Rights and Responsibilities

The other day I suggested that we need to include more information about the rights and responsibilities of pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists in our driver training programs. Doing so would very likely improve relations between road users, and it might even reduce collisions (and the subsequent injuries and deaths).

If we were, in fact, able to modify our driver training programs to require motor vehicle operators to learn more about bicyclists’ rights and the issues associated with sharing the road with bicyclists, I believe it would also place a greater responsibility on all bicyclists to be aware of, and adhere to, the rules of the road, regardless of their age or experience.

Many bicyclists (I’d argue that a majority of those I encounter), appear to be riding their bicycles exactly as they learned to ride them when they were children. In other words, they get on their bikes and ride without giving any thought to the rules of the road. Often they appear to be in a modified pedestrian mode with their only concern being the avoidance of cars, and they seem to be riding with the assumption that cars own the road and as bicyclists they have no rights or responsibilities other than those they intuitively take on for themselves.

As it is now, bicyclists are, by law, given nearly the same rights to the road as motorists, and they’re also expected to obey the same traffic laws as motorists, yet they receive absolutely no training and there are no requirements to understand the laws under which they operate. It begs the question, how are bicyclists supposed to know how to obey the rules of the road, when they may not even be aware of those rules and how they apply to bicycles?

The obvious (though albeit controversial) answer is mandatory training and certification for bicyclists; in other words, a Bicycle Rider’s License. There are many pitfalls to such an approach, not the least of which is that it would very likely discourage bicycle use. Plus, the costs associated with implementing such a program is a guaranteed non-starter in our current economy. You have to wonder though, if requiring a bicycle rider’s license wouldn’t elevate the bicycle’s stature and help people see it as a real vehicle worthy of consideration as an alternative to the automobile, while also creating a group of more highly skilled, responsible bicyclists who are more well-equipped to interact effectively with other road users.

27 Responses to “Rights and Responsibilities”

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    I think it would help to start with a simple initiative to publicize the existing laws. I honestly believe that most of the honking, the “get off the rad!” shouting, the passing too close, etc. behavior of cars is due to the fact that drivers do not realise that vehicular cycling is legal.

  • yangmusa says:

    I went to school in Norway, and we were highly recommended to cycle to school from the age of 8. Everyone who wanted to ride had to complete cycle training at school first, which covered both theory and bike handling skills.

    US schools seem to offer driver training, but nothing for biking. That’s too bad. Get kids biking early, and many will never stop. I never did :-)

  • Larey says:

    I don’t think the problem is knowing the rules, the problem is a lack of incentives for following them.

    If the police don’t write tickets (ours don’t) and I don’t have any close calls with cars and I never hear of injury accidents, then the only reason I would pay attention to the rules is my own sense of civic responsibilty. Anybody teaching or promoting civic responsibility these days?

    I follow the rules, but then I’m old.

  • Rob says:

    What if we worked bike riding into Driver’s Ed? Two weeks spent practicing road rules as a cyclist would be excellent training for obeying road rules as a driver. It would also have the side benefit of teaching drivers what cyclists rights and responsibilities are.

  • bongobike says:

    I’m not sure that adult cyclists need any special training on following the rules of the road. Most adults today are licensed automobile drivers, so they are supposed to know the rules. A program for school kids, like the one yangmusa mentioned, would be useful.

  • ToddBS says:

    There needs to be some kind of qualification. This very afternoon as I was driving home from work (yes, my commute is about 20 miles in the central Florida summer heat, so I drive it a lot this time of year) I came across a guy that I’ll dub the bike-messenger-wannabe. There he is riding his fixed gear up a hill on a 4 lane road, barely doing 5 mph. Normally I would have been supportive of this – it’s something I believe in – but this guy needed to be on the sidewalk that was 5 feet to his right. He had on no helmet – on one of the busiest streets in town, no reflective items of any kind, and he was also wearing headphones which is illegal in Florida when operating a vehicle on the road. He was behaving like a clueless pedestrian, not a vehicle operator, so he belonged on the sidewalk.

    Besides being incredibly unsafe and endangering his own life, he’s conveying a negative image that gets reflected onto the rest of us. This is a prime example of an adult who does not know the rules of the road, or just chooses to ignore them. The biggest hurdle to getting this type of training here is the belief of the cyclists themselves that they already know what they’re doing. Before I ever started riding my bike in traffic (sounds like something my ex-wife wanted me to do), I made sure I read and understood the relevant sections of the laws. That still left me out in the cold on a lot of topics though, that only come from experience (but could have been taught had such a course been available).

