Basics of Bicycle Driving: Rules of the Road

Bicycle driving is much like driving a car, because the same basic rules of the road apply. These rules can be expressed in priority order as follows:

  1. Yield to traffic already on the road (first come, first served)
  2. Drive on the right half of the roadway
  3. Yield before entering a more important roadway
  4. Yield before moving laterally or turning
  5. Destination positioning at intersections
  6. Speed positioning between intersections

However, two-wheeled vehicles are narrower than cars. This compels bicycle operators to pay more attention to their visibility and position in travel lanes in order for their movements to be predictable to other road users. Also, bicyclists often travel slower than other traffic, which means cyclists must be aware of when and where other traffic may be overtaking, and sometimes take steps to manage that overtaking.  This article provides real-world examples to illustrate how cyclists can employ the basis rules of the road to optimize their safety and efficiency when negotiating traffic.

1. Yield to traffic already on the road (first come, first served)

Faster drivers must yield to slower and stopped traffic ahead.  All vehicle operators must travel no faster than is safe and will allow them to stop within their sight distance.  As a bicyclist, you have a right to use the roadway, and other drivers are legally required to respect your right of way, but you must act visibly and predictably to allow them to do so.

2. Drive on the right half of the roadway

Always ride on the right-half of the road, and not on the sidewalk.

Wrong-way cycling is a leading cause of car-bike crashes. Right-turning drivers scan for vehicle traffic coming from their left, and often turn directly into the paths of wrong-way cyclists. Drivers are often surprised by the presence wrong-way cyclists, and neither party may be able to stop in time to avoid a crash. The impact speed equals the car’s speed plus the cyclist’s speed. Never drive a vehicle against traffic. RIDE RIGHT.


Sidewalks are designed for pedestrian speeds; drivers do not expect vehicles on sidewalks and generally drive across them without scanning for anything moving faster than a pedestrian. Operating on the sidewalk makes you less visible and you cannot use destination positioning at intersections. Studies have shown that car-bike crash rates are several times higher for cyclists on sidewalks than for cyclists operating on the adjacent roadway sections. When falls and collisions with pedestrians, dogs, and other obstacles are considered, we find that cycling on sidewalks results in many times more injuries per mile than cycling on major roads without special bike facilities.

3. Yield before entering a more important roadway

Obeying traffic signals and signs makes you predictable to other drivers, and is the safest way to ride. Having an equal right to roads means also having equivalent responsibilities.

These cyclists don’t mind waiting their turn to use the intersection. They stay behind the crosswalk to keep it clear for pedestrians, and stay far enough from the curb to avoid being cut off by right-turning drivers.

Once the cyclists have proceeded ahead on a green light, the following driver can turn right safely.

Sometimes, when no other vehicles are in the cyclist’s lane, a demand-activated traffic signal will not turn green for the cyclist. These intersections use inductive loop sensors–loops of buried wire–that detect conductive objects, but may not be properly designed or adjusted to detect bicycles. The pavement cuts for these wires are often visible in the surface of the asphalt. By positioning your bike in the most sensitive part of the loop, you may be able to trip the sensor. For a loop shaped like a figure-8, the most sensitive spot is above the wires in the center part of the ‘8’. Single loop detectors are harder to trip, but the most sensitive spot to position your bike rims is near the wire on either side of the loop. Leaning the bike frame toward the ground in the center of the loop with the wheels touching the ground just above the wire cut may help.  If the traffic signal cannot detect you and no other vehicles are in sight, treat it like you would normally a broken traffic light by stopping and waiting until it is safe to proceed by yielding to all other traffic. Be sure to report the signal to the town’s engineering department so they know that it does not work properly for bicycle drivers.

4. Yield before moving laterally or turning

Preparing for turns, and avoiding obstacles all require moving laterally on the road. It’s essential to LOOK BACK and to the side before any lateral movement in order to yield properly and avoid violating the right of way of other road users. Doing so without swerving requires some practice, but is easy to learn. To practice the LOOK BACK, ride on a straight line or marking in an empty parking lot or deserted road. Try to keep your tires on the line as you turn your head and twist your shoulders around and then straight. Be sure to practice turning in both directions for both leftward and rightward lateral movements. Start with both hands on the handlebars, then try combining the LOOK BACK with hand signals. Remember not to leave your head turned too long, because conditions in front of you can change fast.

