Crash Course: Here's How to Drive With City Cyclists Without Killing Them (Update)

Categories: bikes

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Correction: This morning, the communication director for Assemblyman Tom Ammiano wrote to SF Weekly to explain that the text of AB 840, quoted below, is "spot language." In the interest of getting a bill before committee as quickly as possible, legislatures will file a bill before the exact language has been hammered out; in that event, dummy text is inserted as a "placeholder." The introduction of this post is based on dummy text from the bill. According to Ammiano's Office, there is no proposal to amend the standard California driver's license exam, the bill's current wording notwithstanding. However, we do not believe this detracts from the broader point of the post: The fact that no such requirement is being proposed is all the more reason to remind drivers of the rights of cyclists now. SF Weekly regrets the error.

Original post 7:45 a.m.: Last week, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill that would require drivers in California to officially recognize that cyclists exist.

Reading from Assembly Bill 840:

This bill would require the [driver's license] examination to also include a test of the applicant's knowledge and understanding of the provisions of the California Driver Handbook relating to bicycling, including, but not limited to, bicycle markings, bicycle lanes, and bicycles in travel lanes.

Which begs the question: How is this not already law?

Also, does the fact this hasn't been on the books explain why so many motorists don't seem to know what they're doing when driving around cyclists?

With my sincerest gratitude to the many drivers out there who adeptly share the road with their two-wheeled friends, I have to ask: What's wrong the rest of you?

Like the guy in the black sedan who cut me off the other day while darting into a parking spot on Beale -- only to look genuinely surprised, even forlorn, when I announced myself with a slap on the lid of his trunk.

Or the guy in the pickup truck I saw on my way to work a few weeks ago who very nearly flattened the rider in front of me -- only to give the hyperventilating cyclist the finger for, II assume, being in the way.

Or the woman on the motorcycle who demanded that the bike rider waiting in front of her at a 14th Street red light get out of her way -- only to shake her head dismissively when all of the cyclist's friends pointed to the street marking in the middle of the lane, which was an expository stick figure on a bicycle.

Who are these drivers and why don't they understand the rules of the road and how they apply to cyclists? Did they skip that part of driver's ed, or are they just jerks?

That's not a rhetorical question. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the etiquette of sharing the road. In it, I argued that, while it is certainly a cyclist's legal right to occupy the entire lane of a busy, sharowless street when a quieter bike lane is just a few blocks away, that doesn't make it a wise and considerate decision.

I got a fair amount of feedback in response to that line of reasoning -- a lot of it accusing me of promoting vehicular manslaughter (for the record, I strongly oppose vehicular manslaughter). But one comment in particular made me think. It came from a family member of mine who, bucking the trend, thanked me for providing some truly revelatory information.

Who knew, he marveled, that the law really does require a driver to patiently wait behind a person on a bike, "even if the biker is going really slow"?

Truly, the mind does reel.

All of which is to make the obvious point that while there certainly are wantonly reckless drivers out there -- and while ignorance about the rules of the road is itself a kind of recklessness -- some bike-hostile driving behavior isn't mean-spirited as much as it is uninformed.

And so, as we await the passage of AB 840, here are a few laws that every driver should know to follow.

  • If the cyclist needs the whole lane, the cyclist gets the whole lane.
All my Emily Post-ing about being considerate notwithstanding, the law really is pretty clear on this. Even if you think the cyclist made a poorly considered choice in opting to ride on the street that you happen to be on, sharrow or not, you seriously aren't allowed to edge the rider off the road. Cyclists should try to stick to the right side of the lane -- but not if there's a reasonable chance that he or she will get hit with a door while doing so. So ease up, driver. Wait to pass when it's safe and we'll all get there on time and with our collarbones intact.

  • Check behind you before swinging your door open onto the street.
Seriously, guys, this one is so obvious, I'm only including it because it offers a logical transition from the above and because I am still being victimized by car doors all the goddamn time.

  • You should merge into the bike lane before making the right turn.
There seems to be a lot of uncertainly about this law. I saw that uncertainty on the face of a panicking driver the other day. The driver was evidently trying to do the right thing, knowing that the bike lane is off-limits and yet also wanting to make a right turn across that hallowed no-go zone. The driver approached the intersection without merging into the lane and stops at the corner. Pandemonium ensued with half the cyclists flying by in the bike lane, the other half looping around to her left, a line of honking cars forms behind the poor driver, and everyone is just hating the hell out of her.

I know it's confusing, but don't worry, driver. You have every right to enter the bike lane -- even the Bicycle Coalition says so. Just be sure to signal and check your blind spot first.

But in every other case...

  • Please stay the fuck out of the bike lane.
I understand your complaints, I know that the cyclist cruising slowly up the Valencia Street bike lane scoping out spare tables or friends or women at your five most favorite restaurants, is annoying. But you know what else is totally annoying? Intracranial bleeding. So unless your vehicle has a siren, a towing winch, or rear compartment full of deliverables, please get out of my legally designated safe space.

Am I leaving anything out? What other rules of the road should every driver know?

Ben Christopher is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. His favorite pastimes include pretending to work at coffee shops and shaking his fist disapprovingly at errant drivers from atop his baby blue Cannondale.

