Notes Regarding the California Vehicle Code Sections Directly Relevant to Cyclists

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Basic Right to Cycle on Roadways

California Vehicle Code 21200 is the statute that gives cyclists the rights and duties of drivers of vehicles. It is the basic charter for cyclists once bicycles were removed from the class of vehicles about 1963.

21200. (a) Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway has all the rights and is subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this division, including, but not limited to, provisions concerning driving under the influence of alcoholic beverages or drugs, and by Division 10 (commencing with Section 20000), Section 27400, Division 16.7 (commencing with Section 39000), Division 17 (commencing with Section 40000.1), and Division 18 (commencing with Section 42000), except those provisions which by their very nature can have no application.

The above references are: Div 10, Duty to Report Accidents; Section 27400 prohibits use of earplugs; Section 3900 refers to local bicycle registration requirements; Section 4200 lists penalties for violations.

Note the exception: "except those provisions which by their very nature can have no application."

(b) Excepts peace officers in performance of their duties, with many more words. Not relevant to normal cyclists.

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Restrictions on Right to Cycle on Roadways

Two statutes restrict cyclists' general right to cycle on roadways: one applicable on all roadways, the other to roadways with bicycle lanes.

CVC 21202 restricts cyclists to using only that portion of the roadway that is "as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except ... This is commonly referred to as the Far To the Right (FTR) law. Having stated its general principle of FTR cycling, the law then lists exceptions.

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.

(b) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway of a highway, which highway carries traffic in one direction only and has two or more marked traffic lanes, may ride as near the left-hand curb or edge of that roadway as practicable.

Permitted Movements from Bicycle Lanes

21208. (a) Whenever a bicycle lane has been established on a roadway pursuant to Section 21207, any person operating a bicycle upon the roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride within the bicycle lane, except that the person may move out of the lane under any of the following situations:

(1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle, vehicle, or pedestrian within the lane or about to enter the lane if the overtaking and passing cannot be done safely within the lane.

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

(3) When reasonably necessary to leave the bicycle lane to avoid debris or other hazardous conditions.

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

(b) No person operating a bicycle shall leave a bicycle lane until the movement can be made with reasonable safety and then only after giving an appropriate signal in the manner provided in Chapter 6 (commencing with Section 22100) in the event that any vehicle may be affected by the movement.

Both of these statutes include very similar exceptions because they were revised at the same time. The simple form of 21202, the FTR law, had been adopted by California, without exceptions, probably in the 1940s. 21208, the MBL law, was created by the California Statewide Bicycle Committee, a committee of motorists and highway authorities created in 1971 and charged by the Legislature to work out the laws to restrict cyclists to bikeways, where those would be constructed. The opposition by California Association of Bicycling Organizations, through the sole cyclist representative permitted on the committee, demonstrated the dangers created by laws that simply stated cyclists must either stay at the edge of the roadway or stay in a bike lane, and asked for repeal of 21200 and no recommendation for 21208. The motorists and highway authorities then added the exceptions to exempt the most dangerous aspects of the basic law, to protect the law rather than to protect cyclists. The object is clearly for the public to believe that cyclists must, for their own safety, stick to the edge of the roadway or stay in a bike lane, with the exceptions being esoteric complications to the basically ordinary law.

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Motor Vehicles and Motorized Bicycles in Bicycle Lanes

21209. (a) No person shall drive a motor vehicle in a bicycle lane established on a roadway pursuant to Section 21207 except as follows:

(1) To park where parking is permitted.

(2) To enter or leave the roadway.

(3) To prepare for a turn within a distance of 200 feet from the intersection.

(b) This section does not prohibit the use of a motorized bicycle in a bicycle lane, pursuant to Section 21207.5, at a speed no greater than is reasonable or prudent, having due regard for visibility, traffic conditions, and the condition of the roadway surface of the bicycle lane, and in a manner which does not endanger the safety of bicyclists.

This statute demonstrates the uselessness of bicycle lanes, because it permits all the uses that motorists would normally make of the bike-lane space, while prohibiting nothing, because bike lanes are too narrow to permit the operation of typical motor vehicles along the bike lane.

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Slow-Moving Vehicles

21654. (a) Notwithstanding the prima facie speed limits, any vehicle proceeding upon a highway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at such time shall be driven in the right-hand lane for traffic or as close as practicable to the right-hand edge or curb, except when overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction or when preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.

(b) If a vehicle is being driven at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at such time, and is not being driven in the right-hand lane for traffic or as close as practicable to the right-hand edge or curb, it shall constitute prima facie evidence that the driver is operating the vehicle in violation of subdivision (a) of this section.

(c) The Department of Transportation, with respect to state highways, and local authorities, with respect to highways under their jurisdiction, may place and maintain upon highways official signs directing slow-moving traffic to use the right-hand traffic lane except when overtaking and passing another vehicle or preparing for a left turn.

Moving at "less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at such time" makes this statute applicable. Clearly, if traffic is proceeding so slowly that the cyclist is not slower than it, the statute is not applicable. However, if there is much bicycle traffic and little motor traffic, what then is the "normal speed" of such traffic? But this is very rare. If there is some bicycle traffic, a group of cyclists, and some motor traffic approaching from behind, then it is reasonable to state that the motor traffic, which would normally travel faster than the cyclists, constitutes the normal traffic and the group of cyclists should comply with the statute.

