Riding in the gray area of the law

I’ve long argued that its safer for cyclists to move up to the front of an intersection than stop behind a line of cars in the traffic lane.

The reason is simple.

The single greatest risk any cyclist faces on the roads is that drivers may not see you. By moving up to the front of an intersection, in front of any drivers in the right lane — in other words, the same position you would occupy in a bike box — you ensure that you can be seen by everyone on the road, no matter what direction they’re coming from.

On the other hand, if you stop in place in the traffic lane, you’re at least partially hidden from oncoming and cross traffic — and possibly completely hidden from view, depending on how far back you are or how big the vehicles ahead of you are — dramatically increasing your risk of a collision. And you run the risk that a driver coming up from behind will be focused on the car ahead of you, and fail to notice the bike right behind it.

Of course, there are those who disagree.

Some cyclists argue that it’s rude to block cars from turning right or force drivers to pass you repeatedly as they move by once, then have to pass again after you filter past on your way up to the red light.

The first is easy to address. If the car at the front of the right lane has its turn signal on or is moving to the right, simply position yourself slightly in front and to its left, leaving room for it to make a right. And don’t be surprised if the driver thanks you for that bit of courtesy before turning.

As for the second, whether or not passing becomes a problem depends on how difficult you make it.

I usually move slightly to the right once the light changes, allowing the first few cars to go by before retaking my place in the traffic lane. And I try to leave a little more room on my left when there are no parked cars next to me — and therefore, no risk of dooring — remaining at the edge of the traffic lane but leaving room for drivers to get by when it’s safe.

The other argument against filtering up to the intersection is that it’s dangerous and/or illegal to pass on the right.

The danger is easy to deal with by using a modicum of care. Simply put, don’t pass a car on the right if it could move into your path; if it’s blocked in place by the cars ahead, though, you should be safe. And never pass a moving car — or a car that has room to move into your path — on the right if it has its turn signal on or is edging towards the right; under those circumstances, you’re wiser, and legally allowed, to pass on the left.

Whether passing on the right is 100% legal may be another matter.*

I’ve always argued that you’re allowed to do it to pass slow or stopped traffic. After all, lane splitting is legal in California, and despite common misconceptions, it’s perfectly legal for drivers to pass on the right if they can do it safely, without driving off the paved or main-travelled portion of the roadway.

In other words, they can’t use the shoulder of the roadway to pass on the right. But you can.

Bikes are specifically allowed to ride in places cars are’t, like bike lanes, parking lanes or on the shoulder — which means you’re often riding in a separate lane from the motor vehicles on your left. And since you’re subject to the same rights and responsibilities as any other vehicle, that means you can legally pass on the right, just like they can under similar circumstances.

Look at it this way.

Say you were driving in the right lane of a four lane highway when the car ahead of you in the left lane stops to make a left turn. Does that mean you have to stop as well?

Of course not. Not only are you allowed to keep going, you could even move around and pass in the right lane if you were directly behind him when he stopped.

It’s just common sense. And specifically allowed under California law.

On the other hand, common sense and court verdicts can be mutually exclusive around here.

For instance, on Monday, Cyclelicious told the story of a cyclist who was riding in a San Francisco bike lane when he was doored by a passenger exiting a taxi on the right. And even though dooring is clearly illegal in California, a jury found him partly responsible for the collision because the law that allows passing on the right specifically refers to motor vehicles, with no provision for bikes.

Never mind that we have all the rights and responsibilities of any other vehicle operators.

It’s that damn common sense thing again.

Fortunately, that won’t be a problem much longer. Virtually unnoticed in the flurry of bills signed by Governor Schwarzenegger was SB1318, which removes the reference to motor vehicle in the laws covering passing on the right.

And it specifically allows cyclists to pass on the right in a designated bike lane or the shoulder of the road, legalizing what should already have been legal by any reasonable reading of the law.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take effect until January 1st.

So until then, I’ll continue to pass stopped cars on the right, just like I always have. And ride in the gray area of the law, hoping common sense will somehow prevail.

Even in California.


