Even before there were cars, traffic laws applied to cyclists.
In most states, a bicycle is legally defined as a vehicle, and the law specifies that cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as the operators of other vehicles. The concept may sound obvious to a cyclist, but it is important for every one of us to understand, because without knowing your rights you cannot defend them. This is your starting point: Legally, when you ride a bicycle on an unrestricted roadway, the bike is a vehicle and you as the operator have the right to use the road, whether you’re riding for transportation or for fun.
Cyclists earned this legal status long ago, before the first automobiles appeared on American roads, as the result of a nationwide campaign. The roads of the late 19th century were rutted, uneven dirt tracks, dusty in summer and muddy in winter. After the League of American Wheelmen (now the League of American Bicyclists) was formed in 1880, its members tackled the poor state of American roadways. The Good Roads Movement was born and, with cyclists leading the way, roads were paved.
During that era, bicycles were enormously popular and also annoying to nonriders. Sound familiar? Carriage drivers complained of cyclists spooking their horses. Pedestrians complained that cyclists carelessly ran them down. Laws restricting two-wheeled transportation were passed, such as the 1901 statute in Rexburg, Idaho, setting a bicycle speed limit of 5 miles per hour on Main Street and 12 mph elsewhere in town, punishable with a $25 fine that could be worked off with street labor at a rate of $2 per day.
With financial backing from a bike-company owner, cyclists who were affected by discriminatory laws appealed their cases to the highest courts, successfully establishing bicycles as vehicles, and that riders enjoyed equal rights and duties under the law (though some anti-cycling laws remained, such as the Rexburg statute, which was repealed only in March of this year).
When automobiles began to appear on the roads, the traffic principles that had been developed to bring the bicycle into the legal system were adapted to include the newcomer. Over time, as the automobile assumed dominance of the roads, traffic laws were expanded, often in ways that favored the motor vehicle.
Today, as in the past, our rights to the road are sometimes challenged. Towns occasionally ban bicycles from the roads, despite our rights. Law enforcement fails to protect us, and sometimes, officers even attempt to remove us from the roads— despite our rights. And self-styled vigilantes assault cyclists with their vehicles in deluded efforts to enforce laws they wish existed. Even with these challenges, we exercise our right to the road.
As more people take up cycling, public acceptance of our rights will grow—assuming cyclists understand their rights. Knowledge is an essential first step, because it will be up to us to articulate a defense when challenged. Nobody is going to do it for us.
Research and drafting by Rick Bernardi, J. D.
This article, First, There was the Bicycle, first published on Bicyling on May 11, 2009.