California Bicycle Safety Laws
Whether you’re a novice or an experienced cyclist, it is important to know California bicycle safety laws. Understanding the law and safety requirements can save you time and money, and more importantly, it could save your life. The law defines a bicycle as any vehicle on which any person may ride and which is propelled only by human power, using a belt, chain or gears and which has at least one wheel. A person riding a bicycle or operating a pedicab on a roadway has the same rights and responsibilities as other motorists.
Bicycle riders in California must follow the rules, or California Vehicle Code (CVC), of the road for drivers of vehicles:
Equipping Your Bike
Brakes: Bikes must be equipped with a brake that allows a rider to execute a one-braked-wheel skid on dry, level and clean pavement (CVC 21201(a)).
Handlebars: Cannot be higher than the operator’s shoulders (CVC 21201(b)).
Bicycle size: Operators can ride a bike they can start safely, travel safely, support with one foot on the ground, and stop safely. CVC 21201(c)
Reflectors: At night, bicycles must be fitted with the following reflectors (CVC 21201(d)):
- Visible from the back: red reflector. You can attach a solid or flashing red rear light in addition to the reflector.
- Visible from the front & back: white or yellow reflector on each pedal or on the bicyclist’s shoes or ankles. The front may have a visible, white headlight.
- Visible from the side: 1) white or yellow reflector on the front half of the bicycle and 2) a red or white reflector on each side of the back half of the bike. These reflectors are not required if the bike has reflecting front and back tires
Seats: All riders must have a permanent, regular seat, unless the bicycle is designed by the manufacturer to be ridden without a seat. Bicycle passengers weighing less than 40 lbs. must have a seat which holds them in place and protects them from moving parts (CVC 21204).
Operating Your Bike
Helmets: In California, anyone under the age of 18 must wear a helmet when riding a bicycle on a street, bikeway or public bicycle path or trail.
Head Phones: Bicyclists cannot wear earplugs or headset in or covering both ears.
Cell Phones: Though it is not advised, bicyclists are allowed to use a handheld cell phone while cycling.
Alcohol and drugs: Like motorists, it is illegal to ride a bicycle while under the influence
of alcoholic beverages or drugs. According to California Vehicle Code (CVC)
section 21200.5, riding a bike under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or their combined
influence is a crime. Cycling or bicycling under the influence (BUI) in
California is a misdemeanor for which you can be fine, jailed, and incur
a criminal record.
Carrying items: Cyclists cannot carry an item(s) that prevent at least one hand from using the handlebars.
Pedestrians: Bicyclists must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians within crosswalks at an intersection.
Parking: A cyclist cannot park their bike on the sidewalk nor in any way that obstructs pedestrians.
Hitching rides: Cyclists cannot hitch rides on vehicles or motor vehicles.
Where You Can Ride
Bike lane: According to CVC section 21208, cyclists riding slower than traffic must use the bicycle lane (if one is established on the roadway) except when making a left turn, passing or avoiding hazardous conditions, or approaching a place where a right turn is permitted.
Right to “take the lane”: By law, a cyclist riding on a road at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time must ride as close as possible to the right-hand curb or edge of the road except as follows: when passing, preparing for a left turn, avoiding hazards, if the lane is too narrow to share, or if approaching a place where a right turn is authorized (CVC 21202).
Ride with traffic: A person operating a bicycle must travel on the right half of the road except under any of the following situations: when passing, making a legal left turn, riding on a one-way street, riding on a road that is too narrow, or when the right side of the road is closed due to construction (CVC 21650).
Mopeds, high-speed electric and low-speed electric bicycles are not like regular bicycles: Gas-powered bikes and type 3 electric bikes (with top assisted speeds of 28 mph) are not allowed on trails, bike paths or lanes unless permitted by local authorities. They may be used in bike lanes or separated bike ways adjacent to the road (CVC 21207.5). In addition, mopeds and high-speed electric bikes require helmets and cannot be operated by people under 16. Type 1 and 2 electric bicycles (with top assisted speeds of 20 mph) are permitted wherever regular bikes are permitted unless specifically prohibited.
Bike paths: No one may stop or park a bike on a bike path.
Sidewalks: Individual cities decide whether or not biking on the sidewalk is allowed. In Sacramento, current city code prohibits bike riding on the sidewalk in except in residential area. However, the ordinance fails to define a “residential” area, making it hard to understand or enforce the law.
Freeways: Bicyclesand motorized bicycles cannot travel on freeways and expressways where prohibited by the California Department of Transportation (DOT) and local authorities (CVC 21960).
Toll bridges: Cyclists cannot cross a toll bridge unless authorized by the California DOT (CVC 23330).
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Bill Kershaw is an avid cyclist and cycling enthusiast and is a proud proponent of various organizations in California that support bicycle advocacy and the rights of all cyclists in California.