Essential Rules of the Road Every Driver & Cyclist Should Know

Image Credit: babylass / Pixabay

Essential Rules of the Road Every Driver & Cyclist Should Know

Bicycling as a means of transportation is growing in popularity. Cities are placing bike rental kiosks on street corners and sales are increasing. With more bicyclists and motorists sharing the road the risk for accidents is also growing.

To keep bike riders and vehicle drivers from getting in an accident, there are a few essential road rules everyone should know.

For Bicyclists

Image Credit: icsilviu / Pixabay

For Bicyclists

1. Where You Should (and Should NOT) Ride Your Bike

With more bikes on the road today, it’s a good idea to go over where you should and should not ride. Cyclists should think of themselves as drivers. The same road and traffic laws apply to them as motorists.

Always ride your bike with oncoming traffic. Think of it as not biking or driving on the wrong side of the road. A traffic ticket may not be handed out, but it is risky and thoughtless behavior. Cyclists also want to avoid riding on sidewalks. It is rude and can garner a ticket.

2. Follow All Traffic Signs and Signals

You always want to follow road and traffic signs. Brake at stop signs and red lights, and only turn with the green signal.

Following traffic signals and signs also apply to biking through neighborhoods. Cycling over the speed limit is rarely a problem but follow the posted traffic guidelines. Don’t forget to stop at school crossings and when buses are dropping off or picking up children.

3. Know the Pecking Order

The only way vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians co-exist without constantly colliding is by following an established pecking order. It lets you know who always has the right of way.

Pedestrians are at the top of the hierarchy. Motorists and cyclists yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, even if they have a green light. Cars also yield to bicycles, but it does not mean you can ride in a vehicle lane.

Cyclists also need to dismount and walk their bikes in the crosswalk, staying between the lines.

4. Use Biking Hand Signals to Change Lanes

Signaling when to change lanes in a vehicle is easy with the indicator. Tap the lever or button on the steering wheel and lights at the front and rear of the vehicle turn on, letting others know which direction the car is turning.

Cyclists use their left arms to accomplish the same thing. Hold your arm straight to indicate a left turn. Bend the arm at the elbow to turn right.

Always look over your shoulder before turning or changing lanes. Cyclists have a blind spot just like car drivers. The only difference is the severity of the accident.

5. Stay to the Right and Pass on the Left

A common complaint among drivers is people going below the speed limit in the left lane. The left lane is for passing, and slower moving vehicles take traffic down to a crawl. They also infuriate other drivers trying to go a little faster.

The left lane is not for cyclists, so don’t get any ideas about biking on the shoulder. It’s dangerous and illegal in most cities.

Cycling in areas without bike lanes means biking with traffic, staying close to the curb or shoulder. When you come upon a slower cyclist it doesn’t mean you’re stuck in the rea. You can still pass with the proper warning.

Ring the bike’s bell if it has one. Do not use a loud horn. It can startle other cyclists and cause an accident. Instead, yell ‘on the left’. It indicates you are coming up behind and getting ready to pass.

These rules also apply when passing pedestrians.

6. Know and Follow All State- and City-Specific Helmet Laws

Bike helmets may do horrible things to hairstyles, but the protective shells also save lives. They are made from hard, durable plastic, and lined with foam to absorb impact shock. Bicycle helmets protect you from traumatic brain injuries and even death.

Wearing a helmet may also be the law. Some states require all cyclists under the age of eighteen to wear protective headgear while biking. Local ordinances can also come into play requiring all cyclists regardless of age wear helmets on the road.

It’s a good idea to check local ordinances before heading out on a bike. The city’s government webpage usually lists all rules and regulations cyclists need to know.

7. Use Bicycle Lanes When Available

The bike lane is a cyclist’s friend. It’s a dedicated lane for bicycles and the occasional pedestrian. Motorized vehicles are not allowed in bicycle lanes, and it includes scooters.

Always ride in the bike lane. Not only is it safer than biking in a motor vehicle lane, but it’s also the law in some cities and states. Cyclists can receive traffic tickets for ignoring the bike lane, and the fines can be costly.

Anyone not sure what a bike lane looks like, think of a vehicle lane. Bike lanes have clearly drawn lines and are marked with bicycle stencils to eliminate confusion. Bicycle lanes are also noticeably narrower than those designated for motorized vehicles.

8. And Know How to Properly Use the Road When Bike Lanes Aren’t Available

Bicycle lanes are becoming more common, especially in urban areas. Unfortunately, bicycle lanes are not continuous like freeways. Cyclists will find themselves biking on the road, and they want to take some proactive steps to avoid accidents.

The best way to stay safe on the road is to know how to properly use it when bike lanes aren’t available. It is legal to ride a bike on the road in all 50 states when there isn’t a bike lane.

