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NYS traffic laws applicable to cyclists

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A cyclist should behave like a car and obey the same rules when riding on public streets

There is a lot of confusion and emotions among the cyclist, drivers and pedestrians when it comes to cyclists and the traffic laws. It’s really simple though: we, the cyclists, are supposed to know the laws and obey them. Ignorance of the law is not a legal excuse. Just because you didn’t know that certain action is illegal it doesn’t mean the judge will drop the charges.

The sad truth is that most cyclists in NYC are clueless when it comes to how the traffic laws apply to them or just plain ignore them “because they can”. The usual response is “The car drivers break the laws all the time, why should cyclists care?” The answer? Because the driver is enclosed in a metal cage and what for them may be just a fender-bender, for a cyclist may mean serious body injury or death. We don’t have a metal cage separating us from the traffic. We should do all we can do assure our safety, and among other things knowing and respecting the traffic laws is one thing that can help.

As a rule of the thumb a cyclist should behave like a car and obey the same rules when riding on public streets. I’m not here to argue that bikes are very different from the cars and laws should apply to them differently, I’m here just to tell you that, right now, that’s the law and we need to obey it. If you want the laws changed write to you congressman, don’t create your own laws and don’t be a rebel. Dead rebels are usually not very useful to any cause. Also, by respecting the traffic laws you will get more respect from pedestrians and drivers. Seriously.

When a cyclists breaks the law he or she is a subject to the same fine as car drivers. I’ve seen cyclists getting $250 tickets for running red lights. And, no you won’t get away by saying that you don’t have an ID on you. If you’re lucky the cop may let go, but they can seize your bike and detain you to obtain your identity. If you’re riding on a public street you should have an ID with you anyway, it’s a smart thing to do.

Here we go then, the basic most important traffic laws that cyclists in NYS (and most other states) must obey. These are not the laws verbatim, word-for-word but my interpretation mixed with some safety advice. I will provide links to the actual laws at the end of this article.

Traffic laws apply to persons riding bicycles

If you’re riding on a roadway, you must obey the traffic laws. You must observe and obey all traffic signs and traffic lights as well police signals. On greenways, bikeways and in parks the traffic laws don’t apply unless they cross roadways and there are signs or lights controlling the intersection and bikeways may have their own rules that are posted at the entrances. However, cycling in parks is generally prohibited unless marked otherwise!

Use of roadways

Bicycles are prohibited on expressways, highways, interstate routes, bridges and thruways, unless authorized by signs. No, you can’t go everywhere where cars can, sorry :(

Bicycles must ride with the direction of the traffic

Cyclists may not ride against the traffic flow, you must ride in the the same direction as the traffic lane you’re in and on the right side of the street unless signs say otherwise. The only exception is when a one way street is wider than 40 feet then cyclists can ride on either side but should keep right to avoid colliding with other cyclists and should exercise extra caution to avoid cars pulling out and opening doors.

On-street bike lanes, even those green ones on 1st and 2nd Avenues, are one way lanes that follow the direction of the traffic. Riding wrong way in a on-street bicycle lane is illegal as well and dangerous. You may encounter a counterflow bike lane, i.e. a bike lane that runs against the traffic direction of the street it’s on. You have to follow the direction of the bike lane then, not the roadway.

Riding on sidewalks

Bicycles are prohibited on sidewalks unless signage allows or wheels are less than 26 inches in diameter and rider is twelve years or younger. Bicycles ridden on sidewalks may be confiscated and riders maybe subject to legal sanctions. If you must get off the road, dismount and walk your bike. There are some “bike lanes connectors” in NYC that run on sidewalks, they are marked with “bike buttons”: white circles about a two feet in diameter with a bicycle icon and an arrow pointing in the direction of travel. You must follow the direction, ride slowly and yield to pedestrians.