Your new world champion is Norway’s Thor Hushovd, winner in a mass sprint to the finish; Mattie Breschel of Denmark is second with Aussie Allan Davis third. Think Italian rider Filippo Pozzato regrets going without sex for four months to focus on the Worlds after finishing a disappointing 4th?

Meanwhile, Bicycling says the Alberto Contador case raises more questions than answers; Contador says clear his name or he’ll hang up his cleats. And a fourth Spanish cyclist is suspended for doping as mountain bike world champion and Olympic bronze medal winner Margarita Fullana admits to breaking the rules. Spaniard Ezquiel Mosquera says his conscience is clear, while UCI Director Pat McQuaid says Spain needs to get its house in order, and the Spanish press says calls his words a blow to the heart.


With less than one week to go before L.A.’s first ciclovía, Travelin’ Local takes a look at Sunday’s upcoming CicLAvia; sounds like Will is looking forward to it. Streetsblog uncovers a film about the original in Bogotá and the organizers behind it invite you to come out and play. And Flying Pigeon suggest a cargo bike or baby carrier for the full CicLAvia experience.


Straight out of Suburbia says if Tea Partiers are really serious they’ll do something to get cars off welfare. Zero tolerance on distracted driving on Tuesday; about time, but will that include distracted cycling, as well? LADOT Bike Blog urges riders to attend Tuesday’s BAC meeting. A look at the day one of Krosstoberfest, followed by day two. New bike blog Examined Spoke compares L.A. to Copenhagen. How to prepare for your first century. After taking a bike tour with Long Beach mobility coordinator Charlie Gandy, a Hermosa Beach cyclist says that city could learn a lot from Gandy’s. The Orange County writer who insists that better courtesy is the solution to OC’s one-a-month rate of cycling deaths says riding a bike is as easy as, uh, riding a bike. Riverside police are accused of trashing a homeless camp, destroying their food and slashing bike tires. It’s cyclists versus senior citizens on the streets of Sacramento.

Looks like bike friendly Tucson has the same problems with bike parking — or the lack of it — that we do. Colorado cyclists fix unwanted bikes and donate them to the homeless. Teaching a cyclist to ride on the right side of the road. Sadly, the jogger injured in a collision with a bicyclist on Dallas bike and pedestrian trail has died. Texas drivers are urged to be more mindful of bikes, although that right turn rule is pretty confusing. A riding revolution hits the Motor City. A Wisconsin bike shop owner is seriously injured in a hit-from-behind collision, just five years after barely surviving a previous wreck. A Chattanooga cyclist is embarrassed to be associated with bicyclists who ride slowly in groups ad block traffic. Riding to a winery and orchard to pick apples, just one of the many pleasures of fall riding we miss here in L.A. The Baltimore Sun says Maryland’s new three-foot law simply codifies common sense and courtesy; in that state, you’re not impeding traffic if you’re riding within 15 mph of the speed limit. Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey rides a bike to raise funds for a Maine charity. Now that’s a big heart — after a woman is killed on her bike, her family gives away over 100 bike helmets to local children.

A London writer says Britain needs to get on its bike. London’s Daily Mail suggests that a 20% decrease in significant injuries isn’t — significant, that is. An Irish cycling coach says now is the time to decide what kind of cyclist you are to get ready for next season. Copenhagen insists that you’re safer on a bike than on your sofa.

Finally, a Vancouver editorial writer calls bike lanes an “irritating act of wrongheaded righteousness” for the “whims of a supposedly progressive elite.” And from Durham Ontario, a writer who claims to love cycling says bikes should get out of the way of cars because that’s what the roads were designed for — regardless of whether the government considers bikes vehicles.

And we thought L.A. was bad.


  1. peteathome says:

    And what do you do if you are passing cars on their right, during a red light phase, and the light turns green and they start moving? Do you come to a stop and wait for a gap to appear or for the light to turn red again?

    If the road has a combined straight and right turn lane and you are going straight, by merging into this lane you are in the correct position to go straight and not in danger of right-turning cars. But staying to the right means you are in danger of right-turning cars unless you stop and wait before you get to the intersection.

