Illustration by Josh Cochran
This past year, we’ve seen more and more people getting on bikes — to commute, to recreate, and to get some exercise. More people riding bikes is great, but it means more interactions with car traffic and city infrastructure. So what laws are in place that help make cyclists safer? Here’s a breakdown of some laws recently enacted in Colorado and elsewhere that aim to keep cyclists (and everyone else) safe. Also, here’s a great resource from The League of American Bicyclists that lists all bike laws by state.
Liability is the only way
According to Megan Hottman, known to many as The Cyclist Lawyer, the dream law would be a strict liability law, “like they have in Copenhagen, where drivers are presumed at fault in a car-bike collision and where drivers know this, so they drive extra carefully,” Hottman says. According to her, it’s the only way to create a safer environment for people on bikes, and in turn, for everyone.
Hottman cites this paper, which spells out the importance of holding drivers accountable. "Other countries, such as the Netherlands, use a form of strict liability in lawsuits concerning bicycle-automobile collisions, which shifts the cost of such accidents to automobile drivers,” she says. “U.S. courts should apply strict liability — as currently used in U.S. tort law — to collisions between cyclists and automobiles. Shifting the cost of bicycle-automobile accidents to automobile drivers will even out the consequences between cyclists and drivers, encouraging drivers to drive more safely, creating safer roads, and encouraging cycling — an environmentally friendly method of transportation — in place of driving a carbon emitting automobile."
Vulnerable road user law
In Colorado, Governor Polis signed Senate Bill 19-175 into law in May of 2019, which increases the penalties for careless driving resulting in serious bodily injury (SBI) to a vulnerable road user (VRU). According to C.R.S. 42-2-1601 (4)(b), SBI is defined as “injury that involves, either at the time of the actual injury or at a later time, a substantial risk of death, a substantial risk of serious permanent disfigurement, or a substantial risk of protracted loss or impairment of the function of any part or organ of the body, or breaks, fractures, or burns of the second or third degree.”
When bike advocates and lawmakers proposed and eventually passed this law, the intent was to revoke the privilege of driving from someone who hits and harms a cyclist, so that they may be forced to ride a bike, or walk, or use public transit to get around for a period of time.
“Until drivers lose the privilege of driving, and have to ride bikes or walk to get around, the driving behavior towards cyclists doesn’t change,” Hottman says. Of course, a driver’s punishment would be a mild inconvenience in their life, minor in comparison to pain the collision caused to the injured cyclist.
Hottman covers in detail, what to do if you’re the victim of SBI.
Distracted driving laws
Everyone’s safety on the road is impacted by distracted driving. California prohibits any person from driving a motor vehicle while using a cellphone (or tablet) to write, send, or read text-based communication. No one is allowed — by law — to use a cellphone unless it’s specifically designed and configured for hands-free use, and is used that way while driving. In addition there are the following specific restrictions:
- A person under the age of 18 years shall not drive a motor vehicle while using a cell phone, even if equipped with a hands-free device, or while using a mobile service device.
- A person may not drive a school bus or transit vehicle while using a cell phone.
The distraction of a phone call or text can obviously lead to unsafe driving, but unfortunately, this problem remains rampant.
Sources: Cal. Veh. Code §§ 23123; 23123.5; 23124; 23125
Bike lane bills
Also in Colorado, Senate Bill 20-061, was signed into law by Governor Polis on March 20, 2020. This bill requires motorists to yield the right-of-way to a bicyclist in a bike lane. It also creates a new traffic offense for failing to yield to a bicyclist or other authorized user in a bicycle lane. Failure to yield will result in a class A traffic offense and is punishable with a $70 fine and three points assessed to the driver’s license.
According to Colorado Revised Statutes 42-1-102 (10.3), a bicycle lane is defined as “a portion of the roadway that has been designated by striping, signage, or pavement markings for the exclusive use of bicyclists and other authorized users of bicycle lanes.”
Importantly, bicycle lanes do include an intersection if the bicycle lane is marked on the opposite side of the intersection. So, motorists must yield to bicyclists riding in the intersection.
The 3-Foot Law refers to the amount of space a driver gives when passing a cyclist going the same direction. The law states, “The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a bicyclist proceeding in the same direction shall allow the bicyclist at least a three-foot separation between the right side of the driver's vehicle, including all mirrors or other projections, and the left side of the bicyclist at all times.”
Hottman adds, “In my opinion, the law really should include the words “when safe to do so.” In other words, if a motorist cannot safely give a cyclist three feet when passing, without interfering with oncoming traffic, the motorist should slow down and wait behind the cyclist, while oncoming traffic passes, and then proceed to pass the cyclist with the 3 foot buffer.”
In effect in Idaho since 1982, the “stop as yield” law allows cyclists to treat a stop sign like a yield sign and a red light like a stop sign. In 2017, Delaware adopted a limited stop as yield law.
On May 3, 2018, Colorado Governor Hickenlooper signed into law SB144, or what’s commonly referred to as the Idaho Stop. However, this particular law gives Colorado municipalities the power to allow “stop as yield,” so check your local laws.
At intersections with stop signs, a cyclist should slow “to a reasonable speed and yield the right-of-way to any traffic or pedestrian in or approaching the intersection.” The cyclist may then turn or go through the intersection without stopping.
A reasonable speed is considered 15mph or less. Local governments may reduce or increase the reasonable speed but will be required to post signs at intersections stating the lower or higher speed limitations.
At red traffic lights, cyclists are required to completely stop and yield to traffic and pedestrians. Once the cyclist has yielded, they may “cautiously proceed in the same direction through the intersection or make a right-hand turn. A cyclist may not go through the intersection at a red light if an oncoming vehicle is turning or preparing to turn left in front of the person.”
The law further states that a cyclist may only make a left-hand turn at a red traffic light if turning onto a one-way street. The cyclist must stop and then yield to traffic and pedestrians before turning left. NOTE: It is not legal for a cyclist to make a left-hand turn onto a two-lane road (one lane in each direction) at an intersection with a red traffic light.
You might argue that Idaho Stop laws are safer because cyclists would spend less time stopped in the roadway, potentially exposed to fast-approaching cars from behind. But above all, it is a matter of convenience and common sense.
More Americans are riding bikes and using infrastructure these days. We need to look out for each other. No one owns the road more than any other person, whether they’re in a car, on a bike, walking, or using another mode of transportation. Some laws have been put into place in the last five years aimed at keeping cyclists safe. But now more than ever, we all need to play a part in protecting the most vulnerable — cyclists and pedestrians. Check out the Cyclist Lawyer’s website to learn more about cyclist laws and protections, and how you can not only better protect yourself, but also support future legislation aimed at keeping everyone safer.