By Bob Mionske, J.D.
A common misconception motorists have is that cyclists are slow. Of course, an automobile can reach higher speeds than a bicycle, but that’s on the increasingly mythical open road. Around town, we regularly demonstrate that cyclists are capable of keeping up with cars and often able to easily pass a congested lane of traffic. But this raises the question: What does the law say on the subject? The rules, as always, differ depending on where you are riding and whom you are passing. But let’s take a look at a few common situations.
It seems too obvious to state, but a cyclist sprinting past others is dangerous, if not illegal. You should pass other cyclists deliberately and at a safe distance (the closer you are, the slower you should go). If the path is so tight that you can touch the person you’re passing, proceed even more cautiously. Also, the law may require you to audibly warn others before passing; for courtesy, you should do this regardless. Never pass on the right–you may cause a collision. Even though it’s a bike lane, watch for cars: In most states, motorists must merge into the bike lane before turning right. If there is a car in the bike lane, cyclists are legally permitted to pass it by moving left, into the vehicular lane, and carefully merging back in once it’s safe to do so. Of course, pay attention to what traffic is doing regardless. In Oregon, drivers are not allowed to merge into the bike lane, and must instead yield to cyclists before turning, but riders there should still tune in to activity all around them. For your own safety, don’t try to pass right-turning vehicles by cutting in front of them in the bike lane; slow down and let the driver turn.
Sidewalk or Multiuse Path
When you’re riding on the sidewalk, you are required to yield to pedestrians– assuming it’s legal to ride there in the first place. On a multiuse path, you’re required to follow rules regulating use, which are usually posted and typically address speed and right-of-way. Again, if you can touch the cyclist or pedestrian you are passing, you are too close for any significant speed. Move farther left, or slow down, and give an audible warning before passing.
Typically, if a lane is wide enough to share with a motorist and you are not moving at the speed of traffic, you must ride as close to the right as is safe (see BICYCLING.com/whereyoubelong to learn more). The general rule is that vehicles cannot pass on the right–but if the drivers to your left are traveling at a slower speed than you are, you don’t have to slow down to avoid passing them. Because the law requires you to share the lane, it also acknowledges that you will sometimes pass other vehicles, just as other vehicles will pass you.
When lanes are too narrow to safely share with a motorist, you are allowed by law to take the full lane. If, say, a driver in front of you is slowing to park or enter a driveway, you may make a legal pass to the left, just as if you were driving a car.
Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, JD.