Bike Law

DEAR READERS: Do you have a legal question on your mind? If so, please email me. Your name will remain confidential. This Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Dear Debra:

            As I was driving through Graton the other day, a bicyclist was using his cell phone while peddling. He also made a “California stop” at one of the few stop signs in town…slowing but not stopping. Is this legal?

Signed: Dismayed Driver

Dear Dismayed,

Good question. Allow me first to address your inquiry regarding whether the bicyclist broke the law when he failed to come to a complete stop at the stop sign. The short answer is…Yes. Basically, once the wheels on the bike begin to turn, that bicycle legally morphs into a motor vehicle. Rephrased, a bicyclist, once peddling, meets the definition of a motor vehicle, and thus must follow the “rules of the road”, unless specifically exempted. (See CA Vehicle Code 21200.)

            Bicyclists must obey all traffic signals (stop signs, traffic lights, etc.). They must signal when they turn, and give advance notice, just like a car. Indeed, if a bicyclist is peddling after consuming too many beers at the local pub, he or she can even be cited for a “BUI” (biking under the influence—see CA Vehicle Code 21200.5). A bicyclist should also always ride in the same direction as traffic. (CA Vehicle Code 21650.1)

            Not a day goes by without me seeing a bicyclist, either riding solo or in a group, traveling down Bohemian Highway, or Graton Road, or Coleman Valley Road—all popular biking routes. Are some west county roads too narrow for all the traffic to share the space? Yes, but that was their original design, as most visitors to our lovely Russian River area rode the train as our serene playground as it was first developing. Do most bicyclists honor the rules of the road? Yes, in my opinion. Those who do violate the rules of the road while on a bike, probably adopt the same bad and discourteous habits while driving a car, in my view. Just my two-cents worth.

            Now, as to your question about cellphone usage while biking. That is a little trickier. We all know that the use of cell phones is prohibited while driving, unless you are using a “hands-free” device (or making an emergency medical call). California’s cell phone law was first proposed some eight years ago by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto). Oddly, enough, my research indicates that the original version of the bill also included language that prohibited texting while biking. This provision was omitted before the language became the law, though. Then, in 2010 or 2011, Senator Simitian introduced another bill that specifically applied to bicyclists and prohibited texting while biking. Violators were subject to civil penalties. I believe that bill passed, but Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it. About the same time a few years ago, other jurisdictions, like New York and Chicago, were passing laws that prohibited texting while biking. It was a “hot topic”.

            Surprisingly, I could not find a specific law in California that prohibits use of a cellphone while biking. If I am mistaken, I am sure my readers will enlighten me. However, common sense dictates that bicycling requires steady attention, and that the use of a cell phone would add an unnecessary distraction. If a bicyclist was operating a cellphone, and as a direct result, caused injuries to another, I would argue that the bicyclist is still liable, even absent a specific law prohibiting cellphone usage, as he or she failed to use due care in the safe operation of the “motor vehicle”.

            Bottom line: If we pay attention and be courteous to all the users of the road, odds are, our intertwined driving and biking experiences will be smooth and carefree. Samuel Johnson, 18th Century poet, perhaps had a similar viewpoint when he penned, “What we hope to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence”.

Debra A. Newby is a resident of Monte Rio and has practiced law for 33 years. She is a member of the California, Texas and Sonoma County Bar Associations and currently maintains an active law office in Santa Rosa which emphasizes personal injury law (bicycle/motorcycle/motor vehicle accidents, dog bites, trip and falls, etc.) and expungements (clearing criminal records). Debra can be reached via email(, phone (707-526-7200), or fax (526-7202).

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