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BlogCyclists' Right to the Road

“A Driver’s” (Windshield) Perspective

By August 18, 2011October 23rd, 20215 Comments

Any cyclist who has ever read an online news story about cycling is familiar with this phenomenon—the comments section, where drivers vent their fury at cyclists, regardless of facts or circumstances. In fact, the actual facts of the news story are as irrelevant to these internet-ragers as the law. The article could be about a law-abiding cyclist being hit by a law-breaking motorist, for example, or it could be about a law-abiding cyclist being assaulted by a motorist in violation of the law. No matter. The inevitable Pavlovian reaction from these rageaholics will be to recount how “this one time I saw some other cyclist break the law.”

Well, actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Usually they will claim that all (or almost all) cyclists always break the law.

Whatever. Apparently, that assertion completely explains why some other cyclist who was obeying the law should be run off the road. (Note to would-be vigilantes: This isn’t the wild west. It’s not your job to enforce the law, or worse, to enforce what you mistakenly believe the law to be, or what you think the law should be. That’s a job for the police. It’s your job to just focus on your driving.).

An example: Recently, WCTV (Thomasville, Georgia) posted a story about cyclists “[reminding] everyone on the road to be careful.” A reasonable person might think that would be a fairly non-controversial message, but predictably, it was just red meat to the cyclist-hating contingent. One commenter, with the nom de plume “A Driver,” observed

“As I do a bit of driving, buying gas and tags that pay for the roads, why should I give ride-of-way to something that doesn’t. Buy a tag and help pay for the roads then you can have equal rights on the roads”

This is a common argument in internet comments. The driver buys gas and tags “that pay for the roads.” Obviously, a cyclist doesn’t buy gas and tags. Therefore, the cyclist doesn’t pay for the roads (the argument goes).

Oh, where to begin?

First, note to “A Driver”: Well, at least you weren’t foaming-at-the-mouth internet-raging, but…it’s “right-of-way,” not “ride-of-way.” It means that a person who has right-of-way has a legal right to proceed in their direction of travel that others have a legal duty to respect. For example, when somebody has the right-of-way in an intersection, others at that intersection have a duty to yield to the person with the right-of-way. This isn’t a “cars-vs-bikes” issue, it’s a matter of the law governing the right of travel on public thoroughfares. This right of travel on public thoroughfares belongs to everybody, regardless of their mode of travel; rules on right-of-way establish who gets to proceed first. Thus, for example, a pedestrian legally crossing in a crosswalk has the right-of-way over any vehicles; a cyclist proceeding straight through an intersection has the right-of-way over an oncoming motorist making a left turn; and a motorist who has arrived at a four-way stop first has the right-of-way over a cyclist who arrives there second. Right-of-way is based upon the rule of law, not upon the vehicle—and that is true whether the person is a motorist, a cyclist, or a pedestrian.

Furthermore, right-of-way doesn’t belong to a motorist just because the motorist has “tags” and the pedestrian or cyclist doesn’t. It’s a legal right; sometimes you have the right-of-way, sometimes the other person has the right-of-way. It’s based on the law, not your personal beliefs about what the law should be. This means that the law, and not you, decides who has right-of-way. Of course, you could disregard the law and steal the cyclist’s right-of-way—which would make you, and not the cyclist, the law-breaker.

So, to answer your question: “Why should I give ride-of-way to something that doesn’t [buy gas and tags],” because the law says that when somebody else has the right-of-way, you must yield. Not “should” yield, but must yield.

Which brings us to your concluding argument: “Buy a tag and help pay for the roads then you can have equal rights on the roads.”

Actually, cyclists have a right to the road, regardless of whether or not you think they should, because the law says they have a right to the road. You don’t decide who has rights, the law decides, and under the law cyclists have had a legal right to the road since the 1880s. Not only that, but it was cyclists that led the way to pave the nation’s roads, beginning in 1880 with the Good Roads Movement. And today, cyclists pay for the roads just like everybody else, because just like everybody else, cyclists pay income tax, sales tax, property tax, and yes, even gas tax when they put gas in their cars.

