“I have the right of way!!!”-But is it worth it?

I got into a conversation with a fellow bike commuter and loyal reader. We got on the subject of
“right of way.”
Photo Courtesy of Mr. Walker.

Sure bicycles have every right to the road as any other vehicle, but at what cost? I’ve been through so many confrontations with dumb drivers because I had asserted myself and made sure they knew that I had “right of way.” In hind sight it may not have been the best move on my part. Now it makes me think whether its better to let it go and not get to me when cars cut me off or deny me a lane.

I just don’t think that a fight between a man on his bicycle and a car or truck is a fair fight.

But I’m curious to know, how do you pick your battles or find a balance between an assertive rider and being an ALIVE rider.


  1. Shek

    I dont ride assertively. I assume that motorists think I have no rights, so I control my lane accordingly. I try to be considerate towards faster moving traffic and signal them to pass me when safe.

    If I am faced with a section of road where motorists continually deny me the lane when I want to switch, I control my lane a lot earlier so that does not happen.

    My 2 mile ride takes me through a ton of office complexes. I ride in the morning, lunch hour and evening when the people are rushing the most. I have never had someone deny me the lane becuase I have always controlled it in tricky turns and intersections.

  2. Iron Man

    Finding an alternative route is my first choice. My commute is 14 round trip and there is only one section that is really tricky and only on the ride home. It’s on a designated bike route, but impatient drivers frequent it rather than hitting the busier traffic laden thoroughfare a couple blocks to the West. The tricky section does a slight S turn and is only 500 ft long or so. With traffic fairly steady in both directions it is unsafe for people to pass me, but they try it anyway (shaving precious nano seconds off their drive home). The result is people dashing in right in front of me or the sound of brakes locking up just behind me (that’ll fill the chamois pretty quick). I’ve tried taking the lane, but I think people focus on me (which is good), but don’t pay attention to oncoming traffic and try to pass when it isn’t safe (which is bad).

    So my solution for this section has been to find an alternate route around this section. It doesn’t add anything to my distance and takes me through a neighborhood. Even though it’s painless I remember battling with that decision purely on principle. I shouldn’t have to find an alternate route for safety sake when the original road was a designate bike route. There’s a stinkin’ sign right by the S turn reminding drivers to share the road. But in the end I’m better off for it and less likely to get all jacked up on adrenaline after having a close call.

    When no alternate is possible I take the lane early and keep it. It would take a sociopath to run me down when I’m right in front of him/her.

  3. torrilin

    At some point I ran into a good reminder about right of way. “Right of way is something you give, not something you take.” And y’know, that really does seem to help me keep a good balance. The more I make sure to stop for pedestrians or make a *visible* stop for drivers who were at a stop sign first, the better things seem to go.

    That doesn’t mean don’t take the lane tho… in many states, lane splitting is illegal. So it’s not a good idea to encourage drivers to “share” a lane with you. In fact, in my state, it’s illegal for me to *not* take the lane.

  4. Daniel

    I think this says it all “decision purely on principle”. Besides where I live, I ride in NYC all the time. Taking a cue from the messengers and others who ride all day every day, you can inform and cajole, and warn, and take no offense all at once. (BTW I do not suggest or condone riding as big city mesengers do, but I can learn from their techniques and attitude)

    One you are standing on principle every small infraction feels like a retreat in the face of the enemy. It’s no longer about just riding home, it’s a battle for “rights” and defending lifestyle choices, and all that without even knowing the other person(s).

    If you’re just riding home, then it’s about safety, and warning, and communicating. And you don’t carry any of it with you.

  5. MarkR

    I agree, always look for a less stressful alternate, no matter what the roads were made for. Because most roads are not made to handle 5:00 traffic.
    I always carry a phone so 911 is only 4 buttons a way. (I’ve considered getting CHL certified, like some of my cycling friends, but haven’t decided if I want that responsibility.) I never ever provoke confrontation and hate against cyclists by participating in critical mass. I do something most cyclist won’t do, I actually talk wit my city and state representatives to fight for cycling.

  6. bikingbristol

    I believe the busiest roads in my area (not overly urban) are the safest. They are wider, often with shoulders, multi-laned for easy passing and don’t have loose dogs. I think the single lane, no shoulder roads are the worst for bike riding despite the fewer cars. Dogs in our area are a problem.
    I generally “take the lane” only when I have to to turn left, or to get out of a right turn only lane. Sometimes I stop and let drivers pass. One of my best purchases was a mirror. I don’t feel the need to press my rights…. (Daniel is right here) and 99% or better of the drivers treat me with a high degree of caution (respect?). Of course when a couple thousand cars pass you in a commute (I never really counted)…. 1% of poor drivers is way too much.

  7. Jewell

    I ride assertively whenever given the chance. The more motorists see me on the road and know I follow the same rules, the more they will come to except me. The bigger vehicle on road does not have the right away as I’ve been told. Sometimes though I wonder if I’m a masochist.

