Know the Code

As bicyclists, we’re granted nearly all of the rights and responsibilities that are afforded operators of motor vehicles, but we’re not required to undergo any type of training or pass a rider’s proficiency exam before taking to the road. This fact is one of the strongest arguments for mandatory rider’s training and bicycle licensing. I don’t support bicycle licensing because I believe it would discriminate against the underprivileged and reduce overall bicycle ridership, but I do believe it’s in our best interests to educate ourselves by studying our local vehicle codes carefully so that we’re operating within the law. “Knowing the code” is one of best defenses against unfair treatment at the hands of law enforcement, and riding lawfully is one of the best things we can do to forestall the creation of mandatory bicycle licensing.

California Vehicle Code Division 11 – Rules of the Road — Chapter 1. Obedience to and Effect of Traffic Laws — Article 4. Operation of Bicycles

15 Responses to “Know the Code”

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    Wouldn’t it be simpler if they had the same vehicle code in the whole country? Or at least the whole state?

    It’s becoming increasingly popular to have naked streets a.k.a. shared space, which means that you minimise street markings and signals. This laisser-faire approach has been shown to reduce collisions where it has been tried, because it encourages road users to look where they are going.

    My point being: people break the rules all the time, and the rule structures are so complicated that hardly anyone knows all the rules anyway. So what’s the point? Keep it simple, stupid!

  • yangmusa says:

    Training doesn’t require licensing. Growing up in Scandinavia, we were all required to take bicycle safety training at school before we were allowed to bike to school. And everyone wanted to bike to school! Here a lot of schools offer driver training – maybe they could build on that. I think most people would be better drivers if they knew what the road looked like from the saddle.

  • Seth Hoyt says:

    Way back in the earliest days of my bike experience, cities and states registered bicycles, and issued license plates. Not just tony island vaca spots like Martha’s Vineyard on the east coast, but mainstream towns like Indianapolis, IN. I’m guessing the motives were administratively pure: protect nice bikes against theft, and raise a little user revenue in the process. I don’t think anyone “had” to take a rider’s test to get up and running.

    And, now? I’m in favor of bikes being registered, licensed and taxed. Heresy in some quarters, no doubt, but if we riders use the routes, trails and paths, then we have an obligation to help pay the freight. Plus, licensing would deter theft and vandalism, and could lead to a higher level of riding skill and safe operation, and, through driver education, improve the driver’s respect for and appreciation of the cyclist.

    Maybe a collaboration between League of American Bicyclists and AAA is in order? Everybody could benefit.

  • Rick says:

    @ Seth:

    “a collaboration between League of American Bicyclists and AAA”?

    That is an amazing idea. Hopefully, someone will pick it up and run with it, because it’s time we got past the “Zero-Sum” attitude that pervades our individual cultures; like the great philosopher, Rodney King, once said: “can’t we all get along?”

  • Brent says:


    These points were debated in detail a couple of weeks ago on and Among other arguments, two were salient to me:

    1) Everyone who pays income taxes pays for the roads: gasoline taxes and license fees don’t cover the full costs. Instead, a goodly percentage of costs comes from the general fund. As such, bicyclists who pay income taxes subsidize drivers.

    2) As electric cars take to the roads over the next ten years, we will be faced with similar questions about who should pay. As it stands, we have no provisions for how to tax electric car drivers for road usage, with many people arguing that the fledgling industry needs such benefits to survive. I believe we’ll eventually have to tax all drivers on some formula factoring in miles traveled and weight. Such a formula might apply to bicycles as well, and could form the basis for a rational use-based fee for riding (although perhaps more expensive to implement than the revenues it would generate).

  • Lyle says:

    I would really like to see what the cost of licensing would be. Not the cost of getting a license, but the cost to set up a program. More bureaucracy that would only serve a tiny, tiny niche in the grand scheme of things. A bureaucracy that would probably cost more to set up than any reasonable licensing fee could cover.

    There’s also the question of who gets taxed. Everyone who buys a bicycle? Only those who ride one to work/school/more than X miles per day?

    I wouldn’t mind seeing a tax in place to promote bicycle safety and awareness in the schools, but I can’t see how a bicycle tax would be worthwhile at this point in time.

  • doug in seattle. says:

    I think bicycle registration programs probably disappeared for a reason. Nowadays the administrative costs would probably prevent them from making any money.

    A per pound / per annum tax I would pay, however. I would gladly pay $.50 cents a pound for all my vehicles, three bikes. Hell, I would pay $1 a pound for them, as long as everyone had to pay the same rate!

