Rules for cyclists: break, bend, or follow?

Editor’s note: ‘Clickshift’ is a new cycling feature on Spacing Ottawa authored by Kathryn Hunt. Kathryn is a writer and editor who started cycling as her main mode of transportation in early 2007. Now a year-round, all-weather cyclist, she has a hard time remembering life without two wheels. She maintains a cycling blog at theincidentalcyclist.blogspot.com.


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Spring is finally here: the roads are clear of snow and ice, the temperatures have crept up above zero while we weren’t looking, and a lot of people are getting their bikes out of storage, tuning them up, and getting them back on the road. Most cyclists, actually: while something like 2-3% of Ottawa’s population commutes by bicycle in the summer months, winter riders are far fewer.

I find that as a winter rider, when spring comes back, I readjust my relationship to the rules of the road. Conditions are different. I’m moving faster. I’m more relaxed. There’s more space. I can bike off-road again, hop more easily onto bike paths, cut through parking lots. But I also find that I roll my eyes when I go by someone riding on the sidewalk (unless that someone is a child.) In other words, in spring it becomes much more clear to me that we cyclists cherry-pick the traffic laws we follow: some of us knowingly and, maybe, some of us unknowingly. The rules of the road are a shifty grey area for cyclists, many of whom seem to feel that a) the rules are car-centric, b) cyclists are by nature anarchic, and c) they have the right to choose how they relate to cars. I see this in myself, as I execute a rolling stop at a four-way but grumble at the cyclist I see heading the wrong way up the sidewalk, or pedaling down Bank Street after dark with no lights.

In a piece in Culture Magazine, writer Lauren Cheal illustrated the bike-anarchist attitude: “There are many instances where following the rules as a biker is more likely to get you into a dangerous situation. There are as many instances where following them is important to your cycling safety. The point is that, to a bike commuter, it just doesn’t matter. You do what you need to do to get home safely.”

While I disagree with her assertion that the rules are “designed to protect cars and cars alone,” I do have to agree that there are times when it feels to me that following the rules of the road is more dangerous than breaking them, and there are times when following the rules is clearly the safest thing to do. What I find encouraging is that in the City of Ottawa “Cycling and the Law” website, and in the Highway Traffic Act, it is specifically spelled out that a cyclist is responsible for her own safety above anything else: it is actually illegal for a cyclist to put herself in danger in order to avoid inconveniencing a motorist. (Now, we just need motorists to be aware of that part of the Act and stop being angry with cyclists for legally taking up their lane, as in the much-publicized “bump” incident posted on Bikeview.ca. )

And the reason I learned that fact was that I finally looked it up. I realized, this spring, that I didn’t actually know for certain what the laws were. I knew what had been passed along to me through word of mouth: the basics. For example, I knew that bicycles are considered vehicles by the law, and cyclists are expected to obey the same traffic signals, indications, and rules as motor vehicles. I knew that cyclists are supposed to stay as far right as is safe, that you’re required to have front and rear lights and/or reflectors after dusk (and you have to have a white light in front, and a bell.) And I knew that you’re supposed to signal turns, that you’re not allowed to ride on pedestrian crosswalks, or on the sidewalk, or the wrong way down a one-way street, and that it’s essentially polite, when you’re coming up behind a car signaling a right turn, to slow up behind the car and let the driver turn right, rather than ducking past, risking a collision if the driver didn’t see you there. But I knew all that from being a cyclist, from conversations with other cyclists, and – in some cases – from common sense. I hadn’t actually checked against the law. So I did that.

The Ontario Highway Traffic Act governs all public roads and highways in the province. (Take note: things change when you cross the river to Quebec; for example, you’re required to be on a bike path, or designated bike route, if there’s one anywhere near where you are. Check out Transports Quebec’s Cycling Facilities page. There is a boiled-down version of the laws relating to cycling on the City of Ottawa website, although, interestingly, the HTA dictates that all cyclists have to wear helmets, while the City site says only riders under 18 are required to have helmets. I was also surprised to find that nowhere in the HTA was there any stipulation about wheel size: I’d taken for granted the common notion that bicycles with wheels under a certain diameter were allowed on the sidewalk, but could find no such regulation in the Act. A bicycle is a bicycle, regardless of wheel size. In fact, just in case you’re wondering, I can now confirm that a unicycle is also considered a bicycle and subject to all the same laws. Yes, this means you’re supposed to ride that unicycle in the street, with a helmet and lights and reflectors, like all the rest of us. (However, I still can’t see the sidewalk rule being enforced in the case of a child’s bike.)

