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Bike Law 101: “Take the lane,” legally

Posted by on May 26th, 2011 at 10:56 am

Proper “take the lane” form.
(Photos © J. Maus)

Many of you already know that you have the legal right to “take the lane” when necessary. What’s less understood is what this actually means, both in practice on the road and in the law.

“Take the lane” is a common phrase, almost a rallying cry in some circles, and it’s used throughout the country. For many people, it’s the catch-all term that explains how bicycles are allowed to legally use the roadway; but what does it mean in Oregon?

For starters, “take the lane” doesn’t even exist in the Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS). So, does it mean a person riding a bike should literally take up the entire lane, riding wherever he/she chooses? Or are you legally allowed just a portion of the road?

It depends.

(Illustration by Dan Pegoda/Animated Traffic Law Center for BikePortland.org)

What the ORS does say (in 814.430) is that a person operating a bike has the right to move away from the far right side of the roadway (or left side on a one-way street),

“when reasonably necessary to avoid hazardous conditions… Or other conditions that make continued operation along the right curb or edge unsafe or to avoid unsafe operation in a lane on the roadway that is too narrow for a bicycle and vehicle to travel safely side by side…”

For many people, few bike riding maneuvers are more heart-pounding and sweaty-palm inducing than placing yourself in a lane with motor vehicles breathing down your neck. Yet this is precisely what you must do on narrow roadways without an existing, usable or safe bike lane (in Portland, think of NE Ainsworth and sections of many streets in commercial districts).

Riding on Alberta-1

This is what not to do.

If it makes you feel any better, moving into the lane is sanctioned by Oregon law. The ORS (full text of the law here) gives you a degree of freedom to determine what it means to operate your vehicle (bicycle) safely on the roadway given the condition of the road, its lane width, speed limit, traffic volume, parking and even the weather. All these factors are also open to the interpretation of police officers, judges and the other traffic behind you.

It may seem like a lot to think about, but here it is in a nutshell…

Every bicycle operator has the legal right and responsibility to take a reasonable use of the roadway in order to protect their own safety. You may take as much of the lane as is practically prudent to create a safe space all around you.

Hopefully now you’ve got a better understanding of the practical and legal implications of “take the lane”. Just rememeber, like many Oregon laws that pertain to bikes, what is “reasonable” and “prudent” is open to interpretation.

— Bike Law 101 appears twice a month thanks to the generous support of West End Bikes PDX (corner of 11th and SW Stark in downtown Portland). It’s written by Karen Lally and Kurt Jansen of the non-profit Animated Traffic Law Center based in Eugene, Oregon. For more info on bike law, browse the Bike Law 101 archives

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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BURR
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BURR

If you’ve ever taken a motorcycle operator class, you know that ‘taking the lane’ also means controlling the lane, so that motorists behind you don’t attempt to ‘share the lane’ with you while you are in it.

This means that if you do ‘take the lane’ you need to do it in a way that leaves no doubt that motorists behind you need to slow down and change lanes to pass, which generally means riding in a center-left lane position, and not just riding in the right hand wheel track, as the latter tends to encourage unsafe passing.

Roger Geller
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Roger Geller

Thanks for this Animated. What about how 814.430 juxtaposes with 811.425? My read is that cyclists may certainly take the lane but they must yield to overtaking vehicles following the speed limit when safe to do so. This is true if they are on a two-way, two-lane roadway (i.e. one lane in each direction) and there is no clear lane for passing (as with a dashed centerline stripe). In other words, to be legal you must also be respectful and let overtaking vehicles pass when it’s safe to do so.

buglas
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buglas

Ok. Consider this scenario. A two way, four lane street – two lanes each direction – with a posted speed limit of 35mph and no bike lane. There is not sufficient room for a motor vehicle to pass with six feet of clearance (sorry don’t have the citation for the Safe Passing Law handy) within the lane. Would it be reasonable to assert that the limited passing clearance is a hazard that justifies moving off the right hand edge of the roadway and controlling the lane as BURR describes above?

Erik
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Erik

My anecdote:

I was harrassed by a police officer in downtown Portland a while back for not taking the bike lane when one was provided. I joined the one way street on the left side and was taking another left in 3 blocks so it did not make sense to go all the way across 3 lanes of traffic to ride in a bike lane for a block or two. The cop was not going to hear anything of it though.

