It’s a simple syllogism.
Passing on the right is illegal; I pass on the right. Therefore, I break the law.
Okay, so it’s not up there with Socrates’ classic hits, like “All men are mortal.” But that was the gist of a conversation that took place last week, in response to my comments about the recent TRL study showing drivers are responsible for the overwhelming majority of British cycling collisions.
A reader named Doug questioned how closely the British data actually correlates to Los Angeles, which is a fair question. While British drivers complain about the very same cyclist behaviors L.A. drivers do — and vice versa — we have no statistics to back us up.
Primarily because no one has bothered to do an in-depth study of cycling in this city — let alone an analysis of how and why cycling accidents happen and who is at fault.
But more to the point, at least in terms of today’s topic, he also complained about cyclists who run stop signs and red lights. And about riders who pass on the right.
Like I do. And like I often advise other cyclists to do.
Pass on the right, that is — not run red lights.
As Doug put it,
Splitting lines, by both motorcycles and bicycles, is legal in California. However, passing on the right is not, and that is very different. Certainly, a responsible cyclists knows that passing on the right is dangerous and should be avoided.
So who’s right?
From my perspective, you’re almost always better off at the front of an intersection, where you can be seen from every angle, than stopped in the lane behind a line of cars — where drivers coming up from behind may not anticipate the presence of a cyclist, and where you could be hidden from oncoming and cross traffic. And that often means working your way up the right side of the traffic lane.
There are other situations that seem to call for passing on the right, as well. Like riding in heavy traffic, where you can easily ride faster than the speed of the cars next to you. Or when traffic is stopped while you have a clear path ahead.
My justification for doing it is simple. CVC21202 requires that you ride as far to the right as practicable. So unless you’re actually riding in the traffic lane, you’re in a separate lane from the traffic next to you — usually the parking lane or a strip of pavement to the right of the actual traffic lane.
And according to the applicable traffic code, CVC21754, passing on the right is allowed “whenever there is unobstructed pavement of sufficient width for two or more lines of moving vehicles in the direction of travel.” In other words, if there’s a clear lane of travel wide enough for your bike, it’s legal.
Still not sure?
Look at it this way. Say you’re driving in the right lane on a four lane street, with two lanes of traffic in each direction. The cars in the left lane come to a stop while the lead driver waits to make a left turn. Does that mean you have to stop as well, even though you’re in the next lane? Or if the traffic to your left slows down, do you have to slow as well to avoid passing anyone?
Of course not.
If that happened, traffic would grind to a halt on virtually every street and highway in the country. And since the same laws apply for bikes as for other road users, if it’s legal for drivers, it’s legal for us.
But that was just my opinion — based on nothing more than the rationalizations of a highly opinionated, semi-analytical long-time cyclist. Then I read almost exactly the same arguments on cycling lawyer Bob Mionske’s Bicycle Law website.
But as Rick Bernardi’s column there makes clear, just because something’s legal, that doesn’t mean you may not still get a ticket for it. And you may not win in court, either.
The other question is, is it safe?
Only about as safe as any other maneuver on streets filled with sometimes careless and inattentive drivers.
Some drivers may not check their mirrors and blind spots before moving to the right, never considering that anyone else might want to occupy that same space.
Or operate under the mistaken assumption that it’s illegal for cyclists to pass on the right, and therefore, none would even try. Because, you know, drivers never do anything we think they’re not supposed to do, either.
So you have to be careful.
Keep a close eye on the cars on your left, watching for right turn signals or front wheels turned to the right, as well as cars slowly inching over or drivers turning to look over their shoulders. Always pass on the left side of a right turn lane. And never, ever pass to the right of a car that’s waiting to make a right turn.
But consider this. The recent landmark study of cycling accidents from Fort Collins, Colorado, listed passing on the right as a contributing factor in just one of 354 cycling collisions.
In other words, about 213 less than the number of broadside collisions that occurred as a result of simply riding a bike across an intersection.
And I don’t know anyone who says that just riding across the street is dangerous.