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Bicycles On the Roadways – Recreational Equipment or Regulated Machinery?

                Riding a bicycle is a great way to get and to stay in shape.  Not only does it help build many of the muscles in a person’s lower body, but it creates an aerobic workout for a person’s heart and lungs.  But, when does a bicycle go from being a great form of exercise to a regulated piece of machinery?  According to the State of Maryland, it is once you put the bicycle on a public roadway.

                The Maryland Transportation Article states that “Every person operating a bicycle or a motor scooter in a public bicycle area has all the rights granted to and is subject to all the duties required of the driver of a vehicle by this title.”  Md. Code Ann., Transp. § 21(c)1202 (West).  Once you put your bicycle on a public roadway in the State of Maryland, you must act as if you were driving your own personal automobile.  Traffic signals, stop signs, one way signs and yield signs all apply to bicyclists.  Maryland courts have made that point clear through their decisions in several cases throughout the years.

                The case of Oddis v. Greene, 11 Md. App. 153, 273 A.2d 232 (1971) in the Court of Special Appeals involved a parent of a Minor child who was seeking to recover damages from the driver of a vehicle who struck his son’s bicycle on the roadway.  In that case, the Minor child approached an intersection with a stop sign in his direction and no stop sign on the highway.  He stopped and looked both ways.  He proceeded to attempt to cross the highway when he was struck by the car.  While the Minor child did obey the traffic control device (stop sign), he violated a basic tenant of motor vehicle law, the boulevard law.  The boulevard law states that a driver on an unfavored road (one with a traffic control device) must yield the right of way to any driver who is already on a favored roadway.  Although the Minor child was not in a motor vehicle, the Courts still applied the motor vehicle law to determine that he was at fault for the accident, and therefore could not recover for his injuries.

                In the criminal case of Cox v. State, 161 Md. App. 654, 871 A.2d 647 (2005), the Court of Special Appeals affirmed that the traffic laws of the State are also applicable to bicycles.  In that case, Mr. Cox was challenging the validity of a stop where he was found to be in possession of drugs.  On the day in question, the police officers noticed, among other things, that Mr. Cox, who was on a bicycle, made a turn down a one way street in the wrong direction.  The court stated about that traffic stop that “the police officers saw appellant violate the traffic law by riding his bicycle in the wrong direction on a one-way street. Although appellant urges us to limit an officer’s right to make a traffic stop to the motor vehicle context, he fails to offer any reason why a police officer may not stop a bicyclist who is observed committing a violation of applicable transportation laws.” Cox v. State, 161 Md. App. 654, 673, 871 A.2d 647, 657©58 (2005).

                In addition to the traffic laws which pertain to motor vehicles which a bicyclist must obey, the legislature of the State of Maryland has created some bicycle specific laws which a person operating a bicycle on a public roadway must obey.  One such law is Maryland Code, Transportation § 21-1205 – Operation of bicycles or motor scooters on roadways.  Maryland Code, Transportation § 21-1205(a) states that:

“Each person operating a bicycle or a motor scooter at a speed less than the speed of traffic at the time and place and under the conditions then existing on a roadway shall ride as near to the right side of the roadway as practicable and safe, except when:

(1) Making or attempting to make a left turn;

(2) Operating on a one-way street;

(3) Passing a stopped or slower moving vehicle;

(4) Avoiding pedestrians or road hazards;

(5) The right lane is a right turn only lane; or

(6) Operating in a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle or motor scooter and another vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.”

The statute requires, among other things, that a person operate their bicycle on the right side of the road, which will have them driving with, not against traffic.  While that law is similar to one that requires motor vehicles to drive on the right-hand portion of the roadway, it is one of the many bicycle specific statutes specifically passed by the legislature.

                Lastly, there are some portions of the law that the Maryland courts and legislature have left to the province of a local governing body.  One such law is the law dealing with the legality of operating a bicycle on a sidewalk.  Maryland Code, Transportation § 21-1103 sets out a general rule that “a person may not drive any vehicle on a sidewalk or sidewalk area unless it is a permanent or authorized temporary driveway.”  But subsection (b) of the statute leaves wiggle room for each town or city to carve out an exception.   Maryland Code, Transportation § 21-1103 (b)(2) states that “[w]here allowed by local ordinance, a person may ride a bicycle, play vehicle, or unicycle on a sidewalk or sidewalk area.” (Emphasis added).  The statute goes on further to state that in section (b)(3) that “In a place where a person may ride a bicycle on a sidewalk or sidewalk area, a person may also ride a bicycle from the curb or edge of the roadway in or through a crosswalk to the opposite curb or edge of the roadway.”  So, unless the local ordinance allows a person to ride on the sidewalk, they may not ride their bicycle through a crosswalk.

                Knowledge of the bicycle laws of your area is more than just knowing the motor vehicle laws of the state of Maryland.  You must consult your town or city’s local ordinance to determine what is expected of an operator of a bicycle.  While you may just be out on the roadway to get some exercise, knowledge and obeyance of the law is critical to keep yourself and others on the roadway safe.

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