Making the law up as they go along — another SoCal cop gets it wrong on sharrows and riding abreast


You’re not required to ride to the right when sharrows are present

It’s said that ignorance of the law is no excuse.

But what if the ones who appear to be ignorant of the law are the same people charged with enforcing it?

It looks like cyclists in San Diego’s North County may be about to find out.

In a case reminiscent of the West Hollywood Sheriff’s deputy who was captured on video demonstrating his lack of knowledge about sharrows recently, a San Diego County Sheriff’s Captain spoke — or rather, misspoke — on the subject with community members last month.

According to the Coast News,

Sheriff Capt. Robert Haley said sharrows are a great concept but there has been some confusion on the proper way to use them.

Problem is, he’s the one who seems to be confused.

“Some people think it’s a giant bike lane,” he said, adding that, according to the law, cyclists are always supposed to ride as far to the right as possible anytime they are on a roadway, even in a sharrow or bike lane.

Uh, no.

Excuse me. Hell no.

Bike riders are not required to ride to the right within a bike lane, which in most cases would put you in the door zone. Or in the gutter.

Instead, bicyclists are legally allowed to ride anywhere between the two lines they feel safest or most comfortable. And a sheriff’s captain should know that.

He should also know that cyclists can leave a bike lane anytime, for any number of reasons. And that they aren’t required to ride in a bike lane unless they’re travelling below the speed of traffic.

Which means that if you’re riding as fast or faster than the cars around you, the requirement to ride to the right doesn’t even apply, and you can ride anywhere in the roadway you damn well please.

And it doesn’t apply at all within a bike lane.

Any officer foolish enough to ticket a cyclist for not riding on the far right of a bike lane can, and should, be laughed out of court.

The same goes for anyone who tries to ticket a bicyclist for riding on sharrows.

Sharrows, or shared lane markings, are intended, among other things, to indicate where a bike rider should position him or herself on a lane that’s too narrow to be safely shared by a bike and a car travelling side-by-side in the same lane.

And that’s the key point.

Sharrows are intended for use on substandard-width lanes, which is generally considered any right-side traffic lane narrower than 14 feet.

Think of it this way.

You take up about three feet on your bike, and need a three foot cushion for an eight-foot wide vehicle to pass you safely.

And that’s if there’s no parking on your right. If there is, add another four to five feet to keep you safely out of the door zone.

Which means that, according to CVC 21202, the requirement to ride as far right as practicable — not as possible, despite what Capt. Haley said  — does not apply on any lane less than 14 feet wide, or 18 if it contains parking.

So sharrows not only indicate that the lane is to be shared between bikes and cars, they should serve as an indication to everyone concerned that the requirement to ride to the right does not apply on that street.

Then again, it doesn’t apply on many, if not most, right hand lanes in Southern California, sharrowed or otherwise, where a 14 foot lane would be a luxury.

You’d think those charged with enforcing our laws would get that.

Of course, you’d also think that police, sheriffs and CHP officers would know that there is no requirement to ride single file under California law. In fact, it’s not even mentioned anywhere in the California Vehicle Code.

And one of the basic precepts of English Common Law, which forms the basis of the American legal system, is that anything that isn’t expressly prohibited is therefore legal.

But like Capt. Haley’s, many police agencies — including the CHP and at least some sections of the LA County Sheriff’s Department — frequently misapply CVC 21202 to ticket cyclists who are legally riding side-by-side.

“If a person is riding to the left of someone else, he isn’t as far to the right as possible,” he added.

Haley said he verified the law with Traffic Commissioner Larry Jones, who confirmed that cyclists must ride in a single line while on a street.

As one cyclist I know put it, “I couldn’t ride any further to the right, officer. There was another bike there.”

Except, as pointed out above, CVC 21202 doesn’t apply on substandard lanes.

Which means that bike riders can legally ride side-by-side — or side-by-side-by-side, or more — on any lane that’s less than 14 feet wide, or 18 to 19 feet wide if there’s parking on the right.

And again, that’s virtually every right lane in Los Angeles, and most in Southern California.

Or, as pointed out above, if you’re riding at the speed of traffic. Which means if your double paceline can ride at the speed limit for the roadway you’re riding on, you are perfectly within your rights.

Of course, it’s not just the police that get it wrong.

As David Salovesh pointed out, the DMV’s own training materials (top of page 17) get it wrong, too.

