California law change: Passing on right

Imagine you’re bicycling alongside stopped traffic in California in a five foot bike lane. Because anything can happen, you’re alert and biking at about 5 to 10 MPH. A door to your left lurches open and strikes you, knocking you to the ground. Who’s at fault, and who wins the civil action when you sue to recover the costs of your medical treatment?

Bike Lane: Passing on the right

In 2004, Mike Smith was bicycling in a bike lane along Market Street in San Francisco when he was doored by a passenger exiting the right side of a taxi cab. This seems like a clear violation of CVC 22517, which is California dooring law. In trial, however, the jury found Smith 25% responsible for the crash, because California’s passing on the right law (CVC 21754 and 21755) makes allowance only for “the driver of a motor vehicle” to pass on the right under certain conditions.

Because of this legal ambiguity, the California Bicycle Coalition and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition asked lawmakers to amend state law to permit bicyclists to pass on the right.

Last week, Governor Schwarzenegger signed SB 1318 into law. The numerous provisions of this 28,000 word omnibus bill includes this new version to CVC 21755, in which “motor vehicle” is amended to “vehicle,” and paragraph (b) is added to further clarify that cyclists may use a bike lane or shoulder to pass on the right:

SEC. 40. Section 21755 of the Vehicle Code is amended to read:
      (a) The driver of a vehicle may overtake and pass another vehicle upon the right only under conditions permitting that movement in safety. In no event shall that movement be made by driving off the paved or main-traveled portion of the roadway.
      (b) This section does not prohibit the use of a bicycle in a bicycle lane or on a shoulder.

This law will become effective January 1, 2011. More at California Bicycle Coalition CALBIKEREPORT. H/T to Jim Baross, Alan Wacthel and others.


  1. It seems to also mean that motorists can pass on the right, which is bad practice. It will be up to the police to judge the safety of that maneuver.

  2. Say you have two or more lanes moving in the same direction. This is the law that makes it legal to pass on the right hand side. In California, the shoulder is legally part of “the main-traveled portion of the roadway,” but this law change gives cyclists a pass on using the shoulder to pass.

  3. Does it now allow motorists to pass using the shoulder?

    I think these car v. bike vehicle codes would be easier if we had segregated infrastructure and better vulnerable user laws like the Netherlands.

  4. I should point out also that CVC 21755 is the law that prohibits leaving the roadway to pass on the right. People who “cheat” by driving in the shoulder — which is not part of the main traveled portion of the roadway in California — get cited for violating CVC 21755. Everybody who contests 21755 see only the first part of the statute and insist their movement was “safe,” but fail to see the second part, which says “In no event shall that movement be made by driving off the paved or main-traveled portion of the roadway.”

  5. “Segregated Infrastructure”….another name for glorified sidewalk that doesn’t serve your destination.

    Where bike lanes and sidewalks parallel each other, guess who wins……the sidewalk, EVERY TIME. (at least in my area of travel).

    Why relegate yourself to second class status? You pay local taxes right? Use the public facility YOU have already paid for. Learn the basic skills of operating your bicycle and how to avoid the conflicts that may present themselves. That will do more than any sidewalk, side path, or bicycle trail will ever offer in terms of our safety.

    Be careful what you ask for, you may just get it. America wanted a change, and look where that got us!

  6. Hey buddy, don’t act like bike trails are a bad thing. I use the ones in the Puget Sound region frequently, and while none of them ever go exactly where I need to go, they often provide pleasant alternatives to riding busy arterial. Can I and do I ride the arterials? Sure, when I have to, but that doesn’t mean I particularly enjoy it.

    Rather than pursuing some 1970s vision of dogmatic purity, we should provide cyclists with an organic gestalt of options, features, and facilities. Grumps like you can take the lane on 60mph arterials and get your kicks and folks like me can cruise the Snoqualmie Valley Trail as it wends through the woods and farmlands.

    Bikes are NOT going to get legislated off the roads because we’re building excellent alternatives to tossing ourselves at the mercy of the busiest streets!

  7. You’re describing what is colloquially known as the “Alabama Passing Lane”…where a car zips off the roadway and onto the grass strip to the right of the road to pass stopped cars. It’s exhilarating to watch.

  8. I would LOVE to take a bike trail as you describe! However, to elaborate on my point, many of our trails do not serve any destination of mine, in particular. While these trails are very scenic and enjoyable, they present too many conflicts. The majority of the trails in my area (Orlando, FL) are built with excessive intersections.

    I’m not against this type of facility, just the bad design, implementation of bad designs, and suggestion that such a facility is best for me. When the time and place is right for me, there is no hesitation to use bike trails.

  9. I’m pretty sure CABO didn’t even submit a letter of support for this change, actually.

  10. This demonstrates the complete double standard of traffic laws. Cyclists supposedly have “all the rights & responsibilities” of motorists, but passing contradicts this. A cyclist may be cited for passing on the right if he is in a paved shoulder (“as far to the right as praticable”), but a motorist will never be cited for passing if there’s a double yellow center line (a no passing zone). If a cyclist takes the lane and there is a paved shoulder, he may be cited for impeding traffic, but a slow-moving car (say, a Model T) would never be cited or expected to move over to allow other traffic to pass.

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