Far-right is a misunderstood traffic law

Common intersection crashes

I had a 24-year career in law enforcement, including 23 years as a bike cop. For over 25 years including into retirement, I have instructed bike patrol courses and been very much involved in bicycle safety education and advocacy. Lately, it’s been everything E-Bikes (electric bicycles). So I thought I knew almost everything about how to safely, legally, and effectively ride a bicycle out on the road.

In 2014, I discovered I was wrong and had more to learn, after taking a weekend CyclingSavvy Course in Santa Ana. CyclingSavvy is the educational program of the American Bicycling Education Association, a 501(c)(3) non-profit educational organization.

I was under the belief, like probably many bicyclists and motorists, that bicyclists should and/or belong riding on the far-right edge of the roadway much of the time. This is sometimes referred to as the “Far to the Right” or FTR law. This is where many bicyclists and society believe bikes belong as a slower, narrow vehicle.  Does the law require it? Is that the safest place for bicyclists to be?  I bet you will be surprised!

California Vehicle Code 21202(a) answers the above questions, stating:

“Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway…”

Before we move on, what does “practicable” mean? A nationally recognized meaning is “safe.” So who should decide what is “safe?” It’s the bicyclist! If we stopped reading now, it would seem clear bicyclists must ride on the far-right edge of the roadway. But let’s keep reading:

“Except under any of the following situations:

(1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction.

(2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.

(3) When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge, subject to the provisions of Section 21656. For purposes of this section, a “substandard width lane” is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.

(4) When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized.”

If you compare the number of words in the exceptions (115) to the law itself (49), that is over twice as many dedicated to when the law does not apply. What does that tell us? It reveals it is rarely practicable to ride on the far-right edge of the roadway and so the law rarely requires bicyclists to do so.

The many exceptions to the FTR requirement make it clear that bicycling on the far-right edge of the roadway is normally not the safest way to operate. Instead, using a full traffic lane allows bicyclists to avoid common edge hazards, makes them more visible and relevant to other drivers, and provides the best view of other traffic.  Similar exceptions also apply to the use of Bike Lanes, under CVC 21208(a). See “Common Intersection Crashes” illustration, highlighting the above.

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