    I’ve begun carrying with me a small notepad so I can write down the license plate numbers of offending motorists, call my city police department and report the incident. Only draw back is it’s hard to memorize numbers when they’re speeding past you… This techinique is all I can do, but really all I ever want is to explain the rules of the road to the motorist. Ignorance seems to be the common reason for unruly motorists.

    Be polite and assertive, that seems to work best for me.., as of yet. Some bicyclists may still find themselves the victim homicide, as my uncle did, but we shouldn’t stop riding our bikes legally.

  8. JonLLL

    Tuesday 7/8/2008 I was hit by a car. Much like the picture above my front wheel was a taco. I made eye contact with the driver or so I thought and proceed through the intersection. I had no stop sigh there is only a stop sign for the cars coming into the lane. The driver then sped through the stop sign hitting my while trying to turn right. Needless to say I am banged up. I had on a day glo yellow shirt was riding about 15 mph when hit. Driver tried to leave the accident and gave me bogus info on insurance and had a stolen plate, fake name everything. No police arrived, in time. All I got was a major contusion on my thigh and a bruised ego plus a busted front wheel.
    I used to be really assertive and have chased down cars and given a driver an ear full for passing me close, cutting me off, honking, or may favorite screaming or blowing off a red light in front of me. However this year I let all that go and started to ride safer non confrontational being more patient, following all rules of cycling due to commuting every day for 4 months now. My ride is around 12 to 25 miles daily. Now I wonder if I did something wrong, but then I know in my heart by next Monday I’ll be back on the bike. You for sure do not want to be timid out there but being overly aggressive can produce unwanted trouble. I got into more arguments and more close calls the more I was aggressive and trying to prove to people in cars I had a right to be there. Now I feel after this experience people in cars don’t care if they hit you, you have to care not to be hit. I tell you this though I will find that car and that Driver someday as I commute that area everyday all over those streets, I even have friends looking, so maybe we will find her.

  9. Quinn

    over my 2+ years of commuting I have learned 1 Really helpful trick- Wider is better, Whether it is panniers, a 29er (with 29er tires) or letting the rear end of your road bike “wag”, in all those instances I have found that people generally give me more room.

  10. Shek

    @ JonLLL

    My deepest sympathy towards you. I agree with your attitude that your safety is in your hands alone, not the motorist who was probably happily texting away at the intersection.

    In your case, I would try to slow down a little more at intersections. Remember that the objective is to cross the intersection safely, not to assume that others are yielding to you and exercise your right of way. I slow down at such intersections to about 10 mph. That way, things happen slowly around me and I have more control.

  11. Ghost Rider

    What, now 29ers are WIDER, too? Heavy sigh…

    JonLLL, you’ve learned the hard way that “eye contact” doesn’t mean a thing…I’m sorry to hear you were hurt and I hope your return to the bike is filled with happiness. And, with a little luck, you or your friends will catch up to that scofflaw!

  12. Palm Beach Bike Tours

    My fun riding is done on the island of Palm Beach (Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh, etc.) and Jupiter Island (Tiger Woods, etc.) where the rich and powerful live. When riding there, I don’t tolerate or avoid bad behavior. I’m looking forward to the day when a Bentley runs a stop sign, I get hit and end up leaving a big dent in their hood — my wife will be a very rich widow.

    On the other hand, when I’m riding through less desirable neighborhoods — where my bike is more valuable than the car about to hit me — I tend to yield and turn the other cheek. This protects me from getting hit as much as getting shot.

    I always ride with a can of mace/pepper spray in my jersey pocket. More often than not, I can catch up with a driver at the next traffic light to give the driver the evil eye and a stern talking to. Should the driver attempt to get out of the car and become physical, I figure a sharp blast to his face will give me enough time to roll off while he’s trying to get his sight back and his car in motion.

    One note to the cars: if I’m the cyclists running the stop sign and motioning to the bikes behind me to follow along, you have every right to run me over. I’d prefer if you didn’t, of course, but I won’t hold it against you. My responsibility, same as yours, is to obey the law. When you break the law, you’re just asking for trouble.


  13. kevmo

    I have an interesting right of way problem on my ride. About four miles of my commute is on a class one paved bicycle lane. It’s basically a separate wide side walk for bikes. There is no motor vehicle access. About two miles of that runs through a grass field with no adjoining road. The locals, the vast majority of which don’t speak English, crowd the lane to the point where it’s almost not worth taking the route. It’s illegal in California to impede a cyclist on a class one route.

    I can’t, in good conscience, expect the throngs of stroller pushing moms, razors riding tots and lets-walk-four-abreast meanders to get out of my way; so, much of my ride requires grass excursions. I haven’t been rude with anyone yet but it’s now to the point where if someone gives me grief for whizzing past them, I may get loco.

