Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Merging into a bike lane is not the same as turning across it

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In a recent column in Oregon Cycling, Bikes & The Law: The Right Hook, attorney Ray Thomas states, "the law clearly requires motor vehicles to first yield the right-of-way to bicyclists occupying the bike lane, just as vehicles changing lanes on a multi-lane roadway must first yield the right-of-way to other vehicles occupying the lane the driver would like to enter."

Not quite. Merging into a lane (changing lanes) is not the same as turning across a bike lane. A driver merges into a lane with other drivers going the same direction. A driver turning across a bike lane is crossing the bike lane, not merging into it. As the driver turns across the bike lane, in fact, he is going in a different direction from through bicyclists in the bike lane.

There is no name in traffic engineering for the act of crossing a through lane to make a turn, because such an act violates the principle of positioning your vehicle before you make a turn. Yet that is exactly what proponents of the Portland bike lanes are saying they want to happen. They want through bicyclists to keep to the right of right turning vehicles. I was taught never to pass a right turning car on the right during a group ride when I first started to ride seriously over 30 years ago. A little while later I was involved in the development of the bike lane law in California that was passed in 1976. We specifically designed that law to try to prevent right hook accidents.

On a freeway, slower traffic is supposed to keep to the right. But exits are located on the right side. Does that mean that a fast driver is supposed to take an exit directly from the left lane? No, you can get a ticket for that. Instead, a fast driver is required to merge into the right lane first, then exit, even if he has to slow down to match the speed of traffic in the right lane. That is exactly what the California bike lane law requires of drivers turning right from a street with a bike lane.

From what I can tell, both bicyclists who were killed recently in right hook accidents in Portland had pulled up to a red light next to a stopped truck. They were following what I have been told is the bike lane law in Oregon, which invites such right hook accidents. The Oregon law would be like expecting fast drivers on a freeway to exit directly from the left lane, being careful to yield to drivers in the right lane. Such an expectation is clearly unrealistic, so it is not allowed. Why should we expect a similar maneuver on a street with bike lanes to be reasonable or safe?

Mr Thomas also states, "if bicycles in bike lanes weighed the same as locomotives on railroad tracks (where the legal right-of-way principles are quite similar) there would be fewer motorists cutting us off because the result would be catastrophic for the motorist." When railroad tracks run parallel to a highway, the resulting highway/railroad grade crossings and highway/highway intersections are handled in a special way, usually with traffic signals. See the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

Light rail lines that run in highway medians have a similar problem. Light rail trains are heavier than cars, and drivers turn left into the paths of such trains way too frequently. So it is not the weight of the train that makes the difference, it is the driver's expectation that they are not turning across the path of through traffic. The same principle applies to bike lanes to the right of right turning cars. It is the fact that bike lanes to the right of right turning vehicles violate a basic principle of traffic and thus violate a driver's expectation that is the problem, not the failure of such drivers to yield to bicyclists in the bike lane.


  1. ...interesting commentary...

    ...this comment is not meant to be disparaging, but while i find that all the right people say all the right things, they're not the problem...

    ...the problem is awareness, plain & simple...all the signs, ranting whines & painted lines, mean very little until every driver gets one undeniable fact into their head...they will encounter bicycle riders daily, for the rest of their lives, on almost every road they drive on...'s about education, understanding that cyclists will be there, again, on a daily basis...

    ...infrastructure is easy to become accustomed to, signs become commonplace & all the distractions of daily life don't allow for the awareness that is needed...

    ...most people don't care about cyclists until we "get in their way"...

  2. Right turn on red after stop does exactly the same thing.

  3. Educating drivers and strict law enforcement are the first best steps. Getting more drivers out of their cars and on bikes means we need to make our roads safer and friendlier.

  4. Bob's argument -- and I agree with him -- is that the engineering and current law in Oregon invites right hook accidents.

    People speeding 50 mph on residential streets has the same root cause -- we drive that fast because the wide, smooth straight 40 foot right of way is designed for that speed. Awareness is probably complete, and enforcement will slow people down for a short time, but those are just using toothpicks and Scotch tape on a fundamentally unsafe practice.

    Passing a large truck on the right is often a bad idea. Truck drivers are probably among the most aware drivers on the road because of their significant limitations, but if you're in their blind spot, you're toast.