Always LOOK BACK  to see other vehicles and judge the space you need to merge when moving laterally. Hand signals can help you communicate your intentions, but don’t sacrifice control of your bike.

If a sufficient gap in traffic does not appear readily when you need to merge laterally, make a hand signal and look at the driver operating behind the space you’d like to merge. The driver will often see your signal and let you in. If not, try the next driver behind the first one, and so on. Someone will almost always let you merge. In some situations traffic is just too dense or too fast for this to work right when you want it to. Merging sooner, when a large gap is available, rather than later, when you really need to be in position, can make this easier. Merging very early may puzzle some drivers who aren’t used to seeing cyclists operate away from the curb, but it makes you easier to predict and is much safer than trying to merge too late.

Never swerve in and out between parked cars or on and off of shoulders in an attempt to stay far to the right all of the time. You may swerve directly in front of an overtaking vehicle when nobody expects a conflict. Ride in a reasonably straight line, providing yourself enough usable pavement to maneuver safely, and stay at least 3-4 feet away from parked cars so you don’t get doored. LOOK BACK when you must merge laterally.

5. Destination positioning at intersections

When preparing to turn left, move laterally and approach the center line or use a left turn lane where available. When preparing to turn right, approach the rightmost side of the roadway or use a right turn lane. When proceeding straight, stay out of right-turn lanes and use the thru-lane instead.

Merge into position early when preparing to turn left or when avoiding a right turn lane. If you wait too long you may be unable to merge and will be stuck in the wrong lane or position. Don’t risk swerving across the path of traffic at the last instant.  It’s far safer to get in line, even if other drivers must wait behind you for a few seconds. This way other users know where you intend to go.

Use the rightmost lane headed to your destination. If the lane is narrow, occupy the center of the lane. If the lane is wide, you may decide to share it with another road user. Use the right part of a lane when faster users should to pass you on the left; use the left part of a lane when you want to allow right-turning drivers to pass you on the right.

All of the drivers in the picture above know where the cyclist is going when the light changes: left. By merging early, the cyclist was able to properly position himself. There’s really no safe or legal way for a driver to turn left from the curb in traffic, but if you prefer, you can dismount and cross as a pedestrian in two signal phases by stopping at the opposite curb.

These cyclists are about to go straight through this intersection, but they decided to pass other drivers on the right and then move onto the sidewalk. This makes them vulnerable to right-turning traffic and forces them to yield to or merge with straight traffic in the middle of the intersection before entering the narrow travel lane straight ahead.

6. Speed positioning between intersections

Slower drivers operate closer to the curb; faster drivers operate closer to the center of the road and pass slower traffic on the left.

Modern roads are often wide enough for motorists to pass cyclists safely while sharing a single wide lane. In narrow lanes where this isn’t the case, it’s often safer for the cyclist to ride far enough into the lane to make it clear to motorists that they must move into the adjacent lane to pass. Riding closer to the center of the lane also makes you more visible to motorists who may cross your path at driveways and intersections, and keeps you away from hazards at the edge of the road.

Avoid the door zone: Stay at least 5 feet away from parked cars to avoid being doored. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to stop in time when someone opens a car door right in front of you, and you won’t have time to merge left safely. On some streets avoiding the door zone means you’ll be using an entire travel lane, but you’re allowed to do so to avoid the greater danger of suddenly striking an open door and being thrown left into traffic, or swerving left in an evasive maneuver. In either event, other drivers won’t have time to respond, but if you ride a straight line outside of the door zone, you won’t surprise other drivers.

Effective traffic negotiation requires you be predictable to other drivers, which implies that you also be visible. When cycling in darkness, be sure to use a white headlamp and a red rear lamp and/or rear reflector, as the law requires. 

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