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Why and how bicyclists are subject to traffic rules in California

October 13th, 2016 Comments off

Have you ever wondered why bicyclists are subject to following traffic laws in California? Many people think bicycles are legally vehicles, and that’s why, but that’s actually not the case. This is one of those complicated legalistic issues that all bicyclists in CA should know. So let’s explore the vehicle code to find out more.

Section 231 of the California Vehicle Code explicitly defines bicycles to be devices, not vehicles:

DIVISION 1. WORDS AND PHRASES DEFINED [100 - 681] ( Division 1 enacted by Stats. 1959, Ch. 3. )
231. A bicycle is a device upon which any person may ride, propelled exclusively by human power through a belt, chain, or gears, and having one or more wheels. Persons riding bicycles are subject to the provisions of this code specified in Sections 21200 and 21200.5.

Further, bicycles are explicitly excluded from the definition of a vehicle in Section 670:

DIVISION 1. WORDS AND PHRASES DEFINED [100 - 681] ( Division 1 enacted by Stats. 1959, Ch. 3. )
670. A “vehicle” is a device by which any person or property may be propelled, moved, or drawn upon a highway, excepting a device moved exclusively by human power or used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks.

So bicycles are not vehicles, but bicyclists are subject to certain provision of the vehicle code, and we should find out more in Sections 21200 and 21200.5:

Section 21200.5 just addresses bicycling under the influence (prohibited), but CVC 21200 is much more interesting as it is quite explicit about bicyclist rights and responsibilities:

21200. (a) A person riding a bicycle or operating a pedicab upon a highway has all the rights and is subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this division, including, but not limited to, provisions concerning driving under the influence of alcoholic beverages or drugs, and by Division 10 (commencing with Section 20000), Section 27400, Division 16.7 (commencing with Section 39000), Division 17 (commencing with Section 40000.1), and Division 18 (commencing with Section 42000), except those provisions which by their very nature can have no application.

Those bolded words, especially “by this division”, are key.

But before we discuss the bolded portions, we must recognize that a bicyclist is subject to the same provisions as is “the driver of a vehicle”, not “the driver of a motor vehicle”. The distinction may seem trivial but it’s quite significant in considering the applicability of sections like Section 23109 which prohibits people from participating in “a motor vehicle speed contest on a highway”. Now, is a bicycle race a “motor vehicle speed contest”? Of course not. Since no motors are involved, Section 23109 cannot apply to bicyclists.

To fully understand Section 21200 we have to know that that vehicle code is divided into named and numbered ”divisions”. Section 21200 is in Division 11 of the vehicle code, so “by this division” refers to “Division 11 of the vehicle code”. The title of Division 11 is “Rules of the Road”, so it makes sense that those sections should apply to bicyclists, and it covers CVC 21000 through 23336. But this also means that provisions outside of Division 11 – sections which are not part of the “Rules of the Road”, not within the range 21000-23336, do not apply to bicyclists (except for a few relatively insignificant sections outside of Division 11 we will discuss below).

In other words, sections dealing with vehicle equipment, like CVC 25250 (“Flashing lights are prohibited on vehicles “) do not apply to bicyclists, because they are in Division 12 (titled “Equipment of Vehicles”), not in Division 11.

Now, regarding that longer clause in Section 21200, “… and by Division 10 (commencing with Section 20000), Section 27400, Division 16.7 (commencing with Section 39000), Division 17 (commencing with Section 40000.1), and Division 18 (commencing with Section 42000),”:

  1. Division 10 is very short and deals with accidents and requirements for filing accident reports.
  2. Section 27400 (the only section in Division 12 which applies to bicyclists) addresses headsets and earplugs.
  3. Division 16.7 is about bicycle registration and licensing. Mostly arcane and inapplicable in most local jurisdictions.
  4. Divisions 17 and 18 define general vehicle code legal process (“Offenses and Prosecution” and “Penalties and Disposition of Fees, …”)

Finally, let’s look at that final clause in Section 21200: “except those provisions which by their very nature can have no application”. This clause limits the bolded portions even further in terms of how they apply to bicyclists. It cannot expand the scope of what vehicle code sections apply to bicyclists, but it does reduce the scope. For example, consider Section 22400 which is in Division 11:

22400. (a) No person shall drive upon a highway at such a slow speed as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic unless the reduced speed is necessary for safe operation, because of a grade, or in compliance with law.
No person shall bring a vehicle to a complete stop upon a highway so as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic unless the stop is necessary for safe operation or in compliance with law.