Yielding to emergency vehicles

Cyclists, just like drivers and pedestrians must yield to emergency vehicles with at least flashing lights regardless of who has the right of way. If they don’t have their siren on, but just the flashing lights you still have to yield to them. Emergency vehicles are allowed to exceed speed limits, go the wrong way, ride through red lights and even operate on sidewalks and you must always yield to them. If you are hit by an emergency vehicle due to your failure to yield, it’s always your fault. There won’t be “I didn’t see it” defense.

Bus lanes and yielding to buses

Bicycles are not allowed in dedicated bus lanes and, just like car drivers, a cyclists in a bus lane can get a ticket.

A cyclists must yield to a city bus pulling off from a bus stop to enter the roadway. Cars do too, but most drivers are clueless.

Use of earphones while driving or riding a bicycle

Wearing headphones connected to a music device is illegal. You can have only on earpiece on but not both.

Riding on bicycles

You must have a permanent saddle (why wouldn’t you anyway?), keep your feet on the pedals all the time and you can’t carry passengers on a bike designed for a single person. Remember, again: this is on public roadways, in the park it’s OK.

Clinging to vehicles

You can’t cling or attach yourself to any other moving vehicles on the road. It can be deadly too. Don’t do this!

Riding on roadways, shoulders and bicycle paths.

If there is a bicycle lane available use it, otherwise ride as close to the right curb as reasonable. Remember, this doesn’t mean a cyclist should always ride as close to the right curb as possible. Safety and road conditions need to be taken into account. If there is debris along the curb, potholes, pedestrians or if  the street or lane is too narrow for a car to safely pass you (the law requires three feet of clearance between you and passing cars); this is where you take the full lane and you do it in an obvious and decisive manner so the drivers know you are taking the lane. Ride in the left tire track to make it clear that you’re doing this so cars can’t pass you. But be reasonable, because the drivers aren’t. If there is more than 3 cars behind you slow down and let them pass or if the road continues to be bad find a different route. They can honk all they want. It’s actually more dangerous to ride too close to the curb on a narrow street: cars can clip you when passing or you can get startled and ride into a drain or pothole or hit the curb.

Be predictable, don’t make any sudden stops or turns. Don’t ride your bike across pedestrian crosswalks with people walking, get off the bike when you do that. As long as you’re on a bike you can’t behave like a pedestrian, therefore don’t use pedestrian crossings on a bike.

Ride in single file if in doubt or if the road is too busy, but cyclists are allowed to ride two abreast on public streets unless the street signs say otherwise. That, of course, implies taking a full lane. In reality, this will make drivers more upset than a single rider taking the lane. My advice is to ride in single file or pick less busy side streets. Besides, bike commuters usually ride alone so this is hardly an issue.

When entering a public roadway from a driveway or over a curb a cyclists must stop and yield to the traffic. Kind of makes sense, no?

“Lane splitting”, i.e. riding between lanes of traffic is illegal. Drivers can’t see you when you’re that close to their cars.

Passing a right turning vehicle on the right is illegal and often results in the cyclists being maimed or killed. It’s probably the top reason for bike-on-car accidents. Let them turn first or pass them around on the left. The only exception is when there is a dedicated, separated bike lane that runs between the traffic lane and the curb, such as those on 1st and 2nd Avenues,  then turning cars must yield to cyclists going through an intersection. Although most drivers don’t know that or just don’t care, so be careful.

Carrying articles on a bicycle

You have to always have at least one hand on the handlebars and never carry anything in front of you that will even partially obstruct your vision or impair your ability to properly operate the bicycle (reach the bell or the brake levers). Don’t hang or attach anything to your bike that will prevent it from operating normally, that will interfere with brakes, wheels, steering, etc. Anyway, that what bags, panniers and baskets are for, they make it easy and safe to carry stuff on your bike.

Lights and other safety equipment on bicycles

After dark you need a white light in the front that is visible from 500 feet and in the rear you need a red or amber light that is visible from 300 feet, plus at least one of these lights need to be visible sideways from 200 feet. Blue or green lights are illegal! The lights can be solid or blinking. NOTE: the NYS law doesn’t explicitly prohibit blinking lights. The rumors about cyclists being ticketed for blinking lights are just rumors IMHO. Remember: you can’t really have too many lights and reflectors on your bike. The more, the better. You don’t have to look like a Christmas tree but I always recommend at least having two lights on each end, just in case one goes out.

