by Ray Thomas
Ray Thomas is a Portland bike lawyer.
There are a number of laws relating specifically to bicycles that are important to know in developing bicycle skills. Generally, all of the rules of the road also apply to bicycles, including Oregon’s DUII laws, speed limit laws, and laws relating to traffic signals. General knowledge of the rules from a bicyclist’s perspective may help to make new riders more confident on the roadway.
Where to Ride?
If a bicycle lane is available, Oregon law requires that you use it. However, if no bicycle lane is available then bicyclists must either proceed at the lawful speed of traffic, or ride as far to the right (or to the left on a one-way) as practicable. Bicyclists are allowed to ride up to two abreast when taking the lane and then must proceed single file when allowing faster traffic to pass. However, bicyclists may move cautiously into the lane even if approaching drivers must slow down if there are surface hazards (such as glass or gravel) or when the lane is so narrow that a motorist and bicycle cannot safely proceed side by side. A bicycle rider may also move into the middle of the lane in order to make a left turn. However, the lane usage law does not allow a bicyclist to suddenly move from a position of safety out into the traffic lane if it’s a hazard for approaching vehicles that are unable to slow down or stop.
When Do Bicyclists Have the Right of Way?
Generally speaking, bicyclists have the same right of way privileges as motor vehicles. Stop signs, traffic signals, and unmarked intersections are handled the same way for all vehicles — yield to the vehicle on your right in an unmarked intersection, and only go through a yellow light when you are unable to stop safely before entering the intersection.
Bicyclists must yield to pedestrians on sidewalks and in cross walks, and give an audible signal like ringing a bell or saying “on your left” or “on your right” when passing pedestrians.
Motorists must also yield to bicyclists in bicycle lanes, although motorists are allowed to use the bicycle lanes to cross over when parking or turning.
There is much confusion about bicycle riders on sidewalks. Motorists must yield to bicyclists on sidewalks and in crosswalks; however, bicyclists may go no faster than a normal walking speed (about 3 mph) in crosswalks, driveways, or curb cuts if a motor vehicle is approaching. Bicyclists have a right to be on sidewalks unless otherwise prohibited by law; a number of cities in Oregon prohibit bicyclists from riding on sidewalks in core downtown areas. Portland, for example, makes it illegal for bicyclists to ride on sidewalks in the downtown area.
Do I Need to Use Signals?
Bicyclists are required by Oregon law to use hand signals for turns and stops. Watching other cyclists who use signals is the best way to get the general gist of the technique of signaling. Using signals is an important part of skilled bicycle riding because motorists are used to other cars signaling their intentions. Hand signals create predictability, and allow other riders and drivers to engage in the cooperation we all seek to achieve as we get from Point A to Point B. Oregon law requires that bicyclists signal turns and stops with a hand signal for 100 feet. However, when both hands are required on the bars or to brake, the law excuses compliance when “circumstances require that both hands be used to safely control the bicycle.” Making eye contact with drivers and using clear hand signals makes for safe assertive lane changes, even in heavy traffic.
My Bike Has Reflectors, Why Do I Need Lights?
Oregon law requires that bicyclists use a white light to the front in “limited visibility conditions.” While ambient light conditions are frequently sufficient to enable a rider to see where he or she is going, a front light is necessary to comply with the law. A handlebar mounted light is lightweight, easy to install, and inexpensive. While a rear reflector is sufficient to comply with Oregon law, it is a good idea to purchase a red flashing strobe for the rear. While reflectors provide a fairly good warning of your presence when they are “activated” by a car’s headlights, the angles of light are frequently presented to the reflector at the wrong angle, and the bicyclist may be invisible.
Who Has to Wear Helmets on Bicycles?
Oregon law requires that bicyclists 16 years of age or younger wear helmets at all times. Accident statistics show that helmets are a necessary part of riding gear and lessen the likelihood of head injury in the event of a spill. Parents need to wear helmets if they expect their children to do the same.
Should I Use a Mirror?
There is no requirement under the law that bicycle riders use a mirror. However, imagine stripping the mirrors from your car and trying to drive through heavy traffic; it would be a frustrating experience with much head turning. Then add the confounding factor that a bicyclist must maintain a careful balance to prevent the bike from careening from side to side while turning the head, and it becomes clear what a mirror can do to make bike riding safer and easier. Helmet mounted mirrors are my personal favorite (some riders object to looking like they have a single antenna hanging off of their head) but mirrors mounted on the brake hood or left handle bar end also work well. Knowing where the traffic is around you allows you to think ahead as you wind your way around surface obstacles and choose your path of travel.
This article is a very brief overview of Oregon law regarding bicycles. There is more information here at the web site, or you can purchase our book Pedal Power, at area bike shops or directly from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance at (503) 226-0626. It contains Oregon bicycle laws, articles, and the rules covering bicycle riding on sidewalks and freeways.