I thought I was allowed whatever lane made the most sense, but was told that I had to ride in the bike lane if one was provided.

DerosaBill
Guest

You are certainly right about the interpretation of the police and judges. There was a period of time where the police watched the west end of the Hawthorne bridge for westbound riders “taking the lane” and ticketed them on the basis of the bike lane striping making it clear that taking the lane wasn’t necessary. I commute over 5,000 miles per year for the last 10 years and being stuck in that bike lane as 75% of the cars in the right lane merge across your path to turn right at 2nd Ave was the most dangerous thing I did every day. Thank goodness that they don’t seem to interpret it that way any more because I take my lane as soon as I can safely do so. If they change their interpretation, can I have my $200 back?

Jim Lee
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Jim Lee

Could someone please explain to Portland Streetcar why their tracks must not be next to the right curb on one-way streets?

Russ Roca
Guest

For good illustrations of “taking the lane” or “claiming the lane”, I highly suggest watching this series of videos on youtube.

http://youtu.be/ZFjCza5e1kw

R

q`Tzal
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q`Tzal

Alan 1.0
If a bike/rider is 20″ wide (pretty narrow, many of us are wider)

Yes, much. Generously speaking I’m generously sized; realistically speaking I need to walk or bike everywhere to control my width. All that said my panniers are on my bike when ever I’m riding and that width overshadows mine by 50-100%.

I do like being proved right or even wrong with 3rd party verifiable impartial data. My unsubstantiated observations have been of doors on lift kitted SUVs where the door frame has been further modded so that it will open a full 90 degrees. My stereotyping of the drivers of these caricatures of automobiles has shown them to be the type of people that will always fling their vehicle door open as fast as possible and as far as possible without any concern for others.
I do think the worst door width issue I ever saw was off of something that looked like a Lincoln Continental; it seemed like the door stuck out more than half the width of the car.

Ryno Dan
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Ryno Dan

When does a vehicle behind me become an “overtaking vehicle”. There is absolutely no way that I can keep track of and classify every vehicle that happens to be behind me.

And I don’t understand the picture that says “This is what not to do.”. I don’t think the article refers to it. It’s just a picture of a white car passing a cyclist.

For some reason car drivers (“people of car” ?) think there is some god-given, constitutional demand that they must pass every cycle right away and as fast as possible no matter what. From a cyclist’s perspective, the concept of “sharing the road” is a complete joke.

spare_wheel
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spare_wheel

Sharing means waiting.

Kristen
Guest
Kristen

Amen, El Biciclero.

The law even says that you have to wait until the oncoming lane is clear before you can move over to make a pass of a vulnerable road user. What’s so hard about that?? Is waiting the 2 or 3 seconds for a safe time to pass really going to make that big a difference in the overall trip time? (Not hypothetical– I’ve tried unscientifically to quantify it and my answer is “no”, but I’m just one so a poor sample for statistical analysis.)

As a person of car, if I come up on a vulnerable road user I will slow down and hang back until it’s safe to pass. The other people of car behind me don’t appreciate my actions, but I don’t really give a flying hoot about their opinions. I would hope the vulnerable road user appreciates my actions (I know when I’m in that position I do!) and that’s the opinion I value.

kww
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kww

I take the lane at every traffic lighted intersection. Also note that 814.420 states that you may claim the lane when:
(e) Continuing straight at an intersection where the bicycle lane or path is to the right of a lane from which a motor vehicle must turn right.
How many ‘right hook’ accidents would be avoided if bikes were more assertive at the intersection?

Serge
Guest

All but a few roads have lanes that are not “too narrow for a bicycle and vehicle to travel safely side by side…”” Even if the vehicle is only 7 feet wide (including mirrors), and the cyclist is about 2′, if you assume 3′ between, and both the car and the bicyclist are only 1′ from the respective edge of the lane, you have 1 + 7 + 3 + 2 + 1 = 14′. How many roads have lanes that are 14′ feet or more? A few do, for sure, but they’re pretty rare. That means bicyclists can legally take the lane on the vast majority of roads.