    There was an adult road rules course offered nearby just two weeks ago but I had scheduling conflicts, else I would have attended. Licensing might be a bit too much, but I don’t know what other kind of incentive would be needed to get people to take such a course.

  • Nick says:

    While I always use the ‘vehicular cycling’ approach to ensure predictability and, consequently, safety on the road, I have serious issues with any suggestion that cyclists should be licensed or ticketed more for irresponsible behaviour. Generally, I don’t think it’s good enough to crack down on incompetent cyclists by subjecting them to all the lame fines and rules that car drivers face. It solves nothing and only makes cycling less appealing to people on the edge of choice. It also perpetuates the universal assumption I think ludicrous that bikes are cars without engines; I consider cyclists instead to be pedestrians on wheels (we do after all use our feet: pes/pedis is latin for foot).

    The major issue for me is that these approaches only further alienate cyclists, encourage car driving, and will do nothing to improve the horrendous urban environment we all face as pedestrians.

    Our road system is already too restrictive for people on their feet who, I strongly believe, should be free to walk about their city as they please without risking sudden death at every street corner.

    I would rather see further restrictions on car use to make roads more suitable for pedestrians, in conjunction with comprehensive education about cycling techniques and cyclists’ rights. Rob’s suggestion to work bike riding into drivers’ ed is a good one (shouldn’t we practice driving different vehicle types?). Learning about road use should also be part of public education, as yangmusa suggests; this would include thorough training about rights and responsibilities of all people in our public spaces.

    The major problem for me is not that cyclists may be unaware of the rules of the road, but the rules themselves.

  • steve says:

    In several States, instructions for bicyclist are included in the drivers license handbook/manual, but as far as I know Kansas is the only State that has a bicycle related question in the written drivers test – an effort to increase driver awareness that they might encounter a bicyclist. With more bicycle commuters on the road, does it make sense to have a bicyclists test and license?

  • Donald Moore says:

    The League of American Bicyclists has a 2 part program (class room and on the street training) for bicyclists. I have taken the course and highly recommend it to anyone biking on the streets as a “vehicle” or “pedestrian”.
    Our local advocacy group is trying to work with the police on an enforcement program to send bicyclists violating the law to a similar course and/or hand out literature on legal and safe vehicular biking. We believe this education in place of enforcement is the best way to handle this problem.

  • lewis says:

    I think everyone here has good input.

    As a cyclist though, I would really hate to seea liscensing process. One because part of the reason I use a bicycle to commute is to save money and this would just add to the cost. Secondly, the reality is that people would go out and after enough time and given the opportunity, run that red light when no one is looking anyway. Does drivers training and liscensing stop anyone from rolling through stops sign five, ten, or twenty years later?

    Better education is a must, right now its the responsibility of the individual with a few nonprofits trying to educate people. More education means at all levels, in schools, through DOT efforts, and local bicycle advocacy groups. One thing that will happen is that the current generation of people my age – in our mid 20s to early 30s – that have taken up cycling as a serious transportation option, will pass on our hard earned knowledge to our eventual kids.

    As for our rights to the road, its hard to take them when bigger, more aggresive vehicles are going twice your speed.

  • Adrienne says:

    Why do we not address one of the unspoken factors in this discussion- many of the rules we currently have for cars were never intended to take bicycle riders into account (being able to turn right on a red is not in a cyclists best interests). While I agree that there are many riders out there who could use a lesson in sharing the road, there is so much that needs to be tackled in terms of looking at the law becoming inclusive of riders.

    I also feel that much of the time, discussions of the ‘scofflaw cyclist’ is a tact those who object to bicycle riding take to steer away from the discussion of what needs to happen in cities all over the US to create safe and equal streets for all.

  • Nicolas says:

    In France, the rules are nearly the same as for motorized vehicules. So someone who has his driving license is supposed to respect the road rules either by car or by bike.
    In town, the policemen are supposed to charge the cyclists who do not respect the rules. They sometimes do it.

    As the major concern today is to use less petrol, we should not discourage potential cyclists by asking them for a specific license. Adults should take their own responsibilities. But specific education for children on driving rules is probably a good idea. Now in France, a specific examination for children is required later for the driving license. To my opinion, it is excessive as it gives too much responsibility to children.