This law clearly prohibits driving too slowly (“No person shall drive … at such a slow speed as to impede…”), but can anyone be found in violation for operating too slowly when he or she is operating about as fast as physically possible? How can one be required to comply with a law when it’s impossible to do so? The law cannot require one to travel at a faster speed than is feasibly possible; therefore, Section 22400 can have no application to bicyclists by its “very nature”.

In summary, in California, bicycles are devices, not vehicles, but bicyclists have the same rights as drivers of vehicles and must obey basically the same Rules of the Road (Division 11) as drivers of vehicles. In future articles we will look further into these “Rules of the Road” in Division 11, and closely examine those sections that are specific to bicyclists.

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AB 1193 being confused by amendments

June 17th, 2014 Comments off

To Assembly Member Phil Ting

The California Association of Bicycling Organizations, the association of California’s bicycle clubs, would like to register its support of your AB 1193 provided it is amended, as proposed, to change the term “protected bike lanes” to “separated bikeways.” We are greatly concerned, however, about another amendment to make the minimum safety design criteria established in Streets and Highways Code §890.6 optional, and to eliminate the experimental process associated with them. This amendment resembles the bill as introduced, and our objections to it are the same as they were then. Eliminating this requirement would be an enormous mistake. If this amendment is included, our position changes to strong opposition.

The bill’s sponsor, the California Bicycle Coalition (CBC), asks why local agencies shouldn’t have the same latitude with respect to local bikeways as they have with respect to local roads. But this comparison, while it may seem attractive, overlooks a number of important points:

• Much as local agencies might prefer to have complete control over their own streets and roads, this is not the case. For instance, cities and counties may enact traffic regulations only as expressly authorized (Vehicle Code §21), and they must adhere to uniform standards and specifications for all traffic control devices (signs, signals, and markings) (Vehicle Code §21401). These provisions are important to insure uniformity, predictability, and best practices, but innovation is not neglected. The California Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices includes a well-defined procedure for agencies to experiment with new or improved devices. The committee that oversees these experiments, and advises Caltrans generally on traffic control devices, gives local agencies a say by including representatives from the League of California Cities and California State Association of Counties.

• When it comes to physical design of streets and highways, nearly all California agencies voluntarily adopt the Caltrans Highway Design Manual as their design guide. The HDM’s standards are well-established, and traffic engineers are thoroughly trained in their use. The outcome is therefore generally uniform and consistent, and there is no need to mandate compliance (other than through funding mechanisms).

• With bikeways, on the other hand, the situation is much less predictable. Most traffic engineers receive little or no training in designing bicycle facilities. Many may be qualified to do so, but it cannot be assumed that all are or that they are familiar with proper standards to follow. That is why the Legislature enacted the California Bikeways Act in 1975 (now called the California Bicycle Transportation Act, Streets and Highways Code §§890 et seq). This act begins: It is the intent of the Legislature, in enacting this article, to establish a bicycle transportation system. It is the further intent of the Legislature that this transportation system shall be designed and developed to achieve the functional commuting needs of the employee, student, business person, and shopper as the foremost consideration in route selection, to have the physical safety of the bicyclist and bicyclist’s property as a major planning component, and to have the capacity to accommodate bicyclists of all ages and skills. The Legislature implemented this intent, among other ways, by directing Caltrans, in cooperation with county and city governments, to develop minimum safety design criteria for bikeways, and to develop uniform signs and specifications for traffic control devices for bikeways. It further directed agencies responsible for bikeways to use these minimum safety design criteria and uniform specifications.

• These standards and specifications have been enormously beneficial in insuring that bikeway designs adhere to accepted safety standards. But there is no enforcement mechanism other than funding procedures or liability. A few traffic engineers who may be either unaware of or indifferent to these standards have consequently been responsible for thousands of examples of California bikeways that violate basic minimum safety principles, either in geometric design (widths, routing, especially at intersections) or in traffic controls (signs, signals and markings). Often, for no valid engineering reason, or worse still, for reasons contrary to sound traffic movements, these bikeways deviate from mandatory standards in ways that expose cyclists to greater crash risk. What’s needed is better compliance mechanisms for standards, not greater latitude to deviate from them arbitrarily. We don’t need more such bad designs.

