Sometimes it is difficult to know when a particular law applies to bicyclists. Confusion about application of the rules of the road and vehicle laws sometimes results when frustrated motorists turn to the statutes to try to put bicyclists in their “proper” place on the roadway; but bicyclists’ rights and responsibilities on the roadway are somewhat of a legal hybrid in the Oregon statutes. Motorist frustration must not be allowed to diminish bicyclists’ legitimate right to share the traveled portion of the roadway, and even to occupy a full lane when necessary to avoid surface hazards or other potential dangers.
Of course, from the bicyclists’ perspective, the obligation to ride only as far to the right as practicable is the legal “bottom line,” mandated by ORS 814.4301, often referred to as the “Oregon Bicyclists’ Bill of Rights.” ORS 814.430 allows riders to maintain occupancy of the entire lane when necessary to avoid surface hazards or other potential dangers, even if motorists have to slow until bicyclists find places in the route which allow them to ride closer to the right edge.
Bicycles and Oregon’s Slow Moving Vehicle Law
One question posed by some motorists is whether ORS 811.425, describing the violation of Failure to Yield to An Overtaking Vehicle, mandates that a bicyclist, as a “slower driver” must move their “vehicle” off the “main traveled portion of the roadway” when overtaken by a faster motorist. ORS 811.425 provides:
811.425 Failure of slower driver to yield to overtaking vehicle; penalty.
(1) A person commits the offense of failure of a slower driver to yield to overtaking vehicles if the person is driving a vehicle and the person fails to move the person’s vehicle off the main traveled portion of the highway into an area sufficient for safe turnout when:
- (a) The driver of the overtaken vehicle is proceeding at a speed less than a designated speed under ORS 911.105;
- (b) The driver of the overtaking vehicle is proceeding at a speed in conformity with ORS 811.105;
- (c) The highway is a two directional, two-lane highway; and
- (d) There is no clear lane for passing available to the driver of the overtaking vehicle.
(2) This section does not apply to the driver of a vehicle in a funeral procession.
(3) The offense described in this section, failure of a slower driver to yield to overtaking vehicle, is a Class B traffic violation.
In State of Oregon v. Potter (2002), the Oregon Court of Appeals reviewed a Critical Mass rider’s conviction for impeding traffic. That law provides “a person commits the offense of impeding traffic if the person drives a motor vehicle or a combination of motor vehicles in a manner that impedes or blocks the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.” ORS 811.130(1). At trial, the defendant argued that the statute only applied to motor vehicles. ORS 801.360 defines a motor vehicle as “a vehicle that is self-propelled or designed for self propulsion.” Clearly, a bicycle is not a motor vehicle. “Bicycle” is defined as a “vehicle” that is “propelled exclusively by human power.” ORS 801.150(4). However, ORS 814.400 provides:
(1) every person riding a bicycle on a public way is subject to the provisions applicable to and has the same rights and duties as the driver of any other vehicle concerning operating on highways * * *, except:
- (b) when otherwise specifically provided under the vehicle code.
The court reasoned that because the text of the impeding traffic statute fails to exclude bicycles then it applies to all vehicles, including bicycles. And ORS 814.430 specifically provides in paragraph (c) that bicyclists are not excused from compliance with the requirements of ORS 811.425 (the slow-moving vehicle law). While Oregon courts have not provided a definitive legal analysis of the relationship between the two laws, it is quite likely that these statutes would be interpreted to allow bicyclists to stay in the travel lane, even if it means holding up overtaking vehicles so long as surface hazards prevent the riders from moving in safety off the main traveled portion of the roadway. After all, ORS 811.425 provides that a bicyclist must only move into areas that are “sufficient for safe turnouts.” If the shoulder or area to the right of the log line contains glass, gravel, rough spots, or other hazards, the bicyclist has a right not to move out of the roadway.
And, ORS 814.430 (“Bicyclist’s Bill of Rights”) provides other conditions justifying use of up to the entire lane:
(2) A person is not in violation of the offense under this section if the person is not operating a bicycle as close as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway under any of the following circumstances:
- (c) When reasonably necessary to avoid hazardous conditions including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards or other conditions that make continued operation along the right curb or edge unsafe or to avoid unsafe operation in a lane on the roadway that is too narrow for a bicycle and vehicle to travel safely side by side.
While future appellate cases may provide additional guidance on the relationship between the Rules of the Road, one statutory provision does not trump another — bicyclists’ right to the road contained in ORS 814.430 provides both a safe haven along the roadway and the right to take the lane when necessary.