Bicyclists may ride side-by-side (two abreast) on roadways, but they must ride single file when being overtaken by other vehicles. Bicyclists may only travel more than two abreast on a shoulder, bike lane or bike path intended for bike use if there is sufficient space. However, they must be in single file when passing vehicles, pedestrians, or other bicyclists.

None of which appears in CVC 21202, despite their citation. Or anywhere else in the Vehicle Code, for that matter.

Not the part about being allowed to ride two abreast, or being required to ride single file when passing or being passed.

Which makes you wonder just how they came up with it. And how they justify spreading false information with no basis in the law in an official publication.

But back to our sheriff’s captain from San Diego County.

Haley said cyclists who don’t like the laws can work to get legislation enacted to change them.

Or he, and other police officers, could just try enforcing the laws as they are actually written, rather than misinterpreting and misapplying them to prohibit behaviors they were never meant to address.

Fortunately, Haley says his department doesn’t intend to target riders for violating their misinterpretation of the law.

But anyone who does get a ticket for riding abreast or not riding far enough right — with or without sharrows, in San Diego or anywhere else — should measure the lane they were riding in.

Then get a good lawyer.


  1. danny shaw says:

    Get a lair, I mean lawyer?  It would cost more than paying the ticket.



  2. Jim Lyle says:

    Unfortunately, CA law does not define what a “sub-standard” lane width is. Unfortunately, this makes the lane width a gray area; is it fourteen feet, is it fifteen, what? This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make a judgement for yourself as to what is or is not sub-standard. Ride out of the door zone, take the full lane when safety dictates, and argue your case in court if issued a ticket.

    • Jim Lyle, the whole point of marking these lanes with sharrows and Bikes May Use Full Lane signs is to eliminate the very gray area you’re talking about.

      Traffic engineers have determined that these lanes are “sub-standard lanes” – “too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.” That’s WHY they marked them with sharrows and BMUFL signs.

      The gray area arguably exists on roads without lanes so marked, but not on the roads this sheriff captain Haley is talking about.

  3. Michael M says:

    Is there an updated cyclist rights pamphlet or website where we can reference all these laws? It would be nice to carry with us or at least know what website we can memorize them at.

    • bikinginla says:

      The LACBC has developed a nice overview of CA regulations regarding bicycles — . I’m sure they’d mail you a few if you request some.

      However, they just skim the surface, rather than digging deep into the laws as is sometimes required. Your best bet is to print out key laws like 21202 and carry them with you.

      But bear in mind that it’s never a good idea to argue with a cop. While you might win sometimes, you also could end up in cuffs. It’s usually better to accept the ticket and take it up with the officer’s watch commander later.

      • The problem is, even if you are correct, you waste your day going to court. It is just wrong and they know it. There is basically no way to sue for harassment in California. I would like to know why they feel the need to harass us. Just leave us alone.

  4. Joe B says:

    CVC21202 requires cyclists to ride as far to the right as practicable, with exceptions. Where does the CVC say that that doesn’t apply inside a bike lane?

    Not that it really matters — due to the width of almost all bike lanes, there’s really only one practicable position to ride. But I don’t know of any law that exempts cyclists in bike lanes from the “as far right as practicable” requirement of CVC21202.

    The easiest way to get around the requirements on a group ride is to just form a clockwise rotating paceline. That way everybody on the left is, technically, passing another cyclist.

    Does the “…there was another bike there…” line actually work? I can’t see a cop or judge buying it. 🙁

    • bikinginla says:

      A bike lane is a legal lane of traffic reserved exclusively for bikes. So where does the law define where a motorist must drive in a traffic lane? You’re allowed to position yourself anywhere in a lane as long as you don’t interfere with other traffic.

      While you’re technically correct about the pace line, I just read of a case in which a cyclist was ticketed for riding two abreast in exactly that situation; I’ll try to find the story again and post it later if I can.

      And that line about another bike there was intended as a joke. Although I’d love to see someone actually use it sometime.

  5. Joe B says:

    Sure, in a car, you’re allowed to position yourself wherever in a lane. But CVC21202 says that when you’re on a bike, you don’t have that luxury. And while it would be nice if there were another statute that said, “CVC21202 does not apply inside a bike lane”, there is afaik no such statute. So I was wondering what law gave you the impression that 21202 doesn’t apply inside a bike lane?

    • bikinginla says:

      A cyclist riding within a bike lane is already riding as far to the right as practicable, and as required by law. Nothing in any statute implies or otherwise specifies that CVC 21202 applies within a bike lane.

      If you want to make the case that it does, be my guest.

