Protecting Bicyclists

Every four to five seconds, a bicyclist is injured in a crash.¹ On average, two or three of them will die on any given day, although the numbers are higher during the nicer weather months.²

While society encourages people to bicycle both for the environment and for their health, it’s important for both bicyclists and motorists to appreciate significant differences in laws and practices.

Some motorists do not know the different rules that apply to bicyclists at intersections.  At a stop sign or flashing red light in Oregon, a bicyclist is not required to come to a complete stop.  Bicyclists can treat stop signs and flashing red lights as yield signs.  For those intersections, it is legal for a bicyclist to slow down to a safe speed, yield the right of way, then continue without stopping.  That’s a very different rule than what motor vehicle drivers must follow, and can be a source of misunderstanding.

Some drivers still think that bicyclists should be on sidewalks.  Bicyclists have the right to use the road, with some exceptions, such as interstate freeways.  Regular bicycles are often allowed but not required to use sidewalks.  However, sidewalks are really designed for pedestrians, not bicyclists.  Riding a bicycle on particular sidewalks may be restricted by local laws.  For example, many towns ban bicycle riding on downtown sidewalks.  Bicyclists who ride on sidewalks, where allowed, need to respect pedestrians and be aware of the special rules that apply to crossing the street in a crosswalk.  A bicyclist in a crosswalk is required to go no faster than a pedestrian’s walking speed.

While bicyclists usually have the right to drive on the road just as a car would, if there is a bicycle lane or path adjacent to a roadway, the bicyclist must generally use that lane or path (with exceptions for such things as making a left turn or avoiding debris in the lane or path).  If there is no bike lane or path, if a bicyclist is going slower than the normal speed of traffic, the bicyclist generally should be closer to the right side of the roadway (again, with some exceptions!).  On the other hand, riding too far to the right presents its own hazards.  On narrow roads without a shoulder, bicyclists actually should ride closer to the center of the traffic lane.  When riding on the road, bicyclists are required to go in the same direction as motor vehicle traffic in their lane.

E-bikes have become increasingly popular.  An e-bike is an electric assist bicycle, which is operated by pedaling, but gets an extra boost from an electric motor.   Children under 16 years of age are not allowed to operate an e-bike in Oregon.  Bicyclists on e-bikes may ride on roads and on bicycle lanes and paths, but never on sidewalks.  Many off-road areas have special rules about e-bike use, so it’s important to check before you go to parks and trails.

Two of the biggest practice differences for bicyclists and motorists have to do with visibility and protective headgear.

The law doesn’t require it, but it’s a good idea for bicyclists to wear higher visibility clothing, even in the daytime.  For nighttime visibility, bicycles must have a white light on the front, and a red light or reflector visible from the rear.  Reflective clothing is not required, but is a great idea at night.

Protective headgear is required for bicyclists in Oregon under 16 years of age on a highway or premises open to the public.  Helmets are a good idea for adult bicyclists, too.  Bicycle helmets reduce the severity of head injuries, but even the best do not prevent brain damage in all crashes.  If a bicyclist is injured in a crash, evidence of whether that person was using protective headgear is not admissible in court to reduce the amount of damages in a legal case.

The Oregon Department of Transportation publishes a helpful Oregon Bicycling Manual, which goes into many bicycling questions in much more depth.  The Manual is available on line at no cost ³.

1. CDC Bicycle Safety
2. NHTSA Bicycle Safety
3. Oregon Bicycling Manual