What is also clear is that bicyclists must not impede traffic (ORS 811.130(1)), or fail to yield to faster overtaking vehicles (ORS 811.425) when there is an area “sufficient for a safe turnout”. Bicyclists are not required to place themselves in a position of danger in order to yield to overtaking vehicles; instead, the riders must use good judgement in finding safe areas to move over as space and conditions allow. The narrow width of track of a bicycle allows the rider to utilize the full width of the pavement to allow overtaking vehicles to pass. Unlike a wide truck or trailer, overtaking vehicles can easily go around bicyclists without requiring that the rider pull over and stop.
The Potter case serves as a warning for riders that unreasonably failing to yield to traffic or overtaking vehicles may trigger a traffic citation. What the Potter case does not change is bicyclists’ right to take the lane when reasonable necessary for safety, even if it means slowing down overtaking vehicles.
Riding “Two Up”
When is it ok to ride side by side? ORS 814.430 (the Bill of Rights statute) provides that riders who are traveling “at less than the normal speed of traffic using the roadway at that time and place under the existing conditions” must ride “as close as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway” EXCEPT:
(e) When operating a bicycle alongside not more than one other bicycle as long as the bicycles are both being operated within a single lane and in a manner that does not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.
The statute seems to indicate that riders may ride as many abreast as they want so long as no other traffic is impeded.
Once overtaking traffic is being slowed then riders must travel no more than two abreast, so long as “the normal and reasonable movement of traffic” is not impeded.
Does this mean that riders on a roadway may ride two abreast even when going slower than overtaking traffic? It seems reasonable that the riders may maintain their
side by side position or double pace line so long as overtaking motorists are able to safely go around the group.
So, if there is no oncoming traffic, it is a passing zone, and overtaking traffic can easily go around the riders the law seems pretty clear. BUT what if it occurs in a no passing zone?
Bicycles and No Passing Zones
Currently some drivers and law enforcement officers argue that a motorist may not “pass” bicyclists in a “no passing zone”. This mechanistic approach encourages a frustrating gridlock condition in the traffic lanes. The better practice is to interpret the traffic statutes in a way that encourages a fluid and dynamic flow of traffic and allows the natural cooperative attitude of drivers and riders to team up to share the road. The statute supports such a view. ORS 811.420 states:
(1) A person commits the offense of passing in a no passing zone if the person drives a vehicle on the left side of a roadway in a no passing zone that has been established and designated to prohibit such movements by appropriate signs or markings posted on the roadway.
(2) The authority to establish and post no passing zones for purposes of this section is established under ORS 810.120 (Designation of no passing zones).
(3) The provisions of this section do not apply under any of the following circumstances:
- (a) When a driver turns left into or from an alley, intersection, private road or driveway.
- (b) When an obstruction or condition exists making it necessary to drive to the left of the center of the roadway provided that a driver doing so shall yield the right of way to all vehicles traveling in the proper direction upon the unobstructed portion of the roadway within a distance that would constitute an immediate hazard.
(4) The offense described in this section, passing in a no passing zone, is a Class B traffic violation”. [1983 c.338 §639; 1985 c.16 §316]
The passing zone statute prohibits a person from passing by driving a vehicle “on the left side of a roadway in a no passing zone”. What does it mean to “drive a vehicle on the left side of the roadway in a no passing zone”? Is the statute violated by the driver who merely allows the driver’s side tires to go slightly over the double yellow line to pass a single rider or line of bicyclists riding side by side? While the law is not entirely clear, it makes no sense to prohibit a driver from merely moving slightly over the double yellow line when the driver can lawfully perform the same maneuver to go around a pothole or a dog in the road. Common sense and the statute support a maneuver allowing motorized and human powered vehicles to move around each other and then proceed at their different rates of speed:
(3)The provisions of this section [prohibiting passing in a no passing zone] do not apply under any of the following circumstances:
- (b)When an obstruction or condition exists making it necessary to drive to the left of the center of the roadway provided that a driver doing so shall yield the right of way to all vehicles traveling in the proper direction upon the unobstructed portion of the roadway within a distance that would constitute an immediate hazard. ORS 811.420 (3)
The legal bottom line is that presence of bicyclists in the lane ahead is a “condition” that “exists making it necessary to drive to the left of the center of the roadway.” Thus, while a driver is prohibited from driving “on the left side of the roadway in a no passing zone” by ORS 811.420(1), the exceptions in ORS 811.420(3)(b) allow the driver to “drive to the left of the center of the roadway” for a “condition” that makes it “necessary”. Driving on the “left side of the roadway” suggests a greater intrusion over the centerline than to merely move over to “drive to the left of the center of the roadway”. And the narrow width of track of a bicycle allows the driver to safely pass without taking the passing vehicle all the way “on the left side of the roadway”.