Otherwise, the two sites agree with the common-sense rules I’d absorbed over a few years of riding. Cyclists must ride as close to the right edge of the road as is safe: they must stay at least a metre out from parked cars, obey the rules of the road, signal turns, take the lane if it is too narrow to share safely, and yield to pedestrians. It also spells out the fines associated with breaking the rules: from $20 for not having a bell or horn, to up to $1000 for running a red light (which is quite possibly the most common cycling offence I’m witness to; cyclists seem to feel that since it requires extra effort to start up again once stopped, stopping should only ever be a last resort.) The underlying principle of the laws, which most riders can probably agree with, is that bicycles should be visible and predictable. The easiest way to ensure that is to require cyclists to stay on the roads and obey traffic laws.

This makes sense to me. I’ve had conversations with other cyclists who defend riding on the sidewalk by claiming that it feels safer. In my experience, it may feel safer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is safer. Paradoxically, the further out into the lane you are (within reason, of course) the better off you are: you’re more visible. Drivers are less likely to try to squeeze past you, and more likely to move out around you. You’re not running the risk of catching a pedal on the curb, suddenly having to swerve outward to avoid a pothole or piece of debris, or catching a tire on the edge of the road. The thing to remember is that cars are not driverless, hurtling projectiles: each one of them is under the control of a human being who honestly, I swear, can see you. Especially if you’re well out from the curb and not suddenly appearing from behind a parked car, or popping into an intersection from the sidewalk.

Where things get fuzzy, for me, is when the relative speed of bikes and cars conflict. For example, if I’m heading downhill, wanting to turn left at an intersection, on a busy road, the chances are very good that I won’t signal, check over my shoulder, and merge across two lanes of traffic into the left lane, as I should. Why? Because of the speed of the cars coming up behind me and the lack of visibility due to the hill. As well, the percentage of cyclists who would normally make that move is so low that it’s not likely to be anticipated by the drivers behind me. I choose my safety, and ride to the pedestrian crosswalk and take that.  The same goes for a long right-turn-only lane: I should, technically, ride in the through lane, with cars passing me on either side. Often, though, I ride at the far right side for most of the right-turn-only lane, shoulder check when it starts to run out, signal, and merge over into the through lane. The Traffic Act doesn’t say anything about what to do in that situation, because the blanket statement “cyclists must follow the rules, markings and signals of the road” covers all situations, even dicey, car-centric ones like that.

In a similar example, the rules of the road also say that a car must make a left turn into the lane corresponding to the lane they started in: for a cyclist to do that would put her in the innermost lane of a four-lane road – a dangerous, dangerous place to be for a bike. Then again, when was the last time you heard of a driver being pulled over for turning left into the wrong lane? There is an unspoken understanding that some rules are less mandatory than others. I think the same holds true for cyclists, and the rules they choose to bend or break.

This is where Lauren Cheal’s opinion, that bike commuters do “whatever they need to do to get home safely” comes in. Within the understanding, of course, that you remain predictable, and visible. Knowing what that means comes with experience as a cyclist and as a driver, and if you’re a cyclist who has never learned to drive, I’d suggest you read the Highway Traffic Act, learn what’s expected of cars, and apply it – or take a CanBike course. There may be times when you choose to act outside the rules, but those choices should be educated ones. You should be making them in consideration of your safety and the other people around you. You should know why you’re taking the action and be able to justify it. Much as I don’t want to encourage bending or breaking the rules, sometimes I feel you have to, to protect your safety. (And sometimes, I admit, I ask myself “what’s the harm in breaking the rules here?” and if the answer is “none,” well … cutting across that empty lot or down that short, deserted stretch of sidewalk doesn’t hurt anyone, does it? It’s a judgment call.

