Motorists and bicyclists – finding a happy median

Automobile drivers are not the only ones enjoying the rural roads of Fallbrook. On weekends especially, a growing number of club cyclists are taking in the country sights and diverse terrain.

Yet, there is a problem. Some drivers and cyclists are trying to determine who has the “right-of-way” and if there is such a thing as true peaceful co-existence between the two.

“Bicyclists are allowed to ride in the center of the lanes just like a motorist would if they are going the speed limit or with the flow of traffic,” explained Eric Newbury, public information officer for the California Highway Patrol in Oceanside. “The problem we have is once [cyclists] start to move slower than the normal speed of traffic they are supposed to move as close to the right as they possibly can so vehicles can pass them.”

Rule exceptions are when bicyclists pass a slow vehicle, prepare to make a left turn at an intersection, private road or driveway, and roadway conditions.

A flock of cyclists have a right to be on the road. However, they cannot dominate the whole lane width if they are going slower than the speed of traffic.

“Once [cyclists] start bogging down the flow of traffic, they can be cited for it; there is a section in the vehicle code that they need to move to the right,” he said.

Newbury said when cyclists get ticketed, more times than not, they had no idea they were breaking the law.

On the flip side, motorists aren’t always on the lookout for cyclists, either. Nonetheless, they must respect their right-of-way because cyclists are entitled to share the road – even if there aren’t any bike lanes. It’s recommended that drivers keep their eyes open for riders before turning right, opening their car door or merging into bike lanes.

“The greater Fallbrook area has always been a popular cycling destination for those riders looking for quiet country roads, challenging hills, and beautiful scenery,” said Kathy Keehan, executive director of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition said. “As there are more riders in general, residents in Fallbrook will probably continue to see more riders out and about – it’s a great compliment to the area that it continues to be such a draw for cyclists.”

According to Keehan, there are 20 official cycling clubs and dozens of unofficial groups in San Diego County. She said that in 2007, the California Office of Traffic Safety reported that 11 cyclists were killed in San Diego County and 805 were injured in car/bike related crashes.

Nearly 42 percent of cyclist injuries resulted from mechanical failures, riding over debris or road hazards. Accidents between motorists and cyclists linger at 18 percent and are equally split when it comes to who was at fault in the incident.

Most of these accidents, Keehan said, happen at intersections.

The San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, a nonprofit organization, offers a host of information for cyclists. This includes an in-depth Traffic Skills 101 course. Students spend time in class and on their bikes.

“Basically, we have educational programs for cyclists to help them be more comfortable on the road; we work with law enforcement with regard to bicycling; we promote and encourage cycling through various community events, and we advise on bike facilities built by various local jurisdictions,” she said.

The tension that exists between cyclists and motorists, Keehan said, revolve around sharing a limited resource: road space. Yet, both have a legal right to be there.

“So, this sets up conflicts when relatively slow cyclists are trying to use the same space as relatively fast auto traffic,” Keehan said.

Keehan said it’s safer for cyclists to pedal in the travel lane on narrow roads. There is reasoning behind this. If a cyclist rides too close to the right, a motorist will try to squeeze by, rather than change lanes.

“Although many motorists feel that they have excellent control of their automobiles, leaving less than three feet of space when passing cyclists is a recipe for disaster; the bicyclists may need to move slightly to avoid something in the road, or the wind from the pass may move the cyclists over,” Keehan said. “So, we encourage cyclists to ride a little bit further to the left, to make it easier to be seen, and to encourage motorists to change lanes to pass.”

As far as Newbury is concerned, everyone operating a vehicle, including a bicycle, needs to make an intelligent decision regarding safety. “Sometimes common sense has to come into play when you tell yourself that maybe you should take another route for the sake of wanting to see new scenery,” he said. “Safety should be paramount with any mode of transportation.”

For more information on the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, visit

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12 Responses to "Motorists and bicyclists – finding a happy median"

  1. Jim   February 25, 2010 at 10:01 pm

    You forgot to include, if the lane isn’t wide enough for both an automobile and the bicycle to pass safely, the cyclist may take the lane. Nice article.

  2. Daryl   February 26, 2010 at 6:42 am

    Your point about cyclists having to avoid road hazards at the edge of the roadway is an important one. Unless they are also cyclists, motorists don’t think about these hazards from the cyclist’s viewpoint, yet there are far more hazards for cyclists at the edge of roadways than motorists encounter in the drive lanes. I ride well into the lane on narrow roads to force motorists to slow and keep a safe distance. The majority of motorists are quite courteous. Great article.

