joe commuter
Bringing you tips on bike commuting from one dedicated rider in Portland.

Bikes & the law: What you don’t know can hurt you

Some of the laws that cover bicycling might surprise you. It’s worth getting to know them, especially if you are a bike commuter crossing paths with cars and pedestrians during rush hour traffic. Check your knowledge of U.S. bike law with this quick true-or-false quiz:

1. Bicyclists must always ride as far to the right as possible on the roadway.

2. Sidewalk riding is generally considered safe and legal.

3. Riding oblivous to traffic sounds because you have music blasting through earbuds or headphones is legal in most states.

4. Bicycling drunk is legally equivalent to driving under the influence.

5. In some states, bicyclists can ride through red lights and stop signs.


Unless otherwise noted, these answers are based on information from the League of American Bicyclists, which maintains an excellent primer on U.S. bike laws.

bicycle Law
1. Staying to the right

False. While most states have laws that require cyclists to ride as far to the right as “practicable,” most also make exceptions that allow cyclists to move into the center of the lane, for example, when making left turns, passing a hazard, or riding in a lane too narrow for cars to pass safely.

bicycle law
2. Sidewalk riding

False. It’s illegal in many urban downtowns and eight states, and it ups the risk of getting clipped by a driver backing out of a driveway or making a turn and not expecting a fast-moving cyclist on the sidewalk. In states that allow it, many require cyclists to yield to people on foot or to give an audible signal before passing a pedestrian.

bicycle law

Photo Credit: Lämpel via Wikimedia Commons

3. Headphones

True. Only a handful of states have laws covering the use of headphones by cyclists, according to cycling lawyer Bob Mionske. It’s illegal in Florida and Rhode Island. Laws in California, Delaware and Maryland, say riders must leave one ear uncovered. Whether it’s advisable is another matter. Open ears can help alert you to approaching cars, warnings from pedestrians and other hazards.

bicycle law
4. Drunk cycling

False. In many states, it remains unclear how DUI laws apply to bicyclists. It is more than clear that drunk riders are more likely to be severely injured or killed than sober riders. (Almost one-fourth of cyclists killed in 2010 had a blood alcohol concentration of .01 grams per deciliter or higher, and over one-fifth were legally drunk.) A few states actually exempt bicyclists from all or part of the drunk driving statutes and/or have separate laws for bicyclists caught riding while intoxicated. In 24 states, “there is some reason to believe, based upon the language of the DUI statute, definition of a vehicle, or the interaction of the two, that the DUI law does not apply to bicyclists,” writes Ken McLeod, legal specialist with the League of American Bicylists. “In these states a bicyclist may still get in serious trouble for BUI, but it is likely that a bicyclist will be cited with another statute, such as disorderly conduct or drunk in public.” In 21 states and the District of Columbia, bicyclists can be charged under the same DUI laws that apply to motorists.

bicycle law
5. Stop signs & signals

True. In Idaho, bicyclists can treat a stop sign as a yield sign, that is, slow down and yield to any crossing cars or pedestrians before rolling through an intersection. Given that automated traffic signals can’t always detect bikes, ten states allow cyclists to go through a red light after stopping for a certain period of time.