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First you say merge into the bike lane.  Then you say stay out of the bike lane.  You should have said, "stay out of the bike lane except when preparing to make a right turn". Let's check the law.

CVC 21209 prohibits driving in the bike lane EXCEPT in the last 200 feet before you make a right turn.  In other words, it's OK just before you make a right turn.

CVC 21717 actually REQUIRES motorists to merge into the bike lane before a right turn.  This prevents overtaking bicyclists from passing your right turning vehicle on the right.  It's a good thing.  You're actually required to do it and it's safer for the bicyclists, even if most of them don't understand it.

Of course, you still have to comply with CVC 22107/22108 which means signalling and yielding to traffic already in the lane before moving into the bike lane.  It's still legally considered a lane change and you have to do it safely.

Also, if there is no bike lane, CVC 22100(a) requires you to move as far right as practicable before a right turn.  Again, this is to keep bicyclists from passing you on the right when you're making a right turn.

Bicyclists who are trained in bicycle safety (vehicular cyclists) will move to the left when approaching a place where a right turn is authorized in order to avoid conflicts with right turning drivers.  This is explicitly permitted when there are bike lanes by CVC 21208(a)(4) and CVC 21202(a)(4) when there are no bike lanes.  This is one of the most common circumstances in urban and suburban areas that cause bicyclists to need to use the full lane for safety reasons and it is explicitly provided for by the law.  Drivers who don't like it need to learn how to change lanes like a grown up.


A big one:  avoid the squeeze play.  Don't pass a bike on a narrow 2-lane road if there is oncoming traffic that will all meet at the same location.  Just pause for a moment until only one car and one other vehicle have to share the space.


Ben, cyclists, drivers, everyone out there: please check out to find a simple way to drive and ride more 

I have been passing these out to drivers when they do something dumb (opening a door into me, turning right or pulling into a parking spot and cutting me off, etc) and have gotten 100% "great idea" responses from the drivers, who have put them right onto their windshields. This will help us all so let's spread them around so we can ride more safely!

Message me through the website or Facebook to get some or with any questions. Thanks - Amy


Great write the accompanying piece telling cyclists how to ride amongst traffic and not ask for it, eg blowing thru stop signs, merging into traffic without signaling, etc, etc.


Things have changed and nobody told us older drivers?

Bike lanes are understood and can keep out of them, no problem.  Bike lanes in the middle of the street don't make sense.  Riders getting in front of cars when either turning or going straight, owning the lane in front of a faster car, doesn't make sense.  Bikes in the left turn lane making turns in front of cars, doesn't make sense.

I grew up in the 50's, 60's and 70's riding bikes in L.A. riding from Venice to UCLA, or down Wilshire to work on Sunset Blvd. so I know city biking, or thought I did.

Would act more like a pedestrian than riders do now.  Hugged the curb lane, made left turns in the pedestrian crosswalk, always deferred to cars never slowed them down or stopped in front of them.  I would blow through stop signs, the only act of incivility.  Would never think to be in the left turn lane in front of cars ready to turn themselves, behind you, very dangerous I thought.

Nowadays and as this article relates things are different.  Not better, different.  I see what I consider a lot of dangerous and inconsiderate riding behavior that I would not have done in my bicycling days - just stupid really.  Urban bicyclists aggressively putting themselves in front of cars, acting like cars is an incendiary situation, and the bike will lose.

Think riders and the description of rules and etiquette stated above needs to be re-thought for everyone's benefit.


The fourth point is the most perplexing, as I almost never see a driver who "gets it" about turning right across a bike lane. Your hapless, "panicky" driver is a typical scene.

However, I also almost never see cyclists, and I am a cyclist, who "get it" that, when a driver does signal a turn and eases into the bike lane, they are to slow and allow said car to execute the turn. Too often I see riders squeezing themselves between the car and the curb, which creates a stupidly dangerous situation.


@oja462 You are mistaking assertiveness (good) with aggression (bad). The bicyclist getting in front of the car is trying to use their road position to communicate their intentions about an upcoming maneuver or perhaps a blocked bike lane that ahead that the driver doesn't see or anticipate, and is trying to be as visible to the motorist as possible. A cyclist hugging the curb or using pedestrian crosswalks is easily unseen or unexpected, and many collisions occur because of this.

Biking was much more dangerous in the 50s, 60s and 70s than it is today, relatively speaking, so I'd say that what we are doing now with regards both to improved bicycle infrastructure as well as laws and regulations that put bicycle traffic closer to an equal footing with car traffic is both different AND better.

I see plenty of irresponsible behavior on our streets, on the part of bicyclists, drivers, and pedestrians alike, but the cyclists out there who are using the roadways as intended and trying to stay as visible and predictable to other road users as possible are the ones contributing to safer conditions, not detracting from them.


@oja462 , Cyclists get in front of cars when turning or going straight for the same reason that motorcyclists do - because we don't want to get rear-ended, or worse, crushed between cars and killed. Also, hugging the curb is never safe, it invites drivers to pass too closely, without changing their lane or lane position. Drive safe.


@RickinSF Good point. I too have noticed this. Take the very example of the panicky driver in which half the cyclists continue to blow by in the bike lane to the right of the car. I fear that @unk1 might be being a tad facetious in suggesting I write a follow up for cyclists, but certainly both sides could stand a bit of extra education.

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