Doug Parrow, a Salem-area bicycle advocate and blogger (www.dparrow.blogspot.com), has researched the legislative history regarding ORS 811.420 and found that Senator Floyd Prozanski very clearly represented the view during the Safe Passing Bill’s hearings that ORS 811.420 allows a motorist to cross a double yellow line in order to pass a bicyclist, and equated a bicyclist to a farm tractor or any other slow loving vehicle.
Of course this interpretation of the language achieves the cyclists’ desire to maintain speed and safe position on the roadway when being overtaken by cars. It is frustrating and dangerous for overtaking drivers to follow impatiently or honk the horn when the roadway ahead is clear and it is safe to go around the riders. Drivers need to know that their driver’s side tires will not be vaporized by passing over the double yellow line in order to give safe berth to bicyclists. Many unnecessary roadside conflicts would never occur if drivers would move over to pass bicyclists safely.
Oregon’s 2007 “Safe Passing” Law
The 2007 Oregon Legislature added an innovative law to the nation’s passing laws when Senator Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene) reformed Oregon’s bicycle passing laws with a new collection of legal concepts intended to remedy several factors believed responsible for the tragic death of triathlete Jane Higdon on Territorial Road when she and a group of riders were passed by a truck hauling logs. The new law provides:
ORS 811.065 Unsafe Passing of a Person Operating A Bicycle
(1) A driver of a motor vehicle commits the offense of unsafe passing of a person operating a bicycle if the driver violates any of the following requirements:
- (a) The driver of a motor vehicle may only pass a person operating a bicycle by driving to the left of the bicycle at a safe distance and returning to the lane of travel once the motor vehicle is safely clear of the overtaken bicycle. For the purposes of this paragraph, a ‘safe distance’ means a distance that is sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the driver’s lane of traffic. This paragraph does not apply to a driver operating a motor vehicle:
- (A) In a lane that is separate from and adjacent to a designated bicycle lane;
- (B) At a speed not greater than 35 miles per hour; or
- (C) When the driver is passing a person operating a bicycle on the person’s right side and the person operating the bicycle is turning left.
- (b) The driver of a motor vehicle may drive to the left of the center of a roadway to pass a person operating a bicycle proceeding in the same direction only if the roadway to the left of the center is unobstructed for a sufficient distance to permit the driver to pass the person operating the bicycle safely and avoid interference with oncoming traffic. This paragraph does not authorize driving on the left side of the center of a roadway when prohibited under ORS 811.295, 811.300 or 811.310 to 811.325.
- (c) The driver of a motor vehicle that passes a person operating a bicycle shall return to an authorized lane of traffic as soon as practicable.
(2) Passing a person operating a bicycle in a no passing zone in violation of ORS 811.420 constitutes prima facie evidence of commission of the offense described in this section, unsafe Enrolled Senate Bill 108 (SB 108-BCCA) Page 1 passing of a person operating a bicycle, if the passing results in injury to or the death of the person operating the bicycle.
(3) The offense described in this section, unsafe passing of a person operating a bicycle, is a Class B traffic violation. (Maximum fine of $360.)
The law, which went into effect on January 1, 2008, defines “safe distance” as “sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the driver’s lane of traffic.” While a number of states have legislated specific passing distances, the most common of which is three feet, the Oregon law uses the bicyclist’s “fall over” height as a distance measure, a useful gauge to protect from a side swipe.
Specific exclusions from the law are traffic lanes next to a bicycle lane, speeds below 35 mph, or when the bicyclist is turning left. The 35 mph speed limit was a compromise to allow city transit services to travel more closely to bicyclists in a low speed dense traffic environment.
The law limits the passing maneuver to instances where the roadway is unobstructed to avoid the situation where drivers are tempted to “squeeze” by bicyclists when there is oncoming traffic. The law makes clear its intention not to authorize passing when it is otherwise prohibited by law, and states that if a passing maneuver in a no-passing zone causes injury or death to the bicyclist then such an act is “prima facie” evidence of the offense, which means that no further proof is necessary to establish the elements of the violation. However, the law does not specifically prohibit passing a rider or group of riders in a no passing zone; instead it attempts to hold a driver responsible for an attempt to pass in a no-passing zone which results in an injury collision, either by the driver failing to yield to oncoming traffic or driving too close to the bicyclists.
