Cyclists on road

Why Cyclists Ride in the Middle of the Road

People do amazing things for complete strangers, from organ donations to $1,000 restaurant tips to paying for someone’s groceries when their credit card declines. Yet when they leave the grocery store and one gets in a car, and the other gets on a bike, they become sworn enemies. It’s been a growing feud in recent years as cycling gained popularity. But who is to blame? The cyclists want drivers to slow down, and drivers want to know why cyclists ride in the middle of the road.

As a driver and cyclist, I know both groups contribute to the problem.

But of all the people arguing and road raging, how many people actually know the cycling laws?

Now, I’m not a lawyer, nor do I speak for everyone. I’m just a dude with a little experience on the road and internet access.

Secondly, as rules vary by state and municipality, we’ll use Illinois as an example from now on for simplicity.

But check your local and state laws before getting on the road.

Rules of the Road

First, consider the law.

We don’t need a degree to understand this stuff, but people on the road should know the rules before flipping street birds.

Road rage is typically a result of someone not admitting they were wrong, but a good portion of arguments stem from ignorance of the law, which isn’t a defense.

The points below are based on state law with simplified language.

There are additional rules not covered here, but I picked out the most relevant parts.

Generally speaking, cyclists must follow the same applicable traffic laws as motorists.

But some people on the road like to call safety equipment into question and whether riders must use it.

Safety Equipment for Cyclists

I know safety equipment seems off-topic, but it often comes up as a secondary concern.

But there isn’t much to the law about equipment other than having a working bike in good repair. If your tires aren’t flat and you aren’t using your foot as a brake, you’re probably fine.

  • At night, cyclists must have a white headlamp and a red reflector in the rear
  • Helmets are not required by law for cyclists
  • Brakes must work, and tires must be in good repair

Although I’m not required to have lights on during the day, I still do for increased visibility.

Same reason we have daytime running lights on most new cars.

Helmets aren’t required, but they are a great idea because one-third of non-fatal cycling injuries are to the head.

But you should know that studies suggest drivers are more likely to hit cyclists with protective gear.

Do we subconsciously think cyclists are invulnerable when wearing a helmet? Do you find yourself more careful around cyclists without protective gear?

Keep in mind cars can get in fender benders without injury. If you hit a cyclist at 20 mph, there’s a good chance they go to the hospital. Maybe worse, depending on the conditions.

That’s why drivers and riders alike turn to technology to protect themselves legally.

Drivers rely on dashcams to argue their cases in court, and cyclists now have the same tools available. Bike cameras like the Cycliq Fly12 and Fly6 allow riders to record from front and back continuously.

Just because you don’t see an obvious helmet camera doesn’t mean a more discrete eye isn’t watching from under the seat.

Traveling with Cyclists

Ok, now we know what street legal is.

But most street altercations stem from how drivers and cyclists travel together.

According to law, cyclists must ride as close to the right side of the road as “practicable and safe” with a few exceptions:

  • When passing another cyclist or slow vehicle
  • Preparing for a left turn
  • Avoiding obstacles
  • Riding down a one-way roadway with two or more lanes

Also:

  • Drivers must give cyclists at least three feet of clearance when passing.
  • Cyclists must follow applicable traffic laws.
  • Cyclists must use proper hand signals for turning and stopping.
  • Riders may not ride more than two abreast or side-by-side.
  • Cyclists riding side-by-side must not impede a “normal and reasonable movement of traffic.”

Drivers don’t have much to worry about other than slowing down and giving cyclists at least three feet.

But even if you don’t hit a cyclist, you could be liable if you startle a rider to the point they fall and injure themselves if passing within 3 feet.

Sign telling drivers to give three feet of clearance when passing
Photo taken by the author

Designated Bike Lanes

Confrontations between cyclists and drivers are common on roads without a bike path. But issues arise even in bike-friendly communities like mine.

Bike path along urban street
Photo taken by the author

Once a motorist shared some choice words with me because they thought I was misusing this roadway. But the driver was most likely looking at their phone when they passed this sign.

Sign telling people cyclists may use full lane
Photo taken by the author

Or this one:

Street paint indicating cyclists may use full lane
Photo taken by the author

The next time you see a cyclist on the road, check the signs and lanes.

They may be well within their rights to use the full lane.

Now, why don’t cyclists use the sidewalk?

Well, we can legally, although it’s not that simple.

First, pedestrians have the right of way.

So if I’m flying down the sidewalk and a family of three with their dog appears, I have to get off the pavement.

For people on mountain or BMX bikes, they can probably take it, but those with low-profile street tires can easily slip on wet grass or gravel.

But even when sidewalks are clear of people and pets, they have other obstacles like cracks, potholes, uneven pavement, sprinklers, and construction.

Concrete workers paving sidewalk
Image by Paul Harrison from Pixabay

Also, animals like squirrels and rabbits pop out from the bushes, which is a bad deal for everyone.