  • Neil says:

    I think that a licensing approach would be wrong and very detrimental to cycling numbers. And I’m not sure how it would fit with children being allowed to ride. Do you really say that a child has to be licensed before they can ride on the road. Would you have to retake the test as an adult or would it be the same test. And lots of other issues like cost of running the scheme far outweighing any benefit.

    If you want training, then every driving test should include education about cycling rights. And you can introduce a training program for all school children (say age 8-10). e.g. in UK we have Bikeability, it would be great if every child was able to take this to level 3.

    And I have to agree with the fact that the rules are aimed at motor vehicles and do not consider cycles (though we don’t have 4 way stops nor turn right on red here in UK). One example is one way roads, which should always consider having a contraflow for cyclists. Or having bypasses for cyclists at traffic light for the routes that are safe, especially where roads and cycle lanes/shared use paths join. Joined up thinking that doesn’t just say a cycle is a vehicle and therefore must obey vehicle rules, but looks at what cyclists want to do (desire lines etc) and why and then seeks a way that can be achieved.

  • Neil says:

    Oh, forgot to say. AIUI, in Holland drivers are expected to look out for and give way to children/old people in any situation. i,e. if a child is about to run out into the street the Driver is expected to anticipate and take avoiding action (like stopping). This applies whether the vulnerable person is walking or on a bike! This sounds like a fantastic idea to me.

    And – cycling must be seen as a vital life skill that everyone should be given the opportunity of learning. and everyone should be educated on how to interact with.

  • Alan says:

    As I mentioned in the OP, I too think requiring a bicycle rider’s license would hurt bicycling numbers. It would be particularly unfair to low income and homeless people who depend upon bicycles for transportation.

    Training is obviously very important, but what I can’t figure out is how we get the information out to the fairly large number on non-enthusiast riders we have here in the U.S. I’m talking about teenagers riding their bikes to school, families with a bevy of Wal-Mart bikes out for a picnic on the weekend, retirees riding to the grocery or the local park; these are the people who fall through the cracks and seem to have little information about how to ride a bicycle safely. Expecting them to search out the information themselves and/or attend a LAB cycling clinic is not realistic.

  • Nicolas says:

    In order to be more clear : I am for education of the children, but not specific examination.
    In France, there is an examination for children which conditions later the driving license. I find this excessive.
    The Holland case is what we sometime call “Code de la rue” or “Street rules”. It is well know in Belgium too. priority order is given upon the vulnerability rank. The most vulnerable are the children, the old people and the handicapped people. The less vulnerable are the car drivers. In the middle, there are the cyclists. Of course this applies to towns.

  • William says:

    You’ll reach most cyclists just by having a mandatory part of the drivers test include cycling laws – after all, most people still drive! For the car-free types – keep offering and encouraging free urban cycling classes. Maybe you could even get them to offer a special ‘Undriver’s License’ (with discounts at local merchants, etc.) awarded to certified car-free individuals who complete the class. That way everyone but non-driving non-cycling folks will get the message.

  • Dave says:

    I am against licenses for cyclists. One reason is that they are unnecessary, historically speaking the skill set to control and use a bicycle are elementary enough that there is not certification required to guarantee those skills. Automobiles are a different issue, there are specific skills in regards using a piece of heavy equipment (most cars are very heavy). Most kids start riding tricycles as soon as they learn to walk, it’s an elementary skill.

    As to the argument that the police need a system so that fines/penalties can be assigned to those that transgress the law: pedestrians can be fined for jaywalking and no license is required for that. Why make the system more complicated than it already is.

    Another warning that goes off in my mind when we talk about bicycle licenses: if we are required to have a license, how long before we need insurance as well? Cycling insurance? It sounds ridiculous now, but it may become the norm.

    As it is, almost everywhere in the planet, bicycles are regarded as vehicles with full rights, no privilege. By that I mean that in most places driving is a privilege, not a right. You can lose your privilege to drive. But as it stands, cycling is a right. Adding licensing could turn it from a right to a privilege. I, for one, would not like to see that happen.

  • Dave says:

    One thing I forgot to mention, many local Police stations have some sort of cycling course set up in a parking lot for kids to practice and learn the rules of the road. They do offer courses, but use of the lot is free. Many parents should be taking their kids to a lot and explaining the rules, if not enrolling them in a course. It’s a safe off road environment to learn

  • bongobike says:

    Dave said:

    “as it stands, cycling is a right. Adding licensing could turn it from a right to a privilege. I, for one, would not like to see that happen.”