  6. trondude says:

    This must be voodoo logic:

    “Haley said cyclists who don’t like the laws can work to get legislation enacted to change them”

    How exactly can you change a law that doesn’t exist (riding 2 abreast)?

  7. Tom says:

    Few years ago, a buddy succesfully beat a citation given in Rancho Palos Verdes using the “substandard lane width” argument.
    While he is a lawyer, his specialty had nothing to do with traffic law. What he DID do, is cite actual vehicle codes backed up with lane measurements. That’s what will win cases, not emotional appeals to “it’s not fair” or “I wasn’t in anyone’s way”.

    • In this case the lane measurements are already done. Traffic engineers measured the lanes, determined they were “substandard width” per 21202, and, so, marked them with sharrows and Bikes May Use Full Lane signs.

  8. fsethd says:

    The assumption, which we all know to be wrong, is that law enforcement is familiar with the laws they enforce. There’s no room for educating a cop when you get pulled over, but there is plenty of opportunity to meet with law enforcement on their turf to discuss bike laws. For the most part, we’re a tiny blip in the consciousness of cops, and that’s probably true of their attentiveness to bike laws as well. Outreach? Educate the police? Stranger things have happened …

  9. Billy Bob says:

    First, I bike all up and down the coast and use these sharrowed lanes often. I am also in law enforcement and was a bit confused by sharrows when I first had to deal with them. I have since become very educated because of all of the collisions I have responded to with bicyclists involved. There is one major point you are failing to point out here. No matter how right you are, no matter what law says you can be wherever while in traffic, if you get hit by a car, I guarantee you will lose. Maybe not in court, but physically, you will lose.

    When I bike, or ride a motorcycle, I keep in mind that there are many people driving that shouldn’t be. Many are texting, drunk, high, mentally ill and alike. Keeping that in mind, I want to go home to my wife and kids at the end of the day, and if it means staying out of the way of 2000 lb. missiles, then that’s what I will do.
    I see you keep citing 21202 CVC. Keep in mind, there are many other sections, a few thousand sections that can be enforced in the interest of public safety. 22400(a) CVC – Impeding the flow of traffic for one. Because you are on a bike does not mean you have MORE right to the road. Just like a pedestrian does not have a right to just walk out into traffic and expect everyone to stop.

    Another one I see a lot is bicyclists getting all bent out of shape over is when a car, making a right turn, merges into the bike lane prior to the turn. According to 21209 (a) CVC, a vehicle can merge into the bike lane to prepare for a turn up to 200′ prior to the intersection.

    Then there is the big one I see all day long, while cyclists want all these rights to the road, they constantly fail to stop at red lights, stop signs, etc., a violation of 21456.2 (a) CVC.

    I could go on and on but my only wish is there be less, or even no, injuries or deaths of cyclists.

    • bikinginla says:

      You are right that bike riders need to comply with all traffic signals, as well as observing right-of-way.

      You are also correct that drivers are required to merge into the lane nearest the curb — often a bike lane — in order to make a right turn. However, drivers are obligated to make sure the lane is not already occupied by another vehicle or bicycle prior to merging, just as they would merging on any other lane. The complaints from bicyclists come when drivers attempt to merge or turn across the lane without regard for the right-of-way of any bicycles already using the lane.

      However, CVC 22400 is often misapplied in regards to bicycles. According to the first line of the statute, bikes are not impeding traffic if they are being ridden in compliance with the law. CVC 21202 allows bicyclists to ride in any unsharable lane, regardless of speed differential; therefore CVC 22400 does not apply if the lane is of substandard width, as are most right lanes in Los Angeles and much of Southern California.

      In addition, it is impossible to impede traffic if vehicles are able to pass, such as on a four lane roadway or a two lane road without a solid center line. And according to CVC 21656, the standard requiring cyclists, or any other slow moving vehicle, to pull out to the right is five or more vehicles following behind and unable to pass, which seldom occurs in an urban environment.

      But don’t take my word for it. Everything I’ve just mentioned is included in the bicycle training module the LAPD prepared to train their own officers on the correct application of bicycle law.

      I don’t expect any superior rights when I ride. I merely expect drivers to respect my right to the road and observe the law, just as I do. And I expect that law to be enforce fairly and accurately.

      And I doubt there is a bike rider alive who is unaware of the damage a 2000 pound vehicle can do. I’ll be happy to show you the scars from the one that hit me — while I was legally stopped at a stop sign, I might add.

      • bikinginla says:

        Congratulations, Tom. You crossed the line with that one. Your comment constitutes an actual threat, and has been forwarded to the LAPD.

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