Evil on trial: will CVC 21202 be the key to the trial?

It’s probably the most misunderstood traffic law on the books.

Ask just about any driver, and they’ll tell you that bicyclists are required to ride as closely as possible to the right side of the road. Even motorists who ride bikes are often convinced that we have to hew to the curb — if not the sidewalk.

They’ll also tell you that cyclists are required to ride single file.

It’s not true.

Section 21202 of the California Vehicle Code only requires cyclists to ride as closely to the curb as practicable — and then only when riding at less than the normal speed of traffic.

These days, many cyclists understand the first part, even if motorists don’t. They know the law doesn’t require them to ride through potholes and broken glass on the far right. Or confine themselves to the door zone, where they’re at risk from every inattentive driver who flings open a door or pulls out of a parking space without looking.

They know they’re allowed to ride far enough from the curb as necessary in order to ride in a safe and prudent manner — with the knowledge that the exact distance can vary from one road to another, at various times and under different road and traffic conditions.

But even cyclists are often unaware of the second part of that sentence.

The simple fact is, if you can keep up with traffic, you are legally allowed to ride anywhere you want on the road, as long as you follow the lane markings and ride with the flow of traffic.

If congestion causes traffic to slow down to 15 mph, you have every right to move over and take the full lane, until speeds increase to where you can no longer keep up.

Or when the speed limit holds traffic down to 20 or 25 mph, you’re free to take the full right lane — or the left, for that matter — if you have the skill to keep up. And nothing requires that you ride on the shoulder if you’re bombing down a mountain pass at highway speeds.

As long as you can keep up, you have the legal right to ride wherever you feel most comfortable.

It’s not just the law in California, either; section 11-1205 of the Uniform Vehicle Code says almost exactly the same thing. And to the best of my knowledge, it’s the law in every state of the U.S.

There is also no restriction about riding side-by-side in this state.

Section 11-1206 of the UVC says that cyclists may not ride more than two abreast, as long as they stay within a single lane and don’t impede the “normal and reasonable movement of traffic.” And I challenge you to find a single line in the California Vehicle Code which prohibits it.

And that brings us to this recent exchange of comments in last week’s discussion of the Mandeville Canyon case.

Dave Lewis noted that when riding down Mandeville, he often found himself riding at or above the posted 30 mph speed limit, without pedaling — which meant that he could take the full lane without violating CVC21202. And asked if anyone had raised that issue in court.

According to DJwheels, the cycling community’s eyes and ears in the courtroom, the speed of various cyclists on the road has been brought up several times during the trial.

The latest article from VeloNews says that data from their GPS units shows Watson was riding at 29.2 mph just prior to the incident, and Stoehr was traveling at 28.1 mph. Which means they were entitled to full use of the lane, and the Good Doctor would have had to have been traveling at significantly over the speed limit for the incident to have occurred the way both sides have described it.

The same article also notes that testimony from Patrick Early, who had an earlier, similar encounter with Dr. Thompson, estimated that the car approached him from behind at 40 – 50 mph.

Nothing in California law gives speeding vehicles priority over cyclists, or anyone else, using the road in a safe and legal manner. And as previously noted, riding two abreast is not prohibited by any statute in this state.

Which means that the cyclists were well within their rights, and this incident could not have occurred if Thompson hadn’t already — and evidently, repeatedly — broken the law.

As an attorney as well as a cyclist, DJwheels said he hopes the prosecution will ask for a simplified version of CVC 21202 to be included in the jury instructions so they can consider it during deliberations.

Meanwhile, a comment from another attorney, Jim Gallo, says it looks like the D.A. is doing all the right things in this case.

We’ll soon find out.

The prosecution rested its case on Friday; the defense begins today.

Read VeloNews coverage of the trial here, here and here. L.A. Times coverage here and here. DJwheels comments on the trial in L.A. Streetsblog coverage here.

………

Debate over the proposed new L.A. bike plan goes on; Enci Box explains why non-cyclists should care, and Joe Linton covers the first meeting on the bike plan. Twenty-eight percent of L.A. commuters rely on something other than driving alone. Slower traffic should stay to the right, even on a bike path. The Interior Department says no to a Yosemite start in next year’s Tour of California. A D.C. writer takes U.S.A. Today to task for a badly misguided rant about two-wheeled trouble makers — including a misapplication of the Mandeville case. More riders are commuting to work; even New York magazine editors and people in Colorado ski areas. A Baltimore councilwoman suggests moving the bike lane out of the door zone. A Massachusetts writer observes that 79% of local cyclists obey the law. Finally, evidently California as a problem with elderly scofflaw cyclists, as an 82-year old Lompoc man was seriously injured, and an 80-year old Placentia man was killed — both after supposedly running red lights. I’d certainly like to know if there were any witnesses other than the drivers who hit them.

One comment

  1. Jared Shier says:

    Also worth noting is that on Mandeville Canyon, speed and road debris shouldn’t even be an issue when deciding to take the entire lane. 21202.3 says you can take the entire lane when it is “substandard width.” That road is not wide enough to handle a car and bike side by side without the car needing to cross over the double yellow. Therefore, even when a rider is riding uphill (or simply less than the speed limit), they are legally allowed to take the entire lane. Granted this isn’t always the courteous thing to do or really even necessary most of the time, it’s well within your rights.

    During the cross examination of Christian Stoehr, Peter Swarth kept trying to make a point that they were putting the Dr. in danger since their choice to ride on that narrow road forced him to go into oncoming traffic to pass them. I would have loved it if the DA would have brought that contradiction out somehow thus far in the trial. I’m hoping she brings it up when she cross examines the Dr. this week. She’s done a wonderful job otherwise.

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