly quiz.” The correct answers to each question appear after the last question.

  1. When riding a bicycle on a roadway, you are officially designated as
    1. A pedestrian
    2. A bicyclist
    3. A vehicle
    4. All of the above
    5. None of the above
  2. The original traffic “Rules of the Road” were created to regulate
    1. Horse and buggies
    2. Bicycles
    3. Trams and Trolleys
    4. Automobiles
  3. In the U.S., the most fundamental Rule of the Road for bicycles is
    1. Always ride to the right with traffic
    2. Never follow too closely behind cars
    3. Be nimble and weave through traffic
    4. Don’t take any guff from motorists
  4. Where is the optimal and safest part of the road lane for a bicyclist to ride?
    1. As far right and close to curb as possible
    2. In the middle of the road (e.g., between two yellow lines)
    3. Staying on the sidewalk
    4. Following the path of the right side (passenger side) wheel of cars
  5. Where is the most likely place to experience a bicycle-automobile crash?
    1. Riding on the sidewalk
    2. Rolling through an intersection
    3. Where two roads intersect
    4. All of the above
    5. None of the above
  6. How can you keep safe in traffic?
    1. Wear bright reflective clothing
    2. Use hand signals to signal turns and stops
    3. Have lights and reflectors on your bicycle
    4. Follow rules of the road
    5. All of the above
  7. What are the primary laws governing traffic in Ohio?
    1. Local/city ordinances
    2. Federal regulations
    3. Ohio Revised Code
    4. The Law of the Jungle
    5. All of the above
  8. T F     Never take both hands off the handlebars under any circumstances.
  9. T F     A properly outfitted bicycle has lights, sounding device and functioning brakes.
  10. T F     Bicyclists do not have to follow the same rules of the road as automobiles


1: C; 2: B; 3: A; 4: D; 5: D; 6: E; 7: C; 8: T; 9: T; 10: F