Oh, and please do not put white lights on the rear and red lights on the front. I noticed this stupid trend developing recently. It doesn’t make you any safer and may lead to confusion and collision. If I see a red light I assume the bike is riding away from me, not towards me.

You must have a working bell or horn on your bike all the time. An air horn such as the AirZound is legal and works great. Whistles and sirens are illegal!

You must have a brake that is strong enough to make your bike skid on dry, clean pavement.

At any time of the day you need to have reflectors on your wheels or tires with reflective sidewalls (highly recommended). Just to keep it simple make both front and rear white.

After dark, in addition to lights and reflective tires you must have additional reflecting devices on your bike. This really makes sense and improves your safety. You don’t need to wear a high visibility vest, but some ankle bands, bits reflective tape on the bike or your helmet and wearing reflective clothing in general is a good idea.

Signaling your turns

You’re supposed to signal your turns and your intention to stop:

1. Left turn. Left hand and arm extended horizontally.
2. Right turn. Left hand and arm extended upward or right hand and arm extended horizontally.
3. Stop or decrease speed. Left hand and arm extended downward.

Accidents

If you’re involved in an accident you must give your information and file a police report. If you hit a pedestrian and ride away you may get arrested and charged with “hit and run”. Just like when driving a car, riding away on a bicycle  from an accident is a serious offense.

Carrying children on bicycles

You can’t carry a child younger than one year under any circumstances whatsoever.

A child one or more years of age but less than five years of age must wear an approved helmet and be carried in a properly affixed child carrier or in a specifically designed and approved child trailer.

Kids older than five years old can’t be carried on a bike unless the bike is designed to carry more than person, such as a tandem. A longtail bicycle, such as Surly Big Dummy or Yuba Mundo, carrying kids on the deck is a gray area since it’s technically not a tandem, but if it has child carrier(s) mounted on the deck then it’s legal. Since they’re too old to be carried in an attached child carrier, they should ride their own bike or ride a trail-a-bike trailer (a.k.a. trailer bike) and must wear a helmet until they 14 years old.

Carrying children, or any person for that matter, on handlebars, top tubes and racks is illegal, even if they wear a helmet.

Helpful links

NYS DMV Frequently Asked Questions
NYSDOT description of bike related laws
NYC.GOV Safe Bicycling in New York City (PDF)
NY State Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee: Bikes Safety

Written by Adam

December 1st, 2010 at 12:30 pm

  • http://nycbikecommuter.info/ Adam

    I think it’s just a rumor that cyclists get tickets for blinking lights. I haven’t heard anything. AFAIK, NYS Law doesn’t explicitly prohibit blinking lights on bicycles. Only blue lights are prohibited explicitly in any form. You can (and should) be ticketed for having white light in the rear and/or red one in the front. I’ve seen it, it’s just stupid.

    I’ve been riding for many years with two blinkies in the back and two powerful front lights that I often run on strobe when riding in traffic in bad weather and I have never had any issues with the Police.

    Bus line is for buses and nothing else. A bus may not be able to pass you if you’re in the bus lane. If people honk at you when you ride in traffic lanes that means they see you and they can honk all they want. There is no minimum speed on city streets. But if it makes you feel safer, then be it. Just please get out of the way when a bus is coming.

    Take the lane and ride in the left tire track if there is not enough space for you and cars. Be visible and always look for safer detours. Sometimes an extra mile can make your ride safer and less stressful. Cheers!

  • coachandrew

    I’d like to learn the exact statute regarding blinking lights being permissible, as stated above. Apparently, many people are getting tickets lately for having blinking lights.

    Also, I think it’s ridiculous that it is not legal to ride in a bus lane. I have tried to ride in a non-bus lane and it is really quite dangerous, and cars will honk at you for being in the way. After being sideswiped once for doing this, I’m taking my chances and riding in the bus lanes.