It’s true that bicycles don’t have “tags,” but it’s also true that “tags” generally don’t pay for the roads. And while local and state governments are increasingly tacking additional fees onto vehicle registration fees in order to pay for road maintenance, let’s remember that bicycles don’t subject the roads to wear and tear. In these jurisdictions, motorists pay extra fees for wear and tear because the wear and tear on our roads is caused by motor vehicles.

And here’s something else that’s true: As soon as motor vehicles began to appear on our nation’s roads, pressure began to mount for motor vehicles to be registered, and their drivers to be licensed. Why? Because motorists began racking up a shockingly high body count from the moment they began appearing on our roads, and licensing requirements were seen as a way to limit the carnage inflicted upon the public. Cyclists were never subject to similar licensing requirements, because they never presented the same hazard to public health and safety. And that is still the case today. The argument that motor vehicle “tags” give motorists a legal right to the road that others don’t have gets the law exactly backwards: Motor vehicles, and their operators, have a revocable privilege to use the public thoroughfares. Cyclists, pedestrians, and other unlicensed travelers have an irrevocable right to use the public thoroughfares.

Now, in light of these facts, does it still seem unreasonable to remind everybody—both those with the irrevocable right of travel on the roads, and those with the revocable privilege of travel on the roads—to “be careful”?

by Rick Bernardi, J.D.

Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • Well stated. In reference to the idea that cyclists do not have rights since they are not paying gas taxes or licence fees, I would suggest that the majority of cyclists also own motorized vehicles for which we pay gas taxes and licence fees, as we pay federal (and state) income taxes. Some of that money pays for roads. I would ask the driver/writer if s/he has the same reaction to pedestrians, as at the moment they are walking, they are not contributing financially to road fees.

  • Avatar Robert Prinz says:

    I have been working for my employer over 6 years, and have biked at least 4 miles every day on the streets of that city. Since the externalities of driving a car cost the city around 25¢ per mile more than biking that means I have been saving the city $1 per day, or about $1500 over 6 years. Multiply that by the number of workers and residents currently driving in the city and it boggles the mind why utility and transportation cycling is not being promoted more. Who is more entitled to the roadway, indeed.

  • Avatar Rich WIlson says:

    I’ve used the “most cyclists drive, most drivers don’t ride” line, but only in the context of knowing what the other shoes are like. I dislike it in an economic context because it implies that people who don’t drive don’t have the same rights to use the road, which we all know is false.

    I do think the “how do pedestrians pay for the sidewalk” point is good and valid though.

  • Avatar Rich Evans says:

    Nice summation. I might add that cyclists DO pay for the roads, whether they also drive or not, and almost as much as motor vehicles do.
    Stickers and tags, even with “wear surcharges” contribute a very small percentage of the revenue that builds, maintains and supports roads and streets. Much of this revenue comes from the same sales, property income and other taxes that EVERYONE pays. True, a very large (but diminishing) fraction also comes from motor fuel taxes, but here’s the rub: most of THAT tax is paid by COMMERCIAL users (NOT private vehicle operators), who pass that cost on to (wait for it) EVERY consumer — cyclist, motorist and pedestrian alike.
    Another interesting wrinkle to this is that DISTRIBUTION of collected “road revenues” to state and municipal budgets are generally determined by formulae based on CENSUS data, and NOT by vehicle registrations. Every cyclist, therefore, attracts as much of this revenue to his city or town as does every vehicle owner/operator.
    The bottom line to this is that a cyclist probably contributes 80-95% (it varies by city and state) as much as a motorist does to the total cost of the streets and supporting infrastructure in his/her city or town, while consuming a MUCH smaller fraction.
    In larger cities, the “budget bargain” that biker represents is even a bit more dramatic. The biker is more likely to be a taxpaying (and voting) resident of that city, than the suburban commuters who often form the bulk of rush hour traffic, so actually pays MORE for the streets than most of the motorists around him. This fiscal and political and calculus is, I believe, becoming apparent to big city administrations, and may drive more “bike-friendliness” in the years ahead.
    At least that’s what I think.