  • Mr B says:

    Knowing the code can sometimes put you in the interesting position of being better acquainted with your rights than the officer who just pulled you over. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be pulled over for taking the lane, check out Eli Damon’s blog for an account of his ongoing efforts to ride defensively in Hadley, MA:

  • Chris Morfas says:

    The vehicle code, a product of legislative compromise, and arguably unduly influenced by interest groups not particularly concerned with bicyclists’ well-being, is confusing and open to various interpretations depending upon one’s predisposition towards the notion of bicyclists as legitimate users of public roadways. It’s not a particularly good guide to safe, efficient (or even legal) bicycling.

    Here’s the actual code, courtesy of your link:

    21202. (a) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations:

    (1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction.

    (2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.

    (3) When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge, subject to the provisions of Section 21656. For purposes of this section, a “substandard width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.

    (4) When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized.

    It’s very difficult to take such language and provide guidance to someone seeking to learn how to bicycle on public roadways.

    Changing the vehicle code so that it provides clearer guidance to bicyclists and motorists would be very helpful, as groups such as AAA and CHP often reprint the code verbatim in educational materials.

  • Alan says:


    I have to think though, that at least knowing the law in its current form is a good starting point, otherwise we have no defense or reference point whatsoever. And considering how many people I see riding against traffic, riding in the door zone, and sidewalk riding where it’s illegal, it certainly wouldn’t hurt if more riders were aware of even the somewhat ambiguous code posted above. Beyond that bare minimum, some real, on-the-bike instruction would do wonders for most beginners.


  • Chris Morfas says:

    Forester offers a much better guide to cycling in traffic than does the vehicle code:

    “The Five Rules for Traffic Cycling
    (Or Driving)

    1. Drive on the right side of the road, never on the left and never on the sidewalk.

    2. When you reach a more important or larger road than the one you are on, yield to crossing traffic. Here, yielding means looking to each side and waiting until no traffic is coming.

    3. When you intend to change lanes or to move laterally on the roadway, yield to traffic in the new lane or line of travel. Here, yielding means looking forward and backward until you see that no traffic is coming.

    4. When approaching an intersection, position yourself with respect to your destination direction — on the right near the curb if you want to turn right, on the left near the centerline if you want to turn left, and between those positions if you want to go straight.

    5. Between intersections position yourself according to your speed relative to other traffic; slower traffic is nearer the curb and faster traffic is near the centerline.”

    Overall, the value of education (i.e., transmission of skills needed to cycle in traffic) as a strategy for increasing bicycling is unclear. But each of us can help himself by learning and practicing the concepts listed above.

  • Tim says:

    Copenhagenize posted about bicycle licensing recently. It’s worth a read:

  • Sharper says:

    Nobody needs to know the exact vehicle code (cops included, as Mr B’s link showed), so long as they’re riding under general guidelines — I doubt any driver can recite even a fragment of the actual motor vehicle code they operate under.

    I don’t see how any taxation or bicycle licensing scheme would address the problem of people not knowing the bicycle rules (especially not without erecting barriers to bicycling, which I heartily oppose), and I don’t see how a rider education/licensing scheme is going to matter, since you’ll have to deal with the fact that bicycles are cheap enough to be disposable as well picking an arbitrary minimum age for licensees.

    Rider education’s going to have to take a different tack, since the auto-oriented DMV system isn’t going to fit. Perhaps instead we should task the state transportation department with developing a comprehensive bicyclist’s handbook similar to a driver’s handbook and mandate its inclusion with certain purchases (such as a new bicycle, helmet, or light system). You still won’t force everyone to read it, but then you can be reasonably sure they’ve been exposed to it and can better hold them accountable when they do something wrong.

    Of course, rider education has its own special problems; we’ll need a whole new education paradigm when bicycle trip share exceeds 50% and the auto-centric vehicle codes start falling apart.

  • Seth Hoyt says:

    Alan: This “Know the Code” thread is smart, timely and incredibly constructive. One of the best things I’ve seen on the blog yet. Is there a means by which EcoVelo can keep this discussion alive and turn it into action? Bicycle safety education for Riders and Drivers is worth pursuing. Do you and Michael have the resources to follow up? Is there an organization with whom you partner and to whom you can turn to for help? Maybe EcoVelo hires an intern to coordinate? Or, you ask for volunteers on a regional basis. Good luck … good work!

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