Bicycle Buffer Zone Laws

How Do Bike Lane Laws and Buffer Zones Work?

Motorists and cyclists commonly have to use the same roads, but it’s not always clear how they should interact to keep everyone as safe as possible. Bike lane laws try to resolve the confusion. Although some areas lack dedicated lanes for cyclists, most jurisdictions regulate their traffic and that of surrounding motorists in some fashion.

Bike Lane Laws and the Right to the Road

Almost all U.S. locales support the idea that bicycle riders have the right to share non-highway roads with motorists and pedestrians. The way they do so typically varies with the circumstances.

According to the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, 44 states mandate that cyclists have to ride as far right as practicably feasible. In many places, riders must use bike lanes if they’re available. Alabama goes so far as to require that cyclists use paths next to the road whenever they’re present.

The Arkansas Department of Transportation sheds additional light on where bikers should ride. Keeping as far right as practicable doesn’t necessarily mean that cyclists have to ride right next to the curb. Certain road conditions might make such behaviors impractical or more dangerous, such as:

  • The presence of parked cars
  • Uneven surfaces near the edges of paved areas
  • Floodwaters or ice
  • Narrow lanes that make it hazardous to ride side-by-side with vehicles.

Cyclists may also venture further toward the middle of the road in specific circumstances. Some examples include when they’re about to make left turns, riding on one-way streets or trying to avoid cars that want to turn right. North Carolina, Arkansas and other states also recognize various situations where cyclists can legally take up an entire lane like a car would, such as when they are:

  • Waiting for a traffic light to change so that they can make a turn
  • In locations where visibility concerns make it smarter to occupy the middle of the lane and be seen
  • Traveling on roadways that signify they can use the full lane with signage or painted symbols

The right to use the road doesn’t give cyclists freedom to ride any way they please. For instance, most states have laws concerning whether cyclists can ride side-by-side with each other. Of the 39 states that allow this, 21 also say that it’s only permissible when riders aren’t blocking traffic. In Nebraska, Hawaii and Montana, riding two abreast is illegal outside of extra-wide bike lanes.

Bike Lane Laws for Motorists

Bike lane laws also govern how drivers must conduct themselves. For instance, some dedicated bike lanes in Michigan and other states include white-striped buffer zones that provide additional separation between riders and vehicles.

In most cases, it’s illegal for drivers to travel or park in marked bicycle buffer zones and bike lanes. Exceptions may include situations when motorists are getting ready to park or make right turns. In states like California, drivers who want to turn right through a bike lane aren’t allowed to enter the lane more than 200 feet away from the point where they want to make the turn. Some places allow cars to park in bicycle lanes, but many require that motorists avoid blocking bikers in the process.

Passing and Imaginary Bicycle Buffer Zones

In some situations, drivers may want to pass cyclists. This can pose a problem in areas that lack dedicated bike lanes or sufficient conditions to let motorists and riders share the same lane. Many states solve these challenges with rules that let motorists pass slow-moving vehicles that may include bikes. A majority have laws that explicitly govern how drivers should pass cyclists by requiring them to create an invisible buffer zone for added safety.

In 2014, California passed the Three Feet for Safety Act that requires drivers to maintain at least 3 feet between themselves and the cyclists they want to overtake or face fines. Virginia has a similar law that also allows cyclists to pass vehicles on either side. Maintaining an empty buffer zone can make overtaking maneuvers much safer for motorists and cyclists alike.

A number of laws also make it legal to pass bicyclists in no-passing zones. It’s important to note, however, that the right to do so depends on whether it is safe at the time. Going into the other lane to pass doesn’t mean that motorists can ignore the need to maintain the legally required buffer distance.

Bicycling Accidents

Bike lane laws and transit rules aren’t the final say in determining the causes of collisions. Depending on the nature of the crash, the motorist or the cyclist may be deemed liable.

Pennsylvania specifies that drivers are supposed to wait until they’re certain that no cyclists are coming before opening their car doors. In these “dooring” accidents, where cyclists collide with car doors that suddenly open into their path, drivers may be deemed responsible, but other circumstances can also play a role. For instance, a rider who is cycling at night without the required reflectors, headlamps and tail lights might be deemed partially at fault for any injuries or damage that occurred because the vehicle’s occupants couldn’t see them. Depending on the nature of the accident and the jurisdiction, comparative negligence laws may also play a role in the award of compensation.

Bicycling accidents take many forms, but bike lane laws and buffer zones only help prevent some incidents. In other cases, victims may have to seek justice in courtroom settings after the fact, and understanding the rules may make it easier to argue who is at fault.

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