Cyclists have a right to the road, but where we should be on that road depends on state law and conditions. Generally there are bicycle-specific statutes requiring us to ride as close to the right as practicable. “Practicable” means that, if the law in your area requires it, you must ride as far to the right as can reasonably be accomplished under the conditions. It does not mean that you must ride as far to the right as possible, although police will often interpret it that way. “As far as possible” may not be reasonable, because it may not be safe, whereas “as far as practicable” means essentially “as far as is safe.”
In the Uniform Vehicle Code (a suggested standard for states; actual state laws may vary), cyclists are required to ride “as close as practicable” to the right if they are riding “at less than the normal speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing.” So if a cyclist can keep up with traffic, then he or she can legally ride in any lane. If a group of cyclists are the only vehicles on the road, then they are setting the speed of traffic. But for common courtesy and good public relations, they should ride as close to the right as is safe when cars would like to pass.
There are exceptions to this rule—for example, when the cyclist is passing another cyclist or preparing to make a left turn. And the code elaborates on hazards that make riding to the right less feasible, such as “fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard-width lanes.” Also, on a one-way road with two or more lanes, a cyclist may choose instead to ride as close to the left as practicable.
So who decides how close to the edge is safe? You do, although your decision needs to be reasonable. For example, near parked cars, you determine how close to the “door zone,” the area where doors would be a hazard if suddenly opened, you can safely ride. You determine if broken glass or a narrow lane poses a threat that justifies riding farther to the left. You are not required to ride to the right and weave at the last moment to avoid hazards; that would be unsafe. Instead, choose a road position that allows you to ride a straight, predictable line, as close to the right as is safe.
What happens if a police officer decides that your road position is not legal? Because the officer’s determination is as subjective as yours, a court will need to make a judgment. State laws vary, but one thing is clear—you have the right to the road, and with that comes the right to make reasonable decisions about your safety.
Research and drafting by Rick Bernardi, J. D.