For safety, bike on the right side of the road. Ignore the left side, since it means the bike is going against traffic. It’s also a good idea to stay close to the white line, around three feet to avoid getting in passing vehicles’ right of way.

9. Biking Under the Influence

Biking under the influence is dangerous and illegal across the United States. Instead of getting a DUI (driving under the influence), cyclists often get fined for public intoxication. Depending on the level of impairment, a trip to jail is not uncommon.

Biking under the influence can also affect vehicle insurance rates. Insurance companies can consider a public intoxication offense a reason to raise the premiums. Even though a motor vehicle isn’t involved, cyclists can still end up paying more.

Along with violating the law, biking under the influence puts others at risk. Cyclists find it harder to control the bicycle, increasing their risk of an accident. It’s also hard for a bike rider to keep their balance when they are intoxicated.

10. Cell Phones and Cycling

Most cyclists forego trying to hold a cell phone and steer their bicycle. It’s a juggling act most riders prefer not to master.

Not only is it dangerous to use a cell phone while biking, but it is also illegal in some states. Neighborhoods are also enacting ordinances prohibiting cell phone use while biking.

Earpieces are different. Cyclists can keep their hands free for steering and their eyes on the road, instead of the phone screens. Be careful using an earpiece. Keep the volume low enough to hear external noises like car horns and warning sirens from emergency vehicles.

Want to learn more about state bicycle laws? The League of American Bicyclist’s has a detailed list on their website.

Essential Rules of the Road Every Driver & Cyclist Should Know

Image Credit: Derks24 / Pixabay

For Drivers

1. Appreciate Bicyclist Vulnerability

Motor vehicle drivers have a distinct advantage over cyclists in an accident. Bicycles typically weigh around 20 pounds, while the average car is a hefty 2 tons. The weight difference almost ensures the cyclist will come out of an accident with more severe injuries than the driver.

Drivers are also encased in a steel or aluminum frame, giving them protection in collisions. Cyclists do not have this protection. Instead, they rely on bike helmets, along with knee and elbow pads. The protective gear is not enough to prevent severe injuries.

Vehicle drivers need to be aware of their surroundings to avoid colliding with cyclists. The number of bicycles on the road is increasing, and so are accidents. Older adults are also taking up cycling. Their bones are often more prone to breaks than younger riders, adding to bicyclists’ vulnerability on the road.

2. Know Bicyclists' Rights

Motorists often mistakenly presume since their vehicles are larger they automatically have the right of way. Some vehicle drivers are even taking to message boards protesting cyclists’ presence on the roads. These drivers want to know why bicycles can’t stay on the sidewalks.

In almost every city across the U.S., bicycles are prohibited on sidewalks. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lists bicycles as vehicles. The agency also states cyclists over ten years of age should stay off sidewalks and follow all road rules and regulations. It puts bicyclists in the same league as drivers. In California, bicyclists’ rights are listed on the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) webpage.

The California DMV states, "Bicycle riders on public roads have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists and are subject to the same rules and regulations."

Cyclists should always bike with traffic, staying close to the shoulder, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only place drivers’ should watch. Always be alert for bicyclists, especially on vehicles’ blind spots. Always look left and right before turning. Pay attention when merging and opening car doors near bike lanes.

Bicycles have the same rights as the vehicles they are sharing the road with.

3. Adjust That Attitude

It’s not uncommon for drivers to look down on cyclists. Their bikes are slower than motor vehicles and can get in the way. Instead of getting impatient with cyclists, drivers should be willing to treat them as equals.

Getting stuck behind a bicycle can be frustrating, especially when the driver is running late. Honking the car horn doesn’t cause the cyclist to pedal faster. The loud, sudden noise can startle rider resulting in an accident.

A good tip for drivers to remember is bike riders are also people. Thinking of friends and family members who also ride bicycles is often enough to remind drivers to adjust their attitudes. After all, they don’t want another driver to cause their loved ones to have a bicycle accident.

Vehicle owners with routes alongside popular cycling locations may want to consider giving themselves more time to reach their destination. It can eliminate most of the frustration they feel when they can’t pass slower moving bicycles.

4. Consider the Benefits of Bicycling — for Drivers

Drivers may want to consider this the next time they find themselves getting frustrated with cyclists. Every bicycle on the road means there are fewer cars.

Fewer vehicles on the roads are something every driver can appreciate. They have less of a chance of getting stuck in traffic jams. It’s also easier to find prime parking spots. Cyclists do not take up parking. They have dedicated places to lock their bikes, often in front of the building.

Another benefit, drivers may not consider, is improved road conditions. The lightweight bicycles do not cause road wear and tear. Fewer potholes are something every driver can agree is a benefit.

