What is the purpose of laws governing cyclists? Is it to promote safe streets? Or is it to protect the “flow of traffic”? Perhaps it’s both, but sometimes it feels like the scale tips far in favor of faster driving.
After BikePortland publicized plans by the Safe Lane Coalition to repeal the Oregon law (ORS 814.420) which requires cyclists to use the bike lane, I took note of a reader comment that said we should also get rid of ORS 814.430, which requires cyclists to ride as far to the right side of the street as “practicable.” That’s a law I often think about while riding, and sometimes I choose to defy.
It was this defiance that led me to my first-ever, cycle-related run-in with a cop. And I’m still trying to figure out if I was in the wrong. Part of me wants to call the police station to see if I could have a longer conversation with the admonishing officer, preferably in a context where I’m not worried that my commentary will get me a ticket.
Here’s what happen…
The interaction came directly after I made a decision to “take the lane,” that is, to intentionally occupy the center of lane used by drivers, rather than riding “as close as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway” as required by ORS 814.430. The decision was intentional: we had been riding on a roadway with on-street parking and moving to the right curb whenever there was a long-ish stretch without parked cars. That meant we were constantly coming upon parked cars, and each parked car meant we needed to re-enter the adjacent traffic lane. (The parked cars were spread out enough to make it seem reasonable for us to ride next to the curb, but they were frequent enough to give the feeling of weaving in-and-out of the traffic lane.)
On multiple occasions we moved to the right, and then had to come to a full stop and wait behind a parked car for a chance to safely re-enter the flow of traffic. I worried my son might forget to double-check over his shoulder, that he might re-enter the traffic lane to go around a parked car, only to get hit by a car passing him from behind.
For this reason, I had switched our riding order to put my 9 year-old son in front of me. In an urban area, I usually have him ride behind me, since I prefer to judge dangers at intersections and two-way stop signs. On this particular route, I began to think the bigger danger was cars passing us from behind, especially when we approached a parked car and wanted to re-enter the travel lane. However, after moving in front of me, my son was beating me up a hill and we were nearing a busy intersection, so I called him back to ride beside me.
We had taken the center of the lane to pass a parked car and we could have gotten back over to the right, again, for a block or two, until we reached yet another parked car (which I could see). I decided I was tired of the “weave” maneuver. It felt like we were taking on an increased danger to ride to the right and then have to continuously re-enter the flow of traffic, and spend half our ride looking behind us. Since I could already see another parked car about 1.5 blocks ahead, I decided we would just stay in the lane.
At that point, a seemingly angry driver sped past us, using the empty oncoming traffic lane to give us a wide berth. I sighed at the speed of the car, but I was glad they didn’t try to close-pass us, which sometimes happens when I’m riding farther to the right. In this case, since I was occupying the full car lane, the passing car had to go fully around by using the oncoming lane, which I think makes for a safer pass. Since there was no oncoming traffic in sight for blocks, I knew I wasn’t holding up traffic – cars could pass me using the empty oncoming lane, just as if I were a slow-moving tractor.
But then a police car pulled up from behind and commanded me to “get to the right.” What timing! After all the calculations I had just made, the considerations about rider order, risk mitigation, and taking the lane, I was being ordered back to the right. I felt exasperated and a little surprised. After all, we had just passed a parked car.
So I questioned the officer, “We’re allowed to pass a parked car, aren’t we?” But I looked over my shoulder and knew that we could have gotten back over to the right, and, as I had intentionally decided, we had not done so. My question did not go over well, and I got a much sterner look and the reiteration, “you need to get to the right. We just don’t want to see you get hurt.” And then, the kicker: “that car sped up to pass you–we don’t want to see you get hurt.”
That’s right! The driver sped up to race past us, directly in front of a police vehicle! And what did the police do? They told me to get to the right, and implied that I caused the driver to speed up, and that by taking the center of the lane I was endangering myself and my children. In other words, the speeding driver and the danger it posed was really my fault, because I wasn’t riding far enough to the right. It just didn’t make sense to me.
Throughout the interaction, I was intimidated by the police officer, and genuinely worried about getting a ticket. Maybe I was breaking the law about riding to the right?* I asked a frustrated question and had a frustrated tone (while pedaling five kids uphill with an e-bike battery that was about to run out of charge), and the cop’s returned tone gave me the impression he was really saying, “Do you want me to give you a ticket for this? Or are you going to get to the right?” So I shut up, got to the right, had the cop pass me, and then I had to immediately re-enter the center of the lane to go around another parked car (the one I had seen ahead), while worrying the cop would think I was somehow being flippant to get right back in the center of the lane.
What I wish I had said to the officer is, “Why didn’t you go after the speeding car?”
If you don’t want to see me get hurt, protect me!
But between me riding not-to-the-right, and a speeding, aggressively passing car, the police officers decided to admonish me. The message was clear: I was the problem. I was in the way. My being slow was making people mad and prompting them to drive unsafely. I didn’t have a right to slow people down or get in their way. I needed to stay to the right, stay in my place, stay out of the way.
Maybe that’s part of what Safe Lane Coalition is fighting for. To not just change the law, but that attitude the law encourages — an attitude that makes some cops treat cyclists like second-class road users, when instead, they should be protected, encouraged, and even prioritized. When we create laws and design streets; safe streets and protection of the most vulnerable should take precedent. It’s unfortunate that it often doesn’t work out that way.
*Editor’s note: Like many situations where bike-related laws are unclear, the result is that police yield a tremendous amount of power and discretion in how they are enforced. And since the vast majority of officers don’t understand or respect bicycling, that discretion usually favors drivers. In this case, ORS 814.430 includes a clear exception:
(2) A person is not in violation of the offense if the person is not operating a bicycle as close as practicable to the right curb or edge of the roadway under any of the following circumstances:
(c) When reasonably necessary to avoid hazardous conditions including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles … or other conditions that make continued operation along the right curb or edge unsafe…