Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Riding Two Abreast

(Image from the Pennsylvania Bicycle Drivers Manual, an excellent resource.)

A discussion of state and local laws that pertain to bicycling is a standard part of any Road1 course. As part of the bicycling education effort here on TAObike, this may become a regular feature. Brian Potter and I were specifically asked about the 'riding abreast' portion of Oklahoma's bicycling law, and we solicited Gary Parker's input for this post also. Now remember, none of us are attorneys. We merely watch them on television until they get boring. We're League of American Bicyclists instructors, and as such we teach 'best practices' that conform to the law.

There's a great deal of confusion and misinformation regarding bicycle law in Oklahoma. Partly, that can be attributed to the fact that state law and local law may differ on some points. But on riding abreast, both Oklahoma and Tulsa law agree that it's a legal practice.

As in every discussion of our legal rights, there's also the counter balance of responsibilities. The two go hand-in-hand.



    [b]Persons riding bicycles upon a roadway shall not ride more than two abreast except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles.



Persons operating bicycles upon a roadway shall not ride more than two abreast, except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles.

This is unambiguous language prohibiting cyclists from riding more than 2 abreast. Some misread this and interpret it as a prohibition against riding 2 abreast, forgetting that it actually says “more than 2 abreast” provided the riders are on a roadway. Strangely, this law allows more than two abreast riding on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles. So it would be legal (but rude and perhaps dangerous) to ride three abreast on the River Park trail, for instance. Keep three abreast in mind because we'll return to it momentarily.

But why would cyclists want to ride side-by-side? Wouldn't single file be safer, not to mention more convenient for motorists? I'll preface this by stating that as far as I'm aware, there are no crash statistics available that show rates for single-file vs two abreast riders.

First, here's a brief explanation of lane positioning and Oklahoma's three feet law. Again, these are worthy of detailed discussion, so this will be merely an overview. Cyclists should ride in the right-hand tire track. This means they have a third of the lane to their right and two-thirds to their left. Most lanes in Oklahoma are 12 feet wide, so a cyclist would have 8 feet to his left (from his tire track or the center line of his bike) out to the center line on the road. A bicycle is approximately 2 feet wide, so if his tire track is 3 feet from the right hand road edge, the left side of this handlebar is 4 feet from that edge. Overtaking traffic must give a cyclist 3 feet of clearance at a minimum, so a single cyclist takes up 7 feet of road width. That leaves 5 feet of usable width for overtaking. If a motorist wishes to pass safely and legally, he must straddle or cross the centerline when opposing traffic permits. Make no mistake – it is ALWAYS the responsibility of overtaking traffic to do so safely. So in a typical Oklahoma lane, a motorist must cross the centerline in order to pass safely whether there is one cyclist on the road ahead or two cyclists riding side-by-side. The passing situation does not change with the number of cyclists present.

To some it will seem counter-intuitive, but riding side-by-side benefits both motorists and cyclists. Two cyclists are more visible to an overtaking motorist, so it's more likely he'll slow down and pass safely. And if a group rides 2 abreast, its total length is halved. Six cyclists occupy as much space as a single motor vehicle when they're side-by-side, meaning that an overtaking vehicle spends less time in the opposing lane. What some motorists see as an unnecessary obstruction actually makes the road safer for both cyclists and motorists.

But what of those situations where cyclists are riding 3 or more abreast on the road? While it may appear to be illegal from a motorist's perspective, what may be happening is a lone cyclist is passing two others. Speed differences are often only 2 or 3 miles per hour, so passing can take some time and distance. Most cyclists realize that if they're caught up in a large group riding 3 wide or more (as is common in bicycle racing) the cyclist in the middle has nowhere to go if something happens just ahead. Even a casual observer at a race can see the chain reaction in a big group as a single rider causes many others to fall. For that reason alone, riding three or more abreast can be very dangerous and is deservedly illegal.

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