Is it right to pass on the right? Or dangerous and illegal?

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.

Or illegal.


  1. tracywilkins says:

    When I first read this post, I’ll be honest that I was agast because I’ll never pass a car on the right. Then, I realized that the dynamics of traffic in LA and little ole’ Springfield are so different that what I know and experience aren’t nearly the same as your situation.

    We’ve got a few dedicated bike lanes, but in general, most of what I ride is shared streets where I make every attempt to behave as any other vehicle. In fact, I feel a lot safer doing that than actually riding in the bike lanes we do have.

  2. Digital Dame says:

    If I’m in the bike lane, which is by definition the farthest right lane (aka, shoulder in most areas) and traffic in the road has backed up and stopped, I am not going to stop with them, nor am I going to head for the center of a two-lane road to pass by stalled traffic. This poses a bit of a problem when I need to get across traffic to make a left turn and get into the left-turn lane. I wait for a break in traffic, stick my arm out to signal I’m making the move as far ahead as I can, then go to the head of the traffic lane, kind of on the line to the right of the front car, to wait for the light. I have no idea, actually, if that is the correct thing to do, but it seemed the most logical to me. To your point about not standing behind a line of cars, if I sit in the traffic lane, as if I were another car: If I did that I’m going to be slower getting started once the light changes than the car behind is likely to want me to go. This way we all start moving at the same time, the cars can get by me, and I head straight into the bike lane in the road I’m turning onto.

    • bikinginla says:

      Sounds like you’re doing it exactly right. I usually position myself on the right edge of the left turn lane, just slightly ahead of the lead car — I want to make sure he knows I’m there, to avoid an overly wide turn or a last minute decision to go straight instead.

      Of course, there are situations where that just isn’t safe. There’s nothing wrong with making a two-point turn — riding across the intersection to the other side of the street, then positioning yourself on the right side of the cross street and waiting for the light to change before proceeding in your intended direction.

  3. Digital Dame says:

    Yup, I’ve had to do that when I was unable to catch a break in the traffic. I prefer not to if I can avoid it, because I think it confuses drivers who don’t know whether to treat me as a vehicle on the road, or a pedestrian. I try to be consistent so there’s as little left to guesswork as possible. I also find the drivers in my area tend to be very accommodating when they see me using arm signals, they’ll actually slow down and let me get in front of them. Not all of them, certainly, but it’s happened quite often.

  4. Damian says:

    Bike advocates need to push for better laws. The law regarding this needs to be extremely explicit. Some states cover this by mentioning the responsibility of the driver to safely over-take a cyclist. So, in other words, on a right-hook the driver obviously did not perform the obligation of safely over-taking a cyclist. I am including 2 articles on an incident that is very disturbing for cyclist. Thus the need to for law clarification.

  5. mocogeographyclub says:

    It’s entirely dependent on the state.

    In MD we pass on both sides – there is no difference legally, just a custom that in heavy traffic the right lane moves 5-10mph slower than the left.

  6. Angie smith says:

    I came here because I had a collision with my car and a cyclist last week. I was driving on a street with no bike lane or sharrow and making a right turn on a green. The sidewalk curb becomes much larger at intersections making it almost impossible for a bike to attempt to pass on the right. I had blinker on, waiting for two pedestrians, so my car was turned facing the street I was turning into. When the last pedestrian passed I started the turn and was hit at about 15 mph by a cyclist attempting to pass on the almost non-existent road between myself and the curb on the right of my car. She was not hurt but was quick to tell me she has the right of way, no matter what, and I need to watch for her. Apparently not the other way around. I am curious about the law with this and am having trouble finding a clear yes or no on this topic. Interestingly, she was insistent that we not call the police, even though she was thrown from her bike, and proceeded to pedal off while we stood there on the sidewalk. Can you help with this?

    • bikinginla says:

      It all depends on the circumstances.

      The way you describe it, it sounds like the woman on the bike was wrong, and you had the right of way. If you were stopped at the intersection with your turn signal on, and she rode up past you from some distance behind, then you had the right-of-way, and she should have passed you on the left, rather than the right.

      However, if you passed the cyclist, then cut over in front of her to make your turn, she would have had the right-of-way and you would have been in the wrong. Even if you didn’t see her.

      Regardless, you should always look to the right of your car and check your passenger-side mirror before making any right turn, just to avoid situations like this.

      And just to clarify, if there was a bike lane, you would have been required to check for the presence of bike riders, then merge safely into the bike lane no more than 200 feet before the intersection to make your turn. Sharrows really don’t matter in a situation like this; they merely indicate that bike riders are allowed to use the full lane, and indicate the suggested lane position for bike riders.

      I would also caution you about allowing the rider to leave without calling the police or exchanging insurance information. Even if she says she wasn’t hurt, she might discover some sort of injury later. Technically, this could be considered a hit-and-run, even if she was the one who ran. And if she was at fault, she could also be held liable for any damage to you car.

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