    • bikinginla says:

      Of course not. You continue riding just as you would under any other circumstances. In nearly three decades of using this technique, I have never had any difficulty getting back into the flow of traffic.

      As for intersections with a right turn lane, of course you keep to the left of the right turn lane. Nothing I’ve written here suggests you should be a gutter bunny; in fact, I’ve clearly said you should pass right turning cars on their left.

      • peteathome says:

        many road intersections have a combined right turn lane and straight lane. If you are passing a line of traffic with this configuration, you are potentially riding to the right of right turning cars if you try to get to the front of the line.

        That was the situation I was trying to describe.

    • Eric B says:

      You then adjust your pace to fall back into line. In that situation you’re going the same speed anyway, so it’s very easy. If you position yourself next to the front part of a car, you can guarantee they see you. It then doesn’t matter if the car in front sees you since you’re not next to them and therefore can’t get hooked. The only problem is when you’re next to a driver’s right rear panel relying on his seeing you without making yourself seen.

  2. Digital Dame says:

    Absolutely, stay to the left of a right-turning car. That way the cars coming up behind know you don’t plan to turn right. I’ve had this happen, stopped at the light, waiting just to the left of the right turn lane when someone came up behind and although he really had plenty of room to get by me, I scooted up and left just a few more inches so he’d feel more comfortable going by. And he did thank me.

    (FYI, it’s Hushovd.)

    • bikinginla says:

      Thanks Dame. One of these days, I’ll learn not to post at one in the morning; no matter how many times I proof it, some mistake always seems to get through.

  3. I’ve been experimenting with more vehicular style riding for a few weeks to see how changing my riding changes interactions with drivers. Part of doing so, which means being very assertive with lane position if there is any question that a lane is not safely sharable, is that I filter up to the front less often, because I do not vere to the right when the light is green. That is how I have almost been hit a number of times as people who clearly have seen that I am there still squeeze by too close often, unless I am so dead center they are forced to merge lanes to pass. This may be partly a product of lane widths in Santa Monica, which are often narrower than in parts of Los Angeles.

    There are pros and cons to doing this, and if the traffic is way backed up I will filter, because I don’t feel I should be punished because cars take up so much damn space. Also when traffic is super packed, sometimes there is traffic lined up from block to block, in which case no one is going to be getting behind you multiple times, because they will be stuck, then I bridge the gap splitting lanes whole time, but being very cautious especially at intersections.

    So far for me, vehicular riding reduces close calls, but slightly increases hostility in the form of being honked at more. At the moment I am more concerned with my safety than pleasing drivers, so I’m going to stick with the very vehicular cycling. I’m planning to do a right up in the near future on my observations in tweaking riding style and route selection and how this has impacted my riding and work commute.

    • Eric B says:

      I ride with groups all the time and nothing bugs me more than when one or two of the leaders decide it’s appropriate to slither up the right rather than wait all together taking up the lane. We need to stop wanting it both ways.

      I tend to use a “pass me once” rule of thumb to avoid the situation where I pass the driver at reds and they pass me on greens. If I can’t stay away from a driver, then I won’t pass him and sit in front at the light. If the lane is shareable, then this whole point is moot. It all depends on the speed of traffic.

    • danceralamode says:

      Gary and Eric, I’m with both of you. I take a more vehicular approach, unless I’m coming up on a long line of traffic. If the guy who just passed me is the car I’m coming up on, I find that his frustration and therefore risk to me goes up if I filter up around him. However, there are many different situations and you have to take all various factors into account–as Ted says, can you be seen? So I think this either or mentality is false. You base your riding style on the situation you’re in and the bike you’re on. For example, on my new 3 spd town cruiser, I don’t break 10mph and I tend to utilize sidewalks more on arterial roads. I slow and check intersections before crossing and I act more like a pedestrian, but if I can only handle 8mph on this clunker, I’m fine with that.

      On my road bike I prefer vehicular cycling and I can easily hold 20+ mph on 35mph streets (that usually don’t go that fast in rush hour anyhow), so I act just like a car, and I signal like one too.

