Towpath Trail

How Does 'Bike May Use Full Lane' Work?


By Pete Medek - 9/9/15

Not all cyclists have bike infrastructure in their communities. And those who don't, may have never seen a 'Bike May Use Full Lane' sign before.

bike may use full lane

I happen to live in such a community at the moment, and can tell you that some riders in my area still shun the idea of "taking the lane." If you are such a rider, read on. This blog's for you.

Daredevil on a Bike

We all know it takes some guts to ride in the road. It's not for the squeamish. The busier the road, the more experience and chutzpah required.

We all have a built-in tolerance meter as to how much congested roadway we can take. So it's no surprise that some cyclists prefer not to put themselves directly in the line of fire by riding in the lane, rather than along the edge of the roadway.

A Counterintuitive Act

But in narrow travel lanes (or lanes narrowed by parked cars, tire-sucking sewer grates, etc.) "taking the lane" can make you safer.

Have you ever had a driver pass too close to you? Sure, we all have at one time or another. It may surprise you to know that if you're hugging the right-hand edge of the road, you're encouraging this behavior.

When drivers see you hugging the curb, they often assume there's room to pass between you and the centerline, so they try to squeeze by. Oftentimes without slowing down. In narrow lanes this puts the cyclist at risk of a close call, or worse yet, being struck by the vehicle.

When you take the lane and move left to ride in the right tire track or center of the lane, you are signalling to the driver that they must cross the centerline to pass. And when there's oncoming traffic, that means the driver must consider how to do so safely. By controlling the lane, you are essentially creating this safer pass scenario.

Creating a Buffer

By riding in the lane, you are also giving yourself a buffer zone to your right. Imagine a vehicle pulling a wide trailer is passing you and the driver does not properly account for the trailer width. If you're using a mirror (you are, right?!), you can anticipate his/her mistake and move right to avoid being struck. However, if this scenario plays out while your riding the edge of the pavement, there's nowhere for you to go. So you'll be struck or forced to kamikaze off the edge of the road to avoid the impact.

Repeat after me: "Buffers are good!"

Angry Drivers

You might wonder, "Won't I tick drivers off by getting in their way?" You'll be surprised that the vast majority will pass safely with no complaints.

Of course, many U.S. roads are about as far from utopian as one can get. So there will be a few bad apples out there that may give you a rough time and may even buzz you with their car. It's important to understand that you are not immune to this behavior, even if you're hugging the curb.

Know Your Rights

So don't make the mistake of assuming you are provoking a driver's wrath by taking the lane. The reality is there are drivers who don't want to see bikes on the road and show no respect for them there, regardless of their position on the roadway.

My Experience

I've found that riding in the right tire track works well in my area. It's far enough into the lane that it discourages the squeeze-bye. And not so far left (some recommend riding slightly left-of-center when taking the lane) that it confuses drivers.

On rural highways, however, my approach is different. When cars are traveling at higher speeds, it's important that they see you from a greater distance. So I will ride in the center of the lane to be more visible. As a vehicle approaches from the rear, I will move over to the right tire track, where again, a safe pass is encouraged.

In Part 2 we'll take a look at what the law says about "taking the lane." And how to decide when to use it.

See Part 2 below.

2 comments    add comment

This is a great article. It can be hard to 'take the lane' sometimes for all the reasons you point out. But i have found it to be a much safer way to ride. There always grey areas though, like when the lane is wide enough to allow both a bicycle and a car. Those situations make it more difficult to conscientiously take the lane (at least for me).
by Matthew -- 9/10/15
Thanks, Matthew. You make a great point: Determining when you should 'take the lane' is not always a simple, straightforward decision. I'll shed more light on that in Part 2. Coming soon.
by Pete Medek -- 9/10/15

May Use Full Lane - Part 2

By Pete Medek - 9/23/15

Let's examine what Ohio law says about a cyclist's right to "take the lane." Though we're looking at the larger standard (state Law) here, keep in mind that local jurisdictions can also have their own bike laws.

Section 4511.55 reads as follows:

  • (A) Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable obeying all traffic rules applicable to vehicles and exercising due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction.

The word "practicable" is key here. "Feasible" would be an excellent definition, as well as an appropriate substitution. "Practicable" did cause some confusion, so the following paragraph was added to the law in 2006 for better clarification:

  • (C) This section does not require a person operating a bicycle to ride at the edge of the roadway when it is unreasonable or unsafe to do so. Conditions that may require riding away from the edge of the roadway include when necessary to avoid fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, surface hazards, or if it otherwise is unsafe or impracticable to do so, including if the lane is too narrow for the bicycle and an overtaking vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.

And there you have it. A more complete explanation is now included within the law itself. To learn more about Ohio bicycle laws, visit the OBF website.

AFRAP Cases

As Far Right As is Practicable (AFRAP) cases have gone to court since the law was made clearer in 2006. So take note that even though the language has been improved, that doesn't guarantee all law enforcement officers will get it right in the field. That's why it's important that you know your rights. Not only to ride more safely, but to contest a ticket you might receive when you are properly following the law.

To learn more about AFRAP cases, see How to Win an AFRAP Case by Steve Magas.

As you may have noticed, the law does not specify where you should position yourself in the roadway when you take the lane. It says, "... as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable..."

This leads to different interpretations. Many say ride in the middle of the lane (or middle of tire tracks), while others suggest riding in the right tire track.

Which is Better: Middle or Right Tire Track?

Since taking the lane is primarily intended to encourage drivers to allow bikes adequate space when passing, I would suggest only moving as far into the lane as needed to achieve that result. Then you will be in full compliance with the law and in a safer position. As mentioned in Part 1, I find that riding in the right tire track does the trick where I ride.

However, in some cases you may need to go to the middle of the lane to achieve the same result, or due to other circumstances.

Different Road Configurations

In my area, virtually all roads are narrow with little or no useable shoulder. So taking the lane is a no-brainer.

But let's say you have a wide lane with a smooth, wide shoulder that's not debris-riddled. If using the shoulder allows plenty of buffer space from motor vehicles, that's a good start. But what about intersections, parked cars, etc? These factors all require you to plan ahead.

You'll want to avoid frequently jumping back and forth in and out of the lane to pass parked cars, for example. If there are few parked cars, and they are spaced generously apart, and there's ample opportunity to signal to merge into the lane well beforehand, it can work. Just as a merge into the lane at periodic intersections is a good idea (to avoid a right hook). The key is to be predictable and plan ahead, rather than jumping in and out of the lane like a slalom racer.

How Much Space Should a Cyclist Have?

Many states, including Ohio, have laws that require drivers to allow a minimum of a 3-foot clearance when passing, while Pennsylvania requires 4 feet. So the general attitude among the biking community is that 3 feet is safe. But is it?

If you were to fall over suddenly, would 3 feet keep you safe? Or could a car still run over your head? Some suggest a fallover distance standard would be safer.

Ultimately you decide how much room is safe for you. Monitor passing motorists with your rearview mirror. When a passing driver is not giving you enough room, you can slide right and use your buffer zone. After all, you are the vulnerable user out there.

Ride safe!

0 comments    add comment


Top of Page