How To Share the Road

How To Share the Road

Last Updated February 5, 2020 | Meghan Drummond

Driving on an open stretch of road is a great feeling, and even if you encounter other drivers, you know the rules for interacting. Though some cars might not follow the rules, you likely know how to respond to that as well. But many drivers are less clear on how vehicles and cyclists are supposed to interact with each other.

When cyclists or drivers don’t understand the rules for sharing the road, the results can be catastrophic. Even as fewer people are dying in vehicular accidents, the number of cyclists killed by cars is increasing. Part of that is that more people than ever are commuting by bike, which means that they’re on the roads at their busiest.

More than ever, it’s important for everyone to understand the rules of the road, and how to keep each other safe.

Sharing One Lane

Motorists and cyclists are both significantly faster than pedestrians, and sidewalks aren’t made for road cycles’ narrow tires. Most states do have provisions that allow bikes to ride on sidewalks, so it’s not always technically illegal, but it’s not usually a very safe choice.

Some wider roads are able to have designated bike lanes. Though these seem like an ideal solution, they aren’t always practical. Bike lanes that are located too closely to street parking can be incredibly dangerous. “Dooring,” which is exactly what it sounds like, is a common cause of cyclist injuries.

Narrow bike lane with a painted white bike

Many more roads are simply too narrow to have bike lanes or have bike lanes that cut in and out unexpectedly, making them essentially useless. Because obstructions occur frequently, it is legal for bikes to choose not to use the bike lane.

In short, most of the time, cyclists and other road users are expected to share one lane. All states recognize bicycles as “vehicles” and grant them the legal right to most roads (with the rather notable exception of almost all highways and freeways).

Though cyclists and automobiles are expected to follow many of the same rules, they are inherently different, and both parties need to be informed about what to do on narrow roads, at intersections, and while passing.

Passing

Drivers will likely pass cyclists. This is legal and safe, provided there is enough space to leave three feet between the driver and the cyclist. Three feet, if you’re trying to think of a visual measure, is roughly the height of a standard mailbox post. For RVs and larger trucks, this distance is almost always impossible to achieve, which means they’ll need to wait to overtake, much like they would with farm equipment.

If there is enough space to pass, then it’s advised that the cyclist stay as far to the right as they reasonably can and cars should pass the same way they would pass another vehicle, at a safe and consistent speed. Keep in mind that there may be reasons the cyclist cannot stay as far to the right as drivers would like. Broken glass and craggy pavement may not be immediately visible to cars, but it’s a major safety concern for cyclists and will prevent them from hugging the curb.

If there’s enough space to pass but there’s a double yellow line, in most areas you still have the ability to pass. “No Passing Zones” are for areas where it’s unlikely a car could pass another car safely, but exceptions are made for cars passing horses, farm equipment, or bikes. Just be sure that there isn’t a hill or a sharp turn coming and then safely pass the bike on the left.

cartoon car passes bike with 3 feet between them

But what if there isn’t room to pass?

Many roads, especially in cities, are incredibly narrow, and there is no way to pass and leave a full three feet. Leaving less than that means that a camouflaged pothole or tiny flinch could cause a collision.

If there is not enough space for a car to pass safely, then it is advised for the cyclist to occupy the entirety of the lane as if they were a vehicle.

Cyclists taking the lane is important for everyone’s safety. Passing without enough space can cause accidents, and if the cyclist isn’t front and center research has shown that drivers are less aware of their exact location. A road’s width is considered to be substandard if it’s less than fourteen feet across, and in those instances, bikes are advised to take up as much space as possible to prevent unsafe passing.

Drivers should wait to overtake until it is safe to do so. If you’re the driver behind a bike, the following distance should be the same as for a car, roughly one vehicle length per ten mph of speed. If you’re a cyclist behind a car, you can follow a little closer since you have a shorter stopping distance as well.

Stopping

Though bikes are expected to stop at stoplights and stop signs, there are exceptions. Sensor-based stop lights often don’t process cyclists as vehicles. Cyclists can consider these stoplights defective and go through after waiting for one full light cycle. This means that you might see a cyclist “run” a red light, but it’s not only perfectly legal, it’s necessary.

At stop signs, a lot of support has been made for “stop as yield” laws which require bikes to brake and observe, but not wholly stop, effectively treating the stop sign as a yield. In many areas, this has already been made legal.

Stop as yield laws are great for everyone, and help keep traffic flowing. When cyclists come to a full stop they have to remove their feet from their pedals, a challenge when using clipped shoes, and then regain momentum. This can cause traffic to slow to a crawl. Yielding rather than stopping allows cyclists to maintain their balance and momentum, not to mention keeps them in the smooth stride of continuing to cycle rather than the oft bumpy few strokes it takes to hit their stride.

Unfortunately, it often inspires rage in otherwise normal drivers who then see fit to engage in behavior that can place the cyclist’s life at risk needlessly.