• The California Bikeways Act, however, had one important shortcoming. Until recently, cities and counties were not permitted to deviate from mandatory bikeway standards in order to experiment with modified, improved, or new designs. This issue was successfully addressed in the last session by AB 819 (Wieckowski), co-sponsored by CABO and CBC, which directed Caltrans to create an experimental process similar to the existing one for traffic control devices. This process would simultaneously have allowed for creative and innovative design improvements, collected valuable data for evaluating them and eventually incorporating them into standards, and relieved local agencies of the threat of liability for experimentation. Unfortunately, Caltrans has refused to implement the experimental process in any meaningful way. -2-

• Furthermore, Streets and Highways Code §890.6 requires bikeway design criteria to be updated biennially, or more often, as needed. But this has not been done, despite repeated requests to Caltrans from CABO, CBC, and the California Bicycle Advisory Committee (CBAC) (appointed by Caltrans to advise it on bicycle matters). State bikeway standards have fallen behind those in other documents such as the nationally accepted AASHTO Guide for the Development of Bicycle Facilities. It seems that Caltrans may finally be embarking on such an update process, but it is critical that it be founded on evidence-based technical review whose outcome is not predetermined. Among CBAC’s responsibilities, as chartered by Caltrans, is to “provide input to Caltrans on designs, concepts, standards, and manuals related to bicycle facilities and for consideration to incorporate into existing Caltrans standards or manuals.” CBAC is also the body that provides the “cooperation with county and city governments” specified in Streets and Highways Code §890.6. It is therefore vital that CBAC play a role as bikeway standards are revised.

Proponents of this amendment might anticipate that deregulation will unleash a torrent of creativity and innovation. CABO and CBC have significant disagreements over bicycle facility design, but that is not even the issue here. The danger is the license granted to substandard, poorly conceived designs that neither CABO nor CBC would approve of.
We therefore urge you and the Legislature not to include such an amendment in AB 1193, and instead to influence Caltrans to update its design standards and to implement an effective experimental process. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

We don’t know what position Caltrans might take on this bill. But we feel obligated to point out that in several recent decisions involving bicycling policy, Caltrans and its consultants did not seek the opinion of CABO or CBAC, and may therefore not be fully aware of all sides of these issues. Furthermore, it is also CBAC’s chartered responsibility to “Review proposed legislation related to bicycling.” Caltrans has not yet sought CBAC’s opinion on the radical changes that might be included in AB 1193. Decisions of this magnitude should not be made hastily, in a final policy committee hearing, over amendments that are not yet even in print.

CABO Supports Safe Passing Bill, AB 1371

September 2nd, 2013 1 comment

AB 1371 Sept 2013 Governor

The effort to reduce close, fast passing of people on bikes by people in cars that sometimes initiates a crash, often endangers the bicyclists, and too often discourages people from using a bicycle at all in normal traffic is facing a third try with Assembly Bill 1371. CABO is acting to support this latest version despite controversy about its likely effectiveness. On balance we think passage of the bill will be helpful. A more thorough explanation of our reasoning for support will be posted soon. Meanwhile, we encourage those in agreement to communicate to Governor Brown that you request that he sign the bill into law.

CABO Support of Assembly Bill 819

January 11th, 2012 2 comments

In our letter to Assemblymember Wieckowski, we expressed opposition to Assembly Bill 819 unless amended. AB819 will be amended, and CABO is now in support.

AB 819 would have permitted local agencies to follow “innovative” bikeway design guidelines from sources other than the Caltrans Highway Design Manual, as currently mandated by law. The reasoning for our opposition is in the Assembly Transportation Committee analysis, quoted from our letter:

We are always open to innovative ideas, but a number of facility innovations that initially seem attractive also appear to present significant safety issues. The available research on these facilities is not always reliable, despite being cited in a guide produced by a private organization. Legitimizing these designs, in effect, by statute, rather than by technical review, could expose bicyclists to potentially dangerous facilities.

We agree, however, that Caltrans has been too conservative in its approach to bikeway design, and we would enthusiastically support an alternative approach that would provide an efficient process for experimenting with new designs. A Caltrans sanctioned experimental procedure would relieve local agencies of liability for nonstandard designs; it would enable experimentation with innovative and improved designs in a controlled and rigorous manner that would be consistent across jurisdictions; and it would provide reliable information for revision of the Highway Design Manual.

As indicated in the bill analysis, the Assembly Transportation Committee recommended that AB819 be amended to specifically require procedures allowing local agencies to request Caltrans to consider innovative and modified bikeway project designs, and the author and sponsor of the bill have agreed to these amendments. This addresses our concerns above, and so CABO is now in support of AB819.

CABO Opposition to AB819 Unless Amended

December 28th, 2011 Comments off

State Assembly Member Bob Wieckowski
State Capitol, Room 4162
Sacramento, CA 95814

SUBJECT: CABO opposition to AB 819 unless amended

Dear Assemblymember Wieckowski:

CABO is the association of California’s bicycle organizations. In our meeting last week with Ed Imai of the Assembly Transportation Committee, Dave Snyder of the California Bicycle Coalition, and Heather Falkenthal from your staff, we heard proposals that AB 819 permit local agencies to follow “innovative” bikeway design guidelines from sources other than the Caltrans Highway Design Manual, as currently mandated by law.