The drivers who must comply with the statute are given the choice of lateral position on the roadway, the two options being: "in the right-hand lane for traffic" or "as close as practicable to the right-hand edge or curb." At the time this was written, even the main transcontinental highways were mostly two-lane, with multiple-lanes only in urban areas. The "right-hand lane for traffic" was intended to mean what it says, the right-hand of any number of lanes. Furthermore, considering the width of the typical vehicle and the typical lane, having the slower vehicle travel close to the edge of the roadway would not allow the faster driver to avoid using the adjacent lane for overtaking. If he uses any of that lane, he must not do so unless there is no traffic in that lane. Therefore, on a road with lanes, the slow-moving driver has the choice of using the right-hand lane or only as little of it as is practicable, and his choice does not affect the opportunity for safe overtaking. Only on a road without lane stripes does the "as close as practicable to the edge" requirement apply, because there are no lane stripes.

The phrase "prima facie" means little to cyclists in the context of this statute. The first use, in the statute's first sentence, means that if almost all traffic is exceeding the speed limit, even a driver who insists on staying within the speed limit is subject to the statute. In the second use of the phrase, in section (b), the phrase is meaningless. If a police officer stops and cites any driver for violating that law, that is prima facie evidence that the violation existed. For any traffic offense cited because of being observed by a police officer, the defendant has the need to demonstrate that the officer's observation was inaccurate. No difference there between prima facie being formally stated or just implied.

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Turning Out of Slow-Moving Vehicles

21656. On a two-lane highway where passing is unsafe because of traffic in the opposite direction or other conditions, a slow-moving vehicle, including a passenger vehicle, behind which five or more vehicles are formed in line, shall turn off the roadway at the nearest place designated as a turnout by signs erected by the authority having jurisdiction over the highway, or wherever sufficient area for a safe turnout exists, in order to permit the vehicles following it to proceed. As used in this section a slow-moving vehicle is one which is proceeding at a rate of speed less than the normal flow of traffic at the particular time and place.

As stated in the statute, a vehicle behind which five or more vehicles are waiting to overtake is clearly "proceeding at a rate of speed less than the normal flow of traffic at the particular time and place." Compare with the Slow Moving Vehicles statute, above.

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Minimum Speed Law

22400. (a) No person shall drive upon a highway at such a slow speed as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic, unless the reduced speed is necessary for safe operation, because of a grade, or in compliance with law.

No person shall bring a vehicle to a complete stop upon a highway so as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic unless the stop is necessary for safe operation or in compliance with law.

(b) Whenever the Department of Transportation determines on the basis of an engineering and traffic survey that slow speeds on any part of a state highway consistently impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic, the department may determine and declare a minimum speed limit below which no person shall drive a vehicle, except when necessary for safe operation or in compliance with law, when appropriate signs giving notice thereof are erected along the part of the highway for which a minimum speed limit is established.

Subdivision (b) of this section shall apply only to vehicles subject to registration.

As a legal curiosity, note that 22400 allows slow speed as required by speed limit signs, while 21654 does not have that exception. Thus, the single act of driving at the speed limit may allow one to be prosecuted for driving too slowly under 21654, but is entirely lawful under 22400.

The phrase "as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement of traffic" can be argued to have two different meanings. One meaning is that it refers to driving so slowly that traffic proceeding at its normal speed would be impeded if such traffic appeared, or that it refers to the fact that some traffic has been impeded. A search of cases on this subject demonstrated that most courts use evidence of actual impeding, such as demonstrated by traffic backed up behind the slow driver, and, therefore, do not subscribe to the argument based on potential traffic.

A second controversy concerns the acts that define impeding. Does changing lanes to overtake constitute being impeded? Does waiting a moment or so for the opportunity for a safe overtaking constitute being impeded? I say that since most courts work on the evidence of traffic backed up behind the slow driver, changing lanes to overtake, or a small delay before being able to do so, do not constitute being impeded.

Another point is that nearly all states with similar statutes make them applicable only to drivers of motor vehicles. The assumption is that motor vehicles generally have the ability to move as fast as other traffic, while non-motorized vehicles do not.

The statute allows slow travel "because of a grade". This considers factors such as power to weight ration and similar performance limitations. Grades on California state highways run from -22% to +22% (Sonora Pass highway). Cyclists can generally keep up with traffic on grades between -22% and -8% (considered the maximum freeway grade), but cannot generally do so on grades between -8% and +22%. Therefore, when the grade prevents cyclists from traveling as fast as other traffic, the statute is inapplicable.

A final, and practically conclusive point, is that CVC 21200 gives cyclists the rights and duties of drivers of vehicles,  "except those provisions which by their very nature can have no application." Doubtless, the legislators wrote this phrase because they recognized that there were some requirements of traffic law which cyclists could not obey. It is practically equally likely that one of those limitations was that cyclists were generally unable to equal the speed of motor traffic. After all, 21202 argues that cyclists generally operate slower than other traffic.

Associated with the above argument is another. That is, the Legislature specifically permits cycling on the roadway (CVC 21200), although with limitations. Requiring that cyclists move as fast as other traffic would implicitly prohibit an activity that is specifically permitted. Such prohibition would contradict explicit law.

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