A much larger problem is drivers who stop but fail to yield to cyclists at intersections. For the purposes of yielding, a bike should be treated like a car. If you got to the intersection after they did, then you must yield. Slower cyclists will often wave a car through. This is a courteous gesture, but its safety varies depending on location. Remember, when in doubt, be predictable rather than polite.

Honking

The purpose of honking your car horn is to make sure you’re being noticed. When a tractor-trailer is about to merge onto you, it’s good to have a very loud device that can be heard over their stereo, the road noise, and their engine.

The purpose of a car horn is not expressing displeasure, and in many situations honking your horn can cause a dangerous situation where there is not one presently. Cyclists undoubtedly already notice a car. Without a stereo or engine to make noise, it’s harder to be oblivious to vehicles on the road. By making a startling noise, your best case scenario is that it creates no change. The worst case is that it causes an accident.

Cyclists should consider getting a horn of some kind for the same reason that motorized vehicles have them. It’s good to alert others to your presence and can help prevent accidents.

Turning

Turning lanes can create a bit of an elaborate dance with cyclists. These lanes often require crossing over the path of cyclists in order to occupy the inside track. This is crucial since when turning cars are on the outside of the cyclists’ line of travel the process of turning can be dangerous.

When entering the turn lane on a road with cyclists, make sure to fully turn and appraise your blind spots before changing lanes. Many driver-assist features are, much like stoplight sensors, unable to detect cyclists.

The “Right Hook” is one of the most common automotive-on-bike and automotive-on-pedestrian collisions, and it occurs when cars turn right without checking to see if there’s a bike that’s going straight. Take a minute and check before turning.

A cartoon showing the right and wrong way to make a right turn around a bike

When cyclists are turning, they should use arm signals, but may be unable to if it is unsafe to remove their hands from their handlebars. This means that you should give them a wide berth and try to anticipate their actions.

Cyclists who frequent curvy roads where they’re unable to give adequate arm signals should consider getting lights for their bike that can help assist drivers with anticipating their actions. Turning signals are incredibly helpful, but it’s important to not rely on them solely for your driving cues, either with other vehicles or with cyclists.

Understanding and Empathy

In a recent study, many motorists expressed seeing cyclists as less than human. This attitude is sadly reflected in the way many cyclists are treated. Over 70 percent of cyclists have experienced harassment and 15 percent have had something thrown at them from a car. Nearly 800 cyclists in the United States alone die each year, many due to drivers who aren’t well-informed on laws regarding cyclists and how to safely navigate around them.

There’s a reason that cyclists who also drive are better equipped for both modes of travel: They’re uniquely prepared to truly be empathetic, and can likely anticipate the dangers and risks with more accuracy. Putting yourself mentally into the mind of a cyclist struggling to make it up a hill or seeing things from the perspective of an overworked commuter trying to get to work on time makes it easy to anticipate their needs and follow the rules.

When everyone is informed about the rules of sharing the road with automobiles and bicycles, it’s easier to know how to respond and behave appropriately. Following these rules can improve overall safety and make for a better riding experience for everyone.

    Basic Rules for Sharing the Road:

  • Drivers passing bikes may do so over double yellow lines, provided the road ahead is clear.
  • Drivers may not pass bikes if there is less than 3 feet of clearance.
  • Cyclists may occupy the entirety of the lane if it is too narrow for safe passing.
  • Following distance should be the same for cyclists or other vehicles.
  • Cyclists and drivers shouldn’t be on the road unless they’re sober and focused.
  • Always check for cyclists and pedestrians before making a right-hand turn.
  • Cyclists should stop at lights or signs unless a “stop as yield” law has been passed.
  • Observe and anticipate.
  • Remember, the person cycling or driving around you is a person. Treat them accordingly.

    Other Guidelines to Keep in Mind if You’re a Driver:

  • “Dooring” occurs when you open a car door into the path of a cyclist, and you are liable, regardless of whether or not you “saw them.”
  • Bike riders are often underage, and children on bikes can behave unpredictably.
  • In states with vulnerable vehicle laws, hitting a bike will have significantly more repercussions than hitting a car. These can include jail time.

    Other Guidelines to Keep in Mind if You’re a Cyclist:

  • Headphones reduce your ability to hear the vehicles around you. At the very least, keep one headphone out so that you can listen for approaching vehicles.
  • If you’re biking in a group, try to stay together in a tight pack so that motorists only have to pass the group once instead of passing each individual bike.
  • Many motorists aren’t familiar with what cyclists can and can’t legally do. Whenever possible, try to communicate with hand signs to indicate your intended action.

The responsibility of sharing the road is shared by cyclists and motorists, but unless both parties know the rules it’s difficult to share the road safely. By educating others about driving with cyclists or biking around drivers, we can all help to create a more positive commuting experience for everyone.

Source: Bike Law, Phys.org, Cycling Weekly, NHTSA, CDC

How To Share the Road

Cyclists and drivers have to share the road, but when the rules aren't understood by both parties the results can be catastrophic. Whether you're a driver, a cyclist, or both, here are the guidelines you should know about how to safely navigate passing, stopping, and making a turn.