Don’t forget about pollution. Unlike gas-powered vehicles, bicycles do not emit any greenhouse gases. Cycling is an environmentally friendly way to get around.

5. Spare Them the Right Hook

Sparing a cyclist the right hook isn’t a boxing referral. Drivers do not want to assault cyclists. It’s illegal and comes with fines and jail time.

The reference to a right hook refers to how drivers navigate through intersections. Do not barrel through one, even with a green light. Drivers also want to follow all traffic rules and give cyclists the right of way.

Making a right turn can be disastrous for drivers and bike riders. Always use the vehicle’s turn signal, a cyclist might be coming up unseen on the car’s side. Anytime there are cyclists on the road, always watch their left arms before making a right turn.

When a cyclist raises their left arm and bends it at the elbow, it is signaling the bike is getting ready to turn right. Let them go first to avoid a collision.

6. Beware the Left Turn

Not only do drivers want to keep a close eye on cyclists on right turns, but also when turning left. A vehicle’s blind spot isn’t the problem during left turns. Drivers usually see the approaching cyclist but misjudge the distance.

Drivers may not realize it but cyclists can easily reach speeds between 15 and 20 miles per hour. They can quickly make it through an intersection before a vehicle completes its left turn. When this happens, accidents usually occur between the vehicle and cyclists.

It’s always a good idea to yield to cyclists in intersections. They often have a green light at the same time drivers are allowed to make legal left turns. Letting the bicycle cross first prevents accidents and can save lives.

7. Give Cyclists 3 Feet of Clearance

Drivers will want to get an understanding of what three feet of clearance looks like before hitting the road.

Over twenty states have laws requiring drivers give cyclists three feet of space. There’s even a campaign in Florida selling t-shirts reminding motorists to stay around three feet away from bike riders.

Giving riders plenty of clearance helps keep drivers and cyclists safe. Bicycles can tip over suddenly on the road and no driver wants to run someone over.

Cyclists need some breathing room for maneuvering their bicycles. Drivers also want to watch their speed when passing. Some drivers speed up to pass a cyclist, and it can be dangerous. A vehicle suddenly speeding by can cause a bike rider to lose control.

Along with the three feet clearance rule, motorists want to pass bike riders at or below the speed limit. Do not honk a warning before passing. It can also startle cyclists.

8. Look Around — but Not at Your Phone

It’s not uncommon for drivers to state they didn’t see the cyclist until after the accident. The reason is they were not paying attention to the road.

Some drivers only expect to see other vehicles and aren’t looking for bicyclists. Other drivers are paying attention to their phones. It takes less than a second for a vehicle to hit a bicycle. It’s shorter than the time it takes to read a brief text.

All states have laws on the books prohibiting motorists from using their phones while driving. Fines are expensive, and it’s before any additional costs are incurred from an accident.

Some areas require more attention than others. For example roundabouts and intersections. Traffic is coming from multiple directions at once, making it easy to get into an accident. It applies to any area on the road that’s considered a shared space between motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians.

9. Look Before You Exit Your Car

Cyclists worry about getting hit by motorists not paying attention, but it’s not the only thing keeping them alert on the road.

Getting ‘doored’ is another fear most cyclists have, especially if it has already happened to them. The term refers to a car door opening suddenly and hitting the cyclist. It almost always results in a bike wreck, along with plenty of angry words exchanged between the affected parties.

If the cyclist is injured, the driver is often responsible for the medical bills.

Before opening a vehicle door always keep the surrounding area. Look left and right and check the rearview mirrors. It’s a strategy drivers want to employ in parking lots and on city streets.

Drivers have a pretty good idea of when they are exiting the vehicle, but it’s always a surprise for bike riders. They don’t know when a car door is getting ready to open, so always look before engaging the handle.

10. Accept That Bicyclists Are Here To Stay

Bicycling has always been a popular pastime for kids and adults. Cycling clubs are popping up in cities and neighborhoods. Some areas are also putting out bike rental stands, making it easier for people to get around on two wheels.

Cycling is also beneficial for the environment, and don’t forget about the health benefits. These are also adding to the increase in popularity.

Drivers need to realize and accept that bicyclists are here to stay. It is not a passing fad or trend. Everyone needs to be able to share the road and follow the rules and regulations.

With a little patience and common sense, motorists can co-exist peacefully with cyclists on the road.


When drivers and cyclists are familiar with the essential rules of the road, everyone can get to their destinations safely. The number of accidents decreases, along with the frustration everyone can feel when someone is not obeying the rules.

Bicycles are here to stay on the roads, and there’s no reason why everyone can’t share the space with each other.