    Thanks, Dave. That is a very important point. Cycling is a very liberating activity, and we want to be able to practice it freely.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    Larey, you might be surprised how many drivers (and even cyclists) don’t know that vehicular cycling is legal! I did not know, until I developed an interest in cycling myself this year. It certainly was not covered on my driver’s test or even in driver’s ed in my home state in the 90’s. My parents and many of my non-cycling friends also did not know that vehicular cycling is legal until I told them and sent them a link to the law. I think that cyclists tend to assume these things are common knowledge, but the only reason we are aware of them is because we are interested and made it a point to research. What reason does your average driver have to reasearch (and therefore be aware of) cycling law if it does not apply to them? To some people, it seems so absurd that cars and bikes can be allowed to travel in the same space, that it does not even enter their mind that it can be legal.

    I am really happy that my town made the effort to paint these signs all over the major roads, so that cars would at least become aware that cyclists are even allowed on them!

  • Alan says:

    @Lovely Bicycle

    Thank you! Your comment gets precisely to the heart of my original point. As enthusiasts, I believe we make many incorrect assumptions about what non-enthusiasts know (or don’t know) about bicycling. I’d wager that if you quizzed 10 non-lycra-wearing bicyclists in my neighborhood, at least 9 of them would not be able to tell you anything about the rights and responsibilities of bicyclists as road users.

  • Mr. CrankyPants says:

    Not only are riders rights and responsibilities covered in the traffic code, but so is the actual bicycle and equipment. Items such as lights, reflectors, motors (a bit of a grey area right now in many places), passengers and even the definition of what legally constitutes a bicycle.

    A cuople of interesting things I found while researching the bike laws in my city:
    – a flashing red tail light is illegal when it’s attached to the bike, legal when it’s attached to the rider.
    – more than two headlights mounted on a bicycle is illegal!

  • beth h says:

    I simply cannot support licensing bicyclists in the current economic and traffic environment, for many of the reasons mentioned above.

    Licensing bicyclists won’t make motorists take bicyclists more seriously on the roads. The only thing that will do that is real enforcement of traffic laws, and that’s something few municipalities are willing to promote (mostly for political reasons).

    Unless the political climate changes — and I have little faith that it will — I will fight things like mandatory licensure and insurance for cyclists, as these would be punitive, inequitable requirements in a landscape that’s already lopsidedly against cyclists.

  • Adrienne says:

    Alan states-

    “Thank you! Your comment gets precisely to the heart of my original point. As enthusiasts, I believe we make many incorrect assumptions about what non-enthusiasts know (or don’t know) about bicycling. I’d wager that if you quizzed 10 non-lycra-wearing bicyclists in my neighborhood, at least 9 of them would not be able to tell you anything about the rights and responsibilities of bicyclists as road users”

    I could contend that most of the “lycra-wearing” crowd that I am exposed to has no idea about the laws of the road, either (they seem to run just as many lights as any other group of riders). It is endemic to our system as a whole. Drivers do not know the rules, riders do not know the rules. These are questions that most people I have encountered can not answer with confidence-

    Who has the right of way at a 4 way stop?
    Who has the right of way on a hill?
    Who has…. when there is no cross walk and a pedestrian is trying to cross?
    When is it legal to ride in the sidewalk?

    As schools no longer teach Driver Ed, it is up to us to make sure we know the rules. It is also up to us to make sure our kids do, as well. We also need to know that some rules on the books make the roads more dangerous for us and that there may be times when braking the rule is the lesser of two evils (a woman on a bike alone at night should not be waiting at sketchy intersections for lights where there is no traffic).

    Also, can’t we be “riders” instead of “enthusiasts”? Fly fisherman and old car collectors are “enthusiasts” : )

  • Alan says:


    You’ve misunderstood my use of the word “enthusiast”. What I mean to do by using that word is describe the difference between “enthusiast” and non-enthusiast” bicycle riders. In other words, most of the readers of this blog I’d gather are “into” bicycling and I’d call them enthusiasts. On the other hand, someone like my neighbor who occasionally rides his Wal-Mart bike to the grocery store but doesn’t give a hoot about bicycling, I’d call a “non-enthusiast”.

  • Roger says:

    Hope I’m not too far off topic, but here goes. I came across a funny, yet sad quote that I thought I’d share with fellow cyclists. It is from my calendar called “365 Stupidest Things ever said”.

    “The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.” –from the Literary Digest, 1899

    Can’t vouch for the accuracy of the quote, but it is from the May 13 2009 page of the
    calendar. (yes, I’m a bit behind)


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