Bicycle riders on public roadways in California are protected and regulated by law.

If you grew up riding a bicycle, you may not have spent much time thinking about how the law applies to cyclists. After all, you don’t need a license to cycle, and you don’t have to register your bike. But in fact, the same regulatory code that governs how people can legally (and safely) operate motor vehicles, (the California Vehicle Code), also applies to cyclists..

While some of the laws written for automobiles cover bicycles as well, there are also regulations that specifically pertain to the operation of bicycles. It’s important to understand your legal rights and obligations as a cyclist, as you could be at risk for legal penalties and civil liability if you fail to adhere to California bicycle laws.

VC 21200, Use of a Bicycle

This portion of the California Vehicle Code essentially classifies a bicycle as a vehicle with regard to traffic laws. As such, bicycle riders must obey the same common laws that apply to motor vehicles. For example, cyclists must obey traffic signs and signals, ride to the right with traffic flow, and obey posted speed limits.

This section also makes it mandatory for all conveyances sharing the road to do so safely and prudently, and places a duty of care on every vehicle operator. For cyclists, this duty of care mandates riding along the far right side of the road when traveling slower than surrounding traffic, unless overtaking another “vehicle,” making a left turn, or avoiding a hazard such as a pothole or parked vehicle.

(On one-way streets with multiple lanes, cyclists can ride near the left or the right curb.)

VC 21200.5, Operating Under the Influence of Alcohol or Drugs

Our drunk driving laws are tough. But did you know that cycling while intoxicated is also a crime in California? Indeed, California Vehicle Code section 21200.5 makes it unlawful to operate a bicycle on roads or sidewalks under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

If a cyclist is discovered to be under the influence, they could face fines of up to $250 – and while there is no jail time for this offense, it will create a misdemeanor criminal record. If the cyclist is under the age of 21, they can also lose their driving privileges for up to a year.

VC 21201, Requirements for Bicycle Equipment

Much like laws pertaining to the safety of motor vehicles, California bicycle law requires two-wheeled pedal-powered vehicles to meet certain mandatory safety requirements in order to be considered lawful. (Though these regulations only apply to riders on public roads, not private driveways or parking lots.)

These legal requirements include:

  • Brakes: Bicycles must have brakes which allow riders to successfully stop the bike with one brake (Wheel skid allowed.)

  • Handlebars: Handlebars must be of a standard height and can never rest higher than the rider’s shoulders.

  • Bicycle size: A bike must be of an appropriate size for the rider. Specifically, the height of the bicycle must be such that riders can balance the bicycle in an upright position with one foot on the ground

  • Lights: If a bike is operated after dark, it must have a white-light lamp at the front (which may also be “attached” to the rider.)

  • Reflectors: If a bike is operated after dark, it must have a red light or reflector on the rear, and yellow or white reflectors on the pedals.

The white light at the front must be able to be seen for at least 300 meters. If a red light (instead of a red reflector) is present on the back of the bike, the light must be visible from at least 500 meters.

VC 21203, Hitching a Ride

This one should probably be a “no-brainer”, but it’s unlawful for a cyclist to “hitch” their bicycle to another vehicle and be pulled along behind.

VC 21204, Giving Passengers Rides

Under California law, you can’t have passengers on a single-seat bicycle – so no handlebar-sitting or peg-standing. However, if you do have a permanent and regularly attached second seat, you can carry a passenger. And if you’re planning to take a child for a ride, the law mandates that kids under four (or children under 40 pounds) must ride in an elevated seat specifically designed to protect them from the moving parts of the bicycle.

VC 21205, Carrying Items on a Bike

California bicycle law mandates that all riders operate their bike with at least one hand on the handlebars at all times. That means that if you plan to carry packages on your ride, you have to do so safely.

VC 21208, Using a Bicycle Lane

While there are still roads in California that don’t have dedicated bike lanes, bigger cities like Los Angeles, and especially San Francisco, are adding hundreds of dedicated bicycle lanes per year. In these areas, California bicycle law mandates that cyclists travelling slower than surrounding traffic use these dedicated bike lanes when available. This law is not only designed to protect California cyclists from accidents involving motor vehicles, it’s also designed to decrease congestion in urban areas.

Exceptions to this law exist, and include:

  • A cyclist overtaking another vehicle.

  • A bicycle making a left turn.

  • A cyclist avoiding a hazard within the bike lane (a pedestrians, a car, etc.)

However, whenever a bicyclist chooses to leave a dedicated bike lane, they must first use an appropriate hand signal in order to notify surrounding drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians that they intend to merge into traffic.

VC 21210, Parking a Bicycle

Bike parking is usually enforced by local ordinances. However, the California Vehicle Code does state that bicycles must be parked in an upright position whenever possible, and must not block pedestrian traffic.

VC 21212, Helmet Use

California cyclists aren’t required to wear helmets unless they are under 18 years of age. For young riders, the law regulates what types of helmets must be worn, including setting standards (ANSI or SNELL) for each safety device used. If you are a parent of an underage cyclist caught riding without a helmet, you could face a $25 fine.

VC 22111, Using Hand Signals

This is an important California bicycle accident law that may determine your share of the liability if you’re involved in a bike accident. The vehicle code states that all cyclists must accurately use hand signals in order to notify surrounding cyclists, drivers, and pedestrians of their intention to turn, merge, or exit a bike lane.

Standard signals include:

  • Extending the left hand/arm horizontally to signal a left turn.

  • Extending the right hand/arm horizontally to signal a right turn.

  • Extending the left hand/arm down to the side to indicate a sudden decrease in speed.

If you fail to signal and are then are struck by a vehicle, as a cyclist you may share a portion of the liability under California’s comparative negligence laws.

VC 27400, Using Headsets or Earplugs

Cyclists, like drivers, are prohibited from using more than one earphone/earbud while riding. Doing so can be an extreme safety hazard, as the a cyclist may not be clued into sounds in the environment that can warn of an impending accident.

It is not only unlawful; it can also result in a lower award or settlement after an accident, because it could constitute negligence and make you partially liable for the accident, thus decreasing the proportion of negligence apportioned to the driver who struck you.

Violating California Bicycle Accident Laws Reduces Your Potential Accident Compensation

As touched on above, if you are in violation of any of these California bicycle laws at the time of a collision, (whether with an automobile, another bicycle, or a pedestrian), you may not only face fines – you could also reduce the amount of your potential insurance company settlement, or your award in personal injury lawsuit.

Because California is a “comparative negligence” state, every party involved in an accident is assigned a portion of the liability (fault). If there is evidence that you were in violation of the regulations that apply to cyclists at the time of the accident, you may be found to have contributed to the conditions which created the accident.

Therefore, an insurance company may be able to successfully argue that they don’t owe you as much because you had a hand in creating your own injuries. Likewise, a court may decide that your actions directly contributed to your injuries, and may reduce the amount that another party is ordered to pay out.

So it’s not only generally in the interest of your health and safety to be aware of and follow California’s bicycle laws, it can also help you safeguard your legal rights and financial wellbeing in the event that you’re involved in a crash.