Three Reasons You Should Be Comfortable Taking the Lane

Recently our family took a road trip from Utah to points East. Along the way from Hershey, Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. we took a detour to Lancaster County to see “Amish Country.” Rolling hills: check. Large families tending well-kept farms: check. Horse drawn buggies: check. Other people looking at Amish Country: check.

Interestingly, we (and many other people) drove thousands of miles at 75-80 mph to—purposely—get stuck behind a buggy.

An Amish buggy and a car wait at a red light.

This guy doesn’t know that the road is for cars. Photo by Tony Fischer.

No one goes to Amish Country and then complains about being delayed by slower traffic because it is expected, but take your bicycle into a traffic lane and don’t be surprised to hear a horn or two.

It’s time to reset expectations—those of motorists, and more importantly your own. While I generally ride on the shoulder (most streets in Salt Lake have a generous shoulder), there are good reasons for riding in the middle of a lane of traffic, and you should be aware of and become comfortable with them.

Riding in the lane can be safer

Everyone “knows” that the safest place to ride is where cars aren’t (motorists will even tell you to ride on the sidewalk). But, the most common collision between a bike and a car is the sideswipe, where the driver has misjudged the width of his vehicle and ridden to close to a bike while passing. This is a real problem when you are almost, but not quite in traffic. Taking the lane leaves no doubt about where you are, and where you are planning to go. It also requires the motorist to pass safely, and tells other road users that you mean business.

Let’s face it, the shoulder of the road (if it exists at all) can be a very dangerous place. Because it is not meant for driving, it is full of hazards: parked cars, deep potholes, broken glass, loose gravel, construction equipment, tree branches, etc. There are places on your ride (and you’ll get to know them as you become more familiar with your route) where it is far safer to ride in traffic. I’ve never been hit by a car, but I’ve had three memorable crashes caused by debris and construction on the edge of the roadway.

Riding in the lane is legal

Much of this section comes from the July 2013 issue of Law and Order magazine (slow link), in which Kirby Beck, a retired police officer instructs his fellow police about enforcing traffic laws on bike riders. Mr. Kirby notes that roads are for moving people, and that cars are just one way of accomplishing that. He provides the following guidance:

  • In 47 states, bicycles are allowed to use the roadway (defined as being from the center line to the fog line. In Alaska, Hawaii, and New York, cyclists are directed to use the shoulder “when it is safe.”
  • In all cases, slower traffic (from bikes, to buggies, to heavily loaded trucks) are required to use the right lane unless they are turning left, but again they can use the lane. Some states require bicycles to stay as far to the right as “practicable” but “practicable” is up to you, the bike rider.
  • Bicycles can’t be cited for impeding traffic as in 44 states, the statute applies only to motor vehicles, while in the six remaining states, the statutes allow for the “reasonable” speed of the vehicle. While I have racer friends who think 45 mph is a reasonable speed for a bike, I guarantee they are in the minority.

Riding in the lane is good for you…and everyone else

Taking the lane raises the visibility of cycling as a serious means of transportation. It reminds people to keep an eye open for bicycles, which benefits all riders and even helps protect pedestrians. It also gets people used to the idea that there are bikes on the road, and that they are here to stay. I’m old enough to remember angry letters to the editor about buses holding up traffic to pick up passengers; now everyone just deals with it.

Finally, taking the lane helps you develop confidence, which, as I’ve written before, is an important piece of safety equipment.

Should you ride in the middle of the lane at all times? Probably not; that’s not going to make you any friends and it is generally unnecessary, but when appropriate don’t hesitate to do it.

Now here’s a question for you. Do you take the lane? If not why not? Leave your answer in the comments below.