California Bike Law Explained

Cycling may not have started in California but we’ve definitely put our stamp on the pastime. Several of our largest and most popular cities (San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and even Los Angeles) have embraced the humble bicycle as a worthy alternative to cars. In fact, they’ve spent millions of dollars to revamp aging infrastructures to better accommodate bicycles.

It’s not hard to understand why. Bikes are smaller, cause less congestion, create no pollution, don’t rely on fossil fuels, and are affordable. Bikes are a great form of alternative transportation. However, California bike law places certain restrictions and obligations on cyclists—many of which few people know about let alone understand.

As a California personal injury lawyer I’ve seen what the failure to understand bike law can do to an innocent victim’s ability to seek compensation for their injuries. If you’re involved in a bicycle accident in California but have directly contributed to that accident by violating any of the bike laws on the books, you could be denied any or all compensation.

While the number of people who rely primarily on two-wheeled, pedal-powered transportation in California has risen every year for the past decade, public educations programs have failed to inform everyone of their responsibilities as a cyclist. Therefore I urge every rider (young and old) to learn California bike law and how various codes affect them before they ever put foot to pedal.

The California Vehicle Code (and How it Pertains to Bikes)

Most of the specific codes pertaining to cycling can be found in The California Vehicle Code. Bicyclists, with a few exceptions, have the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities as car and truck drivers. These rules are, for the most part, located under California Vehicle Code Division 11, Chapter 1 Article 4 “Rules of the Road.” This section lays out where cyclists can ride, how bikes must be manufactured and maintained, and even what you can and can’t carry, wear, or use during your ride.

bicycle

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Where Bicyclists Can Ride

Basically a general rule of thumb is that if you’re riding your bike with traffic (maintaining speed with the cars around you) you can ride anywhere in the travel lane as long as you’re riding with traffic. If you can’t keep up that speed, California bike law (specifically CVC 21202) requires that you ride on the right (as close to the edge as practical) or in a bike lane if provided. Certain exceptions to that rule include:

  • When passing (cars, pedestrians, or other cyclists)
  • When turning left
  • Avoiding hazards in the roadway (potholes, railroad tracks, debris)
  • Or when approaching a right turn.

These exceptions allow cyclists to “take the lane,” meaning they are legally allowed to enter the automobile travel lane. Drivers must allow cyclists to do this and must, in these instances, treat bikes as if they were automobiles. Motorists just hate this, because it requires them to slow down and be patient.

The Bike Lane (Is Optional in Some Cases)

While bike lanes in California are designed to physically separate cyclists from automobile traffic, using the bike is actually optional if the cyclist is able to keep up with the flow of traffic.

California Bike Law

The bike lane can be optional

CVC 21208 of California’s bike law states that even if the cyclist cannot maintain the speed of surrounding traffic they are allowed to leave the bike lane under certain conditions including when:

  • There’s a hazards in the bike lane ahead
  • When turning left (or right)
  • When passing cyclists in the bike lane
  • When the bike lane passes through a construction zone

The Sidewalk is (Almost) Always a No-No

Under California bike law individual cities or municipalities are able to pass rules and regulations which allow or deny cyclists access to sidewalks. In the majority of instances – like in San Francisco - riding a bike on the sidewalk is against the rules (unless the cyclist is a child). And even when not specifically disallowed, riding a bicycle on the sidewalk can be dangerous.

As a cyclist you must treat pedestrians with respect and yield the right of way to them (much like automobile operators do). As such, you can be held responsible for any injuries caused in a collision between your bicycle and a person walking on foot. Riding between pedestrians is simply a recipe for disaster and if you can avoid doing so, you should.

Highways and Toll Bridges

California bike law (specifically CVC 21960 and CVC 23330) forbids cyclists from riding on highways, freeways, and toll bridges (not that many would want to anyway). These specific codes were designed to keep bikes out of high-speed danger zones. While using one of these forbidden travel routes may save time, you can actually be fined (and perhaps arrested) if caught. Plus you’re putting yourself in unnecessary danger by doing so. So don’t do it.

Building, Outfitting, and Maintaining Your Bicycle

You can’t simply grab a bike out of the “free” pile at a local yard sale and ride off down the street. (Well you can, but you may be breaking the law!)

Every bicycle on California streets and roadways must have certain equipment installed on it before it is deemed “roadworthy” under California bike law. 

Necessary equipment includes (but is not limited to):

  • Handlebars (installed no higher than the rider’s shoulders—so no “Ape Hangers”)
  • Brakes (specifically allowing riders to execute a one-handed stop on level pavement.) 
  • Lights (if used at night) including a white headlight attached to either the bike or the cyclist.
  • Reflectors including:
  • A red reflector on the back
  • White or yellow reflectors on each pedal (or the rider’s feet)
  • White or yellow reflectors on the front of the bike AND a red or white reflector on both sides of the back of the bike.
  • (These side-mounted reflectors are not required if reflectors are present on the wheels of the bicycle.)
  • Seats. All riders must have a permanent, affixed seat (unless the bike was designed by the manufacturer without one). Passengers who weigh less than 40 pounds (typically children) must be placed in a seat that holds them in place and protects them from gears, sprockets, spokes, and other moving parts.

Additionally bicycle size is codified in California bike law. The law specifically states that bikes must be small (short) enough so that riders can stop and support the bike with one foot on the ground. Sizing is so important because cyclists must come to complete stops at all stop signs and traffic lights (just like automobiles) and starting from a stopped position can be difficult and dangerous if the bike is too tall.

What You Wear

Helmets—according to California bike law, they’re mandatory for cyclists under the age of 18. (And as a personal injury lawyer in California I highly recommend helmets for everyone). Helmets are the best protection against head injury—the leading cause of death and traumatic injury in bicycle accidents in California. So buckle up! However, there are some mixed reviews on how effective bike helmets are in protecting your brain in a serious bicycle accident.

If your helmet doesn’t fit properly, it’s not doing its job. (Watch this short video created by the NHTSA to see how to properly fit a bicycle helmet.)

Head phones/earbuds, cellphones, etc. must leave one ear free. This is a safety measure designed to allow riders to hear approaching vehicles, car horns, warning sirens/bells, etc.. As a cyclist, your safety is your responsibility—you can’t rely on others to ensure you make it back home in one piece. Listening to audio clues around you is one of the best ways to ensure you’re completely aware of your surroundings and know what’s coming your way. You don’t want to part of the cause for a serious bicycle accident.

Additionally, bicyclists are legally prohibited from carrying items on their bikes if the item is bulky enough that it forces them to take both hands off the handlebars.

Impaired Operation | Cycling Under the Influence

California bike law also makes it illegal for you to operate a bicycle while under the influence of illegal drugs and/or alcohol. Check out CVC 21200.5. If you’re ability to safely ride a bike is impaired, you’re putting more than just your life on the line. Not only is riding while intoxicated irresponsible, it’s illegal and could result in a serious bicycle accident, having to pay a fine of $250 and/or having your license suspended.

California Bicycle Accident Lawyers Fighting for You

Understanding California bike law is a good way to help keep you safer on the roadways but bicycle accidents still happen to good riders. Even if you’ve followed all the Rules of the Road, done your part to ride safely, and obeyed every traffic law you can end up the victim of a driver’s bad decision, poor behavior, or criminal negligence. In cases such as this, having an experience California bicycle accident lawyer on your side may be the best way to get the compensation you deserve. 

Sally Morin is an experienced legal professional who has been helping accident victims put their lives back together for twenty years. With offices in San Francisco, LA, Oakland, and San Jose, her team of lawyers is just a click or phone call away. Get a FREE online case evaluation now to see if we can help.