But in general, the rules of the road – particularly the ones that are likely to be enforced – make sense, and the more cyclists obey them (I argue) the safer we all are, because motorists will begin to know what to expect of us.

photo by Frank Hebbert

9 comments

  1. More cyclists follow the rules of the road than car drivers. How many motorists stay at or under the speed limit 100% of the time? How many motorists stop at an orange light when it’s safe to do so, and “proceed with caution” when it’s not? Cyclists may cherry-pick their laws, but virtually all motorists break those two laws continuously.

  2. As both a cyclist and a driver I have days when my head wants to explode watching the dumb things done by both in this City. Thank you for one of the most intelligent articles on this subject I have seen.

  3. One of the rules of the road that needs changing (for cyclist safety) is that ‘right turns on red’ need to be banned. It’s one of the reasons why cycling is more popular in Montreal than in its suburbs. Right on red is dangerous.

  4. I for one am a particularly angry pedestrian- sidewalk rage, if you will- and everytime I get an irate cyclist yelling at me to move to one side of the sidewalk, I yell back. When I’m biking, following all the rules is second-nature to me, because I had to learn them when I was 8 and got my first bike, before I could go anywhere off my own block, so I can’t understand why I see what appears to be competent, moderately intelligent adults thinking that it’s somehow appropriate to mow down pedestrians. I’m not talking about being alone on the sidewalk, I’m talking about waiting for a bus at Rideau or on Bank, with a half dozen to two dozen people ranging around.

  5. Thanks Jonathan for pointing out the changed Quebec laws. Good to know! Funny how I can live in Ottawa and yet so rarely wind up on the Quebec side (unless I’m going to Gatineau Park.) Two solitudes, huh?

  6. This inspires me to brush up on the Highway Code – Some Montreal transit drivers told me (very nicely, mind you) that they were frustrated with cyclists that act like they think they are vehicles (um, they are?), never stopping when the red hand pedestrian lights go on (what??), presuming to have right of way, never allowing for turning traffic (tedious if you’re trying to turn, but isn’t that how it works with cars when there is no turn arrow?). I hope to be a bit less flabbergasted and a bit more articulate next time I’m in such a discussion!

    Also, the link to the Incidental Cyclist in the intro seems to have too many http//s

  7. Only cyclists under 18 must wear a helmet in Ontario. The bill that was passed (a private member’s bill from Tory MPP DIanne Cunningham supported by the then-NDP government) specified that all cyclists must wear helmets, but when the Harris Tory government came in, they added a regulation that said this law only applied to under-18s. So the city website is correct, but it’s not obvious that you’d have to check the associated regulations to the HTA as well.

    The laws against cycling on the sidewalk are city bylaws, not part of the HTA — which is why you couldn’t find them there.

    My experience has also been that being visible and predictable is the best way to stay out of collisions. I add to that a careful check of road surface for potholes, making sure my bike is in reasonable running condition so it doesn’t fail at a bad time, and then I watch out for idiots.

    In terms of making a left turn from the inner lane, that’s where you’re most visible and most clearly seen as making that turn. I’ve seen way too many cyclists almost get hit by trying to make a sudden left turn from the right side of the roadway: that’s far more dangerous. My experience is that the motorists behind you can easily get around you if safe or will wait behind you if they’re turning as well and it’s generally not a big deal for anyone. Your alternative is two-stage pedestrian-style left turn, and that works too.

    As for a left turn at an intersection at the bottom of a hill, I think it’s a judgment call, depending on the speed of traffic, the visibility, and the amount of traffic. It’s a maneuver I make regularly in many places, but I also leave myself a way to ditch, and check carefully for traffic. I think the more important consideration is to ensure that you don’t catch the other vehicle operators by surprise. I also agree, though, that there should be other simpler options for cyclists especially in locations like Bank Street at the Queen Elizabeth Driveway where there’s a lot of cyclist traffic.

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