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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Your Bike Law Questions: Answered!

Posted by Sarah Mirk on Thu, Sep 16, 2010 at 11:41 AM

As promised, I went down to the bike law clinic last night with your questions in hand. Local lawyer Ray Thomas cheerfully ranted about the basics of bike law for nearly an hour to the crowded table in the back of the BTA office. Thomas is a firebrand when it comes to nerding out about the law, but one of his guiding philosophies repeated throughout the evening was, "Don't be a prick."

To the questions!

What's the law surrounding bikes on sidewalks?
It's legal to ride on the sidewalk everywhere in Portland except downtown between SW Jefferson Street, Naito Parkway, NW Hoyt Street and 13th Avenue, where you can get hit with a $500 fine. The exception to that is if you're a police officer or if you're in the Park Blocks or, for some reason, on SW Salmon Street. If you're riding at the speed of a walking person, then cars have to yield for you at crosswalks and driveways, just like you're a pedestrian.

What should you do about drivers who are way too polite and motion along for bikes to pass even when the cars don't have stop signs or red lights?
This is where Thomas got fiery. "Women have been putting up with this for a long time. There's some kind of man who insists on opening a door even when she wants him to get the hell out of the way. It's a combination of passive aggression and good intention," says Thomas. "It is not a friendly maneuver ever. First I'm nice, then I get impatient right away. If a pedestrian waves you through when they have the benefit of the right away, give em the benefit of the doubt and assume they're scared of you and go through. But when a motorist does it, do not reinforce their stupid attitude. We know our rights, that's all we want. "

Are buses legally required to yield to bikes in a bike lane before pulling to the curb?
All vehicles are supposed to yield the right of way to people in the bike lane, but there's an exception for vehicles operating "in course of official duty." A lawyer could argue that buses are picking up and dropping off passengers as their "official duty," but either way they shouldn't be doing anything dangerous; there's no excuse for a bus cutting you off too closely. "It's gotten a lot better because now the bus drivers are afraid they're going to squish us," says Thomas. "But back in the day when bus drivers were more cavalier, they would muscle us worse than any other vehicles except maybe jacked-up pick up trucks."

Can bikes cut across traffic lanes and pass stopped cars?
If you're not slowing down traffic, you can cross between lanes. And bikes are allowed to pass someone on the right, so if there's a long line of cars stopped at a light or stuck in traffic, feel free to zip by. Just watch for doors.

There are some weird red light situations in Portland. At lights where the pedestrian crossing "go" sign turns green much sooner than the light, can bikes legally cross? What about that weird spot on SW Barbur where there's a bike arrow pointing through an intersection?
When the pedestrian signal changes sooner (like on 20th and East Burnside or 39th and SE Lincoln) bikes can legally cross if they ride in the crosswalk. As for SW Barbur, "That is one of those dicey places for our city," says Thomas. The city is experimenting there with new infrastructure that doesn't conform to any federal standard. You could challenge it, and maybe win in court and get a specific law on the books, or play it safe and wait for the light.

Can you listen to headphones while riding a bike? What about talking on the phone?
Headphones are a-okay legally, the cell phone issue is trickier. The legislature passed a no talking while driving law last year, but the text of the law only applies to motor vehicles. BUT there is another law on the books that says all motor vehicle laws apply to bicyclists unless by nature it's irrelevant to bikes. So though Ray's never seen it tested, the no cell phone law probably applies to bikes, too.

You can download Ray's bike law manual for free on his website.

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