      The problem I notice is that a lot of riders ride just like a lot of drivers drive: like they are the only one on the road and only their safety matters. They don’t mind putting another cyclist in danger by how they ride around you or where they position themselves (ie, passing on the right between you and the door zone). I don’t think there is any right or wrong except for being as fully aware as possible and paying attention to everyone’s safety on the road.

  4. DanaPointer says:

    On riding to apples, Julian is at peak of it’s apple season, granted it’s a long ride from LA westside, but you ride on the roads Floyd Landis rides on, some of CA’s finest countryside and you could cut the ride in half by taking a train to Oceanside or San Diego first. There is good apple orchards in the northern direction from LA too.

  5. Eric B says:

    From David Whiting’s column above:
    “What this column isn’t: Road riding 101. There is no road riding for beginners. That is a graduate level course. The dad I recently saw leading his children on a bike ride around Lake Mission Viejo – on the road? At night? Reminded me of the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz.”
    I don’t even know where to start… If we can’t reclaim the streets for people soon, we’ll face an entire generation that never knew they existed.

    • bikinginla says:

      Man, I missed that part when I read it, or I would have said something. Absolutely unbelievable to suggest that beginning riders can’t ride on the roads, or that children can’t learn to ride on the street.

      I’ve never seen the road he refers to, and he doesn’t say if they were riding correctly and had lights after dark. But to imply that road riding is only for experts is ridiculous.

  6. Chris says:

    Just the other day, as I was biking down Venice Blvd. on my daily commute, there was literally a police officer yelling at a cyclist who had biked up to the left of a Metro Bus because I assume he knew that the bus was going to be stopping at the other side of the intersection and just wanted to get a head-start in front of the bus. The officer, however, was threatening to ticket the cyclist if he literally did not turn his bike around and get behind the bus. The ludicrousness of this situation blew me away, and reading your post here reminded me of this story. I feel that sometimes cyclists are treated under the same law that has no rationality or explanation but is simply categorized as such based off of the already present automobile laws.

    • danceralamode says:

      It’s absolutely legal to leave the bike lane to pass an obstruction. That officer was an idiot.

    • bikinginla says:

      If you see something like that again, try to get a unit number off the patrol car. That’s the sort of thing we should pass on to Sgt. Krumer.

  7. bikinginla says:

    I think Dancer hit it on the head. It all depends on how you ride and what you’re comfortable with. While I advocate for moving up to the intersection, I recognize that not everyone will want to do that. And for the sake of full disclosure, I don’t do it every time; sometimes it feels safer to stay where I am, for one reason or another.

    And when riding in a group, visibility is far less of an issue. My advice in that case is to stop in place in the traffic lane as a group, and hold your space just like a car would.

  8. reb1 says:

    It has been years since I was right hooked due to my lack of experience of where to ride. Motorists give indication of what they intend to do for the most part, so riding up the right when there is enough room is not a problem. Just remember if you can’t see them they can’t see you. I am talking about very large vehicles when I say this. If I approach a light and a tractor or rock truck is ahead of me I will usually stay back until they break the lane line so I have a better idea of what they intend to do. I make eye contact with motorists so I know they have seen me. I use my voice to get there attention as needed also.
    On my route there are two areas where traffic backs up and the speed never gets over 20mph in these areas. I ride right behind the motor vehicle in front of me and merge over when the curb lane widens up and the speed of traffic increases. I occasionally have someone honk and moan but I ignore this behavior. Sometimes in heavy traffic people will intentionally stop go stop go trying to make me run into there car or go over the bars. I think they are bored. At some intersections drivers use the right turn lane, as a get ahead lane. They illegally cut left out of the right turn lane to go around traffic. The worst I have had happen so fare is when a bus driver timed the intersection and crossed over from the left lane to turn right across my path as I was going straight through the intersection. I was the only one at the light and in the center of the curb lane. He knew I intended to go straight. I was part way across when I noticed him. I did a forced right turn to keep to his inside and pedaled hard to keep out of his rear end. I had heard his approach and looked back. He was in the left lane so I had no idea he intended to turn because I see other buses go straight past this intersection quite frequently.

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