We are always open to innovative ideas, but a number of facility innovations that initially seem attractive also appear to present significant safety issues. The available research on these facilities is not always reliable, despite being cited in a guide produced by a private organization. Legitimizing these designs, in effect, by statute, rather than by technical review, could expose bicyclists to potentially dangerous facilities. Read more…

CABO letter to Governor, 3′ passing

September 20th, 2011 Comments off

September 18, 2011
The Honorable Edmund G. Brown, Jr.
State Capitol, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814
Re: SB 910 (Lowenthal) – SUPPORT ?
Dear Governor Brown:

I am writing on behalf of the California Association of Bicycling Organizations to ask that you sign Senator Lowenthal’s Senate Bill 910 into law. With the enactment of SB 910 and with wider public recognition of what is safe and appropriate motor vehicle driver’s behavior in the presence of bicyclists, everyone can benefit.

We expect that this clearer statement of appropriate passing distances by motorists of bicyclists, replacing the subjective guidance in existing law, will better inform people about unsafe passing and encourage more and safer bicycling – an appropriate goal toward providing a cleaner environment, safer traffic operations, and healthier Californians. Read more…

CABO Now SUPPORTS 3-Foot Passing Bill SB910

June 24th, 2011 3 comments

SB910 was amended in the Assembly on June 22. With minor exceptions, the amended SB910 language reflects CABO’s suggested wording for CVC 21750.1. Therefore, CABO has now changed its position on SB910 from “oppose” to “support.” Many thanks to Senator Lowenthal for adequately addressing our concerns.

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CABO Brings SB910 Concerns to Lowenthal’s Staff

June 14th, 2011 5 comments

CABO continues to take an “oppose until amended” position on “three-foot passing law” SB910.  CABO representatives recently met with Senator Lowenthal’s staff to address CABO’s concerns.

Although we listed several points in a previous blog post, a key concern was the exemption from the three-foot requirement when the motorist-cyclist speed differential is 15 mph or less. While this was intended to facilitate overtaking in slow or stopped traffic, this could have unintended consequences -such as giving a legal defense for a 55 mph motorist who passes within inches of a 40 mph cyclist traveling downhill.

CABO representatives suggested the following wording to address the 15 mph differential and other concerns: Read more…

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CABO Opposes 3-Foot Passing Bill SB910

May 4th, 2011 55 comments

Regrettably, CABO opposes SB910 for the following reasons (most of which are mentioned in the bill analysis):

1. The law already provides that motorists must pass bicyclists at a safe distance without interfering with their safe operation.

2. We don’t believe that three feet is measurable or enforceable in practice.

3. Emphasizing three feet as the passing distance may encourage some drivers to pass too closely when greater clearance is needed.

4. A 15-mph speed differential also can’t be measured or enforced, and is not always appropriate.

5. By amending CVC 21750 to remove references to bicycles and replacing it with CVC 21750.1, which always requires passing on the left, the bill apparently makes it unlawful to pass a bicyclist on the right, even if the bicyclist is turning left.

6. The language of proposed CVC 21750.1 is ambiguous:

“The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance, at a minimum clearance of three feet or at a speed not exceeding 15 miles per hour faster than the speed of the bicycle, without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken bicycle.”

“At a safe distance,” “at a minimum clearance of three feet,” or “at a speed not exceeding 15 miles per hour faster than the speed of the bicycle” can be read as a series of three items any one of which is sufficient. It’s also unclear whether “without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken bicycle” modifies all of these, or only the last.

7. We support the concept of permitting motorists to cross double yellow lines to pass bicyclists. However, “substandard width lane” is undefined, and the condition given, when “it is safe to do so,” is too vague and allows too much latitude for driver misjudgment.

(June 24 update: CABO Now SUPPORTS 3-Foot Passing Bill SB910)

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Argument Against an Idaho Style “Stop as Yield” Law for Bicyclists

February 3rd, 2010 5 comments

There has been talk of legislation being introduced in California to emulate Idaho law, which allows stop signs and/or red lights to be treated as yields by bicyclists. This was posted by David Takemoto-Weerts on January 29 to the “Handlebar” listserve for the Davis Bicycles advocacy group.

At the risk of becoming a pariah among local cycling advocates, I have to respectfully disagree with efforts to support the enactment of the “Idaho law” in California. And let me preface my comments by explaining that I am a daily cyclist (for over 40 years) who always stops at stop signs and always waits for the green light. Read more…

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