Still, bigger cities like Chicago don’t permit bikes on sidewalks for people over 11 unless designated as a bike route.

Cyclists’ Discretion to Ride in the Middle of the Road

It’s the big D-word.

Having proper discretion is what gets most people through their days as adults.

From day traders to first responders, professionals use discretion to make the right call.

With so many traffic variables at hand on roads without bike lanes, cyclists and drivers must make the right decision to be safe.

The law clearly states that single cyclists must ride as close to the right as possible.

So why do cyclists ride in the middle of the road?

It gets tricky with the wording, “as close to the right as practicable and safe,” Meaning as far-right without putting yourself in danger or risk of damaging your bike or tires.

Obstacles

Who knows road conditions better?

Is it the rider on a bike going seven mph four feet from the edge of the road or the car a half-mile away going 45 miles per hour?

The roadway might look smooth from a car’s point of view, but surfaces aren’t always as clean as they appear.

So you might see a cyclist staying away from the edge of the road due to a variety of obstacles.

Sometimes even when there’s a bike lane.

Why cyclists ride in the middle of the road-to avoid cracks like this
Photo taken by the author

Yep, this isn’t far from me.

Now, I know that roadway sucks and avoid it.

But others unfamiliar with the area may find that riding down the middle of the lane is the only option at the time.

Also, stuff falls off vehicles or blows into the road.

A branch or tipped traffic cone is easy enough to go around, but some cyclists might avoid the edge of the road if debris continues.

Cracks, potholes, excessive gravel, or rocks may also cause cyclists to ride in the middle of the road.

If I hit this thing at a good speed, I’d probably flip. Or at least pop my front tire and bend the wheel.

Not something I’m willing to risk so a driver doesn’t have to slow down for two seconds.

Giant pothole along bike path
Photo taken by the author

Rural roads like this have gravel edges and crumble over time. Again, bikes with thicker tires can take it, but riders with thin tires need a smooth surface.

rural road
Photo taken by the author

Parked Cars

City roads offer a unique hurdle: the parked car.

They’re like Whacamole. You never know when or where they’ll pop up.

If I ride close to the cars and a door opens, I’ll jerk into the lane where a car behind me may turn into oncoming traffic to avoid hitting me.

That’s assuming I don’t eat the car door or hit the person opening it.

Better I stay at a continuous distance, even if it’s in the middle of the road. That way, there are no surprises.

Again, cars can slow down for a moment and pass when it’s safe.

Just watch a few seconds of this, and you’ll see what I mean.

Street with cars parked along it
Photo taken by the author

Increased Visibility

The best defense for cyclists is visibility.

How many accident reports start with a motorist saying, “He came out of nowhere!”

That’s why cyclists ride side-by-side.

It’s not so they can talk to each other and laugh about how many motorists they upset that day.

Cyclists ride side-by-side for increased visibility, which puts them in the middle of the road.

The logic being if a car coming from the rear sees multiple lights or bikes in the lane, the car will slow down.

By taking up the whole lane, passing drivers have the same width to pass as any car.

Therefore they will (hopefully) only pass when it’s clear rather than blowing by the bike within three feet.

While the law permits cyclists to ride side-by-side, it also says they “cannot impede a reasonable flow of traffic.”

As people on the road grow impatient for any delay, drivers and cyclists will have a different definitions of what “reasonable” is.

If one car has to pass a bike and can do so safely, that’s reasonable. If two cyclists riding side-by-side hold up a half-mile-long line of cars, that’s not.

Oncoming Traffic

Both cyclists and drivers affect oncoming traffic.

I’ve seen many near head-on collisions where drivers try to pass me to beat the oncoming cars, so they can avoid slowing down.

The closer the cyclist is to the side of the road, the more likely drivers will quickly pass.

On curved roads or hills, cyclists might see oncoming traffic that cars in the rear don’t see.

By riding in the middle of the road and using proper hand signals, cyclists may try to tell drivers it’s not safe to pass.

Play it Safe

We all have places to be, and emergencies happen, but safety is number one.

Generally speaking, the reason why cyclists ride in the middle of the road is to avoid obstacles and increase visibility.

There are reasonable and unreasonable ways to use the road but sometimes, safety takes longer.

Drivers shouldn’t fault riders for practicing safe bike habits because they didn’t get up early enough.

But if cyclists hold up traffic and create an impromptu parade, they should pull over until traffic subsides.

As a driver, I know hold-ups are inconvenient, but nothing is worth killing or seriously injuring someone over.

We’re capable of helping people in extreme ways, but road stresses can cause us to turn on each other.

One of the first things we teach kids is to share.

Yet we get in our cars or hop on our bikes and turn into the seagulls from Finding Nemo.

We all pay for public roads. Let’s share them too.

Greg

Hi, I'm Greg. The pen IS mightier than the sword!

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