What About When the Bicycle Passing Law Does Not Apply?
In instances where the new passing law is inapplicable, such as where the posted speed limit is less than 35 mph, then the general Oregon passing law will still apply to bicycles being passed by motorized traffic. ORS 811.410 governs passing on the left of another vehicle (including bicycles). It states in relevant part:
811.410 Unsafe passing on left; penalty.
(1) A person commits the offense of unsafe passing on the left if the person violates any of the following requirements concerning the overtaking and passing of vehicles:
- (a) The driver of a vehicle that is overtaking any other vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left of the other vehicle at a safe distance and shall not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle.
- (c) The driver of a vehicle shall not drive to the left side of the center of the roadway in overtaking and passing a vehicle proceeding in the same direction unless the left side is clearly visible and is free of oncoming traffic for a sufficient distance ahead to permit the overtaking and passing to be completed without interfering with the operation of a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction or a vehicle overtaken.
While the “general” passing law in ORS 811.410 does not include the new “fall over” safe passing distance contained in ORS 811.065, it nevertheless specifies that the passing vehicle must give a “safe distance” to the passed vehicle (bicycle). Where motorists “buzz” a bicyclist or even hit the rider when overtaking and passing the “general” rule of ORS 811.410 provides a basis for a traffic citation, even if the new bicycle passing law does not apply because of speed or where the bicyclist is in a bicycle lane. In instances where the motorist intentionally “buzzes” the bicyclist then stronger legal measures are called for, like Reckless Driving, Reckless Endangerment, Menacing or Assault (See articles on Motorist Harassment); but where the actions are the result of a mistake then the “general” law can still be the basis for a citation by law enforcement or a citizen violation prosecution. A citation for Careless Driving is also likely warranted in most unintentional “close passing” incidents.
“Following Too Close” and Pace Lines
The final portion of ORS 811.065 is an amendment to the “following too close” statute which clarifies that bicyclists may lawfully ride in a pace line. The “following too close” law, ORS 811.485, now specifically applies only to “motor” vehicles, excluding bicycles from its scope. While some members of the law enforcement community may be displeased that bicyclists are singled out for more favorable treatment than other vehicles, the law does make a clear statement that bicycle pace lines (where groups of bicyclists are “taking the wheel” of the rider in front in order to draft and reduce wind resistance) exist with the legal blessing of the vehicle code.
Oregon’s passing laws contain legal concepts allowing a fluid, dynamic, and cooperative sharing of the road between bicycles and motorized traffic. The traffic laws and best driving and riding practices unite to form a system supporting a harmonious and communal system for sharing the traffic lane. Bicyclists and motorists are responsible for applying these rules on the road into actual practice. The roadways are capable of safe use for all roadway users who educate themselves about the traffic laws and employ with a positive cooperative outlook.
1 814.430. Improper use of lanes; exceptions; penalty.
(1) A person commits the offense of improper use of lanes by a bicycle if the person is operating a bicycle on a roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic using the roadway at that time and place under the existing conditions and the person does not ride as close as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway.
(2) A person is not in violation of the offense under this section if the person is not operating a bicycle as close as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway under any of the following circumstances:
- (a) When overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle that is proceeding in the same direction.
- (b) When preparing to execute a left turn.
- (c) When reasonably necessary to avoid hazardous conditions including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards or other conditions that make continued operation along the right curb or edge unsafe or to avoid unsafe operation in a lane on the roadway that is too narrow for a bicycle and vehicle to travel safely side by side. Nothing in this paragraph excuses the operator of a bicycle from the requirements under ORS 811.425 or from the penalties for failure to comply with those requirements.
- (d) When operating within a city as near as practicable to the left curb or edge of a roadway that is designated to allow traffic to move in only one direction along the roadway. A bicycle that is operated under this paragraph is subject to the same requirements and exceptions when operating along the left curb or edge as are applicable when a bicycle is operating along the right curb or edge of the roadway.
- (e) When operating a bicycle alongside not more than one other bicycle as long as the bicycles are both being operated within a single lane and in a manner that does not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.
- (f) When operating on a bicycle lane or bicycle path.
(3) The offense described in this section, improper use of lanes by a bicycle, is a Class D traffic infraction.