  3. Jim Baross   February 26, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    As I understand a basic premise of traffic law; it’s first come first served, and wait your turn – not that bigger, faster folks get to bully or scare slower folks out of a lane. Speed should not be the paramount factor in assigning right of way.
    How does that fit with CHP recommending/telling bicyclists they must get out of the way?

  4. dad of 3   February 26, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    Article leaves out the "common sense" aspect, that if a bicyclist decides to challenge a motorist for right of way, and they collide, the cyclist loses. Even if they had the legal right, it won’t bring them back from the dead.

  5. Serge Issakov   February 26, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    "The problem we have is once [cyclists] start to move slower than the normal speed of traffic they are supposed to move as close to the right as they possibly can so vehicles can pass them." – Eric Newberry

    What??? That is simply not true!

    It is astonishing to me that a CHP public information officer could be so uninformed about traffic law that he is citing.

    Officer Newberry, please google 21202 and note 21202(a)(3) in particular, where it clearly states that on roads with lanes that are "too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane" (i.e., almost all roads in and around Fallbrook), bicyclists are exempted from having to "ride as close as practicable to the right", for many good safety reasons, only some of which are noted by Kathy.

    Also, note the "close as PRACTICABLE" wording, not "close as POSSIBLE". When you substitute "possible" for "practicable" it leaves the impression that you don’t know and appreciate the enormous difference between the two words.

  6. Serge Issakov   February 26, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Dad of 3, it might seem counter-intuitive, and even contrary to "common sense" (sometimes "common sense" is wrong, and when it comes to bicycle traffic safety it often is), but most of the time a cyclist who is more assertive with respect to his or her rights is much safer too, because usually a more assertive roadway position makes the cyclist much more conspicuous and improves the cyclist’s vantage and "escape space" to potential conflicts ahead.

    It is precisely because of safety considerations for the cyclist that most of the exceptions in the "keep right" law (google 21202) are in there. Check it out.

  7. Dad of 1   February 26, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    The CHP officer is just plain wrong. He either has not read the California Vehicle Code as it pertains to bicycles or is simply pulling out those parts that he agrees with. It is going to take some serious political lobbying from us cyclists to get public authorities to read the vehicle code and enforce the rights we already have been given by the legislature.

    To Dad of 3: So are you saying that because motorists are able to commit vehicular manslaughter upon cyclists, then we cyclists should get out of their way? If the slower-moving vehicles were 180,000 pound Caterpillar bulldozers, would you still be willing to attempt to push them out of your way?

  8. why?   February 27, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Maybe the cyclists should start paying road use tax if they continue want to use more of the roads. Register the bikes and tax them just like cars! Make it more fair for everyone involved.

  9. Serge Issakov   February 27, 2010 at 6:02 pm

    If bicyclists paid their fair share based on how much wear and tear they cause to the roads, it would probably add up to less than the cost of collecting that amount. Besides, bicyclists already pay for the roads through regular taxes like everyone else, and since most are motorists too including through gas taxes.

  10. Heather   March 1, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    In fact, it’s private vehicle use that is subsidised through public taxes. Gas tax and registration doesn’t even begin to cover the socialized costs of operating a private vehicle.

  11. Pete Penseyres   March 1, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    My experience over the last 30 years living in Fallbrook is that the vast majority of motorists drive safely and courteously around cyclists, especially those who ride predictably and follow the rules of the road. From a cyclist’s perspective, it truely is "The Friendly Village"!
    As a certified cycling instructor, I’d like to invite Officer Newberry to the next Traffic Skills 101 Class that will be offered in Oceanside at the City Hall Library Conference Room on Friday evening, March 26 from 6 to 9:30 PM. Most everything he is attributed to saying is consistent with the California Vehicle Code(CVC), and I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was misquoted regarding the "as far to the right as POSSIBLE" comment. However, he should bring his copy of the CVC, if he thinks it says that. We teach from the current version of the CVC, which is consistent with the comments by Jim Baross, Serge Issakov, Daryl and Jim. Cyclists or motorists who would like to improve their ability to ride or drive safely and courteously are also invited to attend this class by registering on line from the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition Website,

  12. Michael Pines   March 10, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    Bikers Beware: when bikes and cars clash, the cars are going to win. This is not the good ol’ days where you could go into the middle of the road and perform tricks or just ride around, but today it is a serious cause of death. You ride at your own risk on any road!


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