  14. Moe

    Kevmo, there are times that I have the same issue on the San Gabriel River trail. I found that a bell works very good in any language. Now, if you want to get really loud, get a horn-in-a-can from Wal-Mart. It’s funny to see people jump but you will be called a ‘pendejo’.

  15. AT

    Iron man says “It would take a sociopath to run me down when I’m right in front of him/her”. I totally agree. Here in NYC I encounter more than a few of them on my route on the days I ride. We call them “car service drivers” (one step below cab drivers). If I had to “have a word” with every yahoo that does something stupid along my daily rides I’d have no voice left. After more than 15 years of riding bikes in Boston and NYC I’ve learned to be Zen about it. Live and let live. It makes my ride far more enjoyable. Oh and Kevmo, you should come visit NYC and ride the Brooklyn Bridge bike path at about 5pm on a beautiful summer day. You can take out all your pent up aggression on the tourists who wander into the bike lane. It appears to be perfectly acceptable behavior for the bikers to be the sociopaths in that case. I try to keep in mind that in the battle between steel and flesh steel wins every time…

  16. SF Bike Commuter

    I know too many bike commuters that get so upset when their rights are violated or ignored by drivers that commuting by bike is no more enjoyable than driving a car. I have run into enough jerks on the road who choose to make comments to me and I always use these incidents as a great time to work up some new and amusing insults. Have fun with it because these jerks will never learn but maybe if you insult embarase them enough they will think before they speak next time. Lighten up, be aware of everything going on around you and get in a good jab when the chance presents itself. These are the lessons I learned as a NYC commuter before moving west.

  17. Iron Man

    I took a cab in Chicago once. It shaved five months off my life expectancy. I can only imagine being on the streets with those guys. My hat is off to all the NYC, Chicago, Boston, etc. riders.

  18. luis

    my commute is 40 km round trip and my first priority is to get home safely to see my fam not to make a statement or educate other drivers. if a street is too narrow to accommodate me and a car i just don’t take it, if i need to jump onto the sidewalk because it’s safer i do that, if i need to get off and walk because of peds on the sidewalk i do that.

    my assumption is that i’m just this side of invisible. i realize i have every right to take a lane but really 100 kg rider+bike vs 1,500 kg car, who do you think is going to win even the most trivial of encounters? being outweighed by 10x is not the time to make a stand. discretion is the better part of valor…

    my policy is to be courteous to everyone and ignore the odd bozo who isn’t. have a good ride, take the bozo’s number and don’t let it ruin the rest of your ride. if you want you can push for assault charges later through the authorities. i’ve done it before, it’s an interesting and mostly free legal exercise.

  19. princesshungry

    i smile and wave at anyone i think is about to pull out in front of me 1)to get their attention so they won’t run me over 2) smiling = not threatening.

    i have had incidents where i do have to yell, but instead of an expletive i have curbed my tongue to HEY!, WATCH IT!, AHHH!. WTF sometimes slips out however.

    I’ve given up flipping the bird or cursing (most of the time) because I agree with many cyclists that anything negative we do will adversely affect OTHER cyclists the driver may encounter.

    Today a driver cut me off at the bottom of the hill at my house (turned into my lane as I was descending). He was on his cellphone and when we pulled up to the stop sign he was too busy talking on this cellphone and reaching under the passenger seat to find something he didn’t even hear me knocking on his window!!

    Well. at least he stopped at the stop sign? Sheesh.

  20. Dominic Dougherty

    Hey RL (and Moe and anyone else in the area),

    This upcoming Wednesday in Long Beach we’re having a Road 1 lecture, and an on-road coaching on the following Saturday. It might open your eyes a bit.

    How many times can I suggest taking a League of American Bicyclists Road 1 course? Not just for bicyclists, but ALL drivers.

  21. Moe

    My motto used to be “Ride as if you were invisible”, but now I’ve switched to “Ride as they are trying to kill you”.

  22. Mike Myers

    I was a meek rider for a long time. I feared cars, and hugged the fog line. Then I was hit from behind. And now? Oh, now I’m an obsessive lane-controller. I constantly scan oncoming traffic and glance in my mirror. If I think someone is going to squeeze by, I drift left considerably. When I think it’s clear, I drift right and motion for the driver to pass. Nobody’s been unpleasant about it yet.

    Intersections are scary, mainly because lots of our drivers are elderly. I use hand signals a lot. I point which direction I’m going to turn. If I’m going straight I point straight ahead. I yell and point a lot.

    If anyone is dumb enough to get out of their car and confront me, they’re getting pepper sprayed. I will go home alive every day. Period.

  23. Colin

    Like Lois said above, I just assume that I’m invisible. It’s just like playing ninja as a kid! But for real with giant metal beasts threatening to plow you over! It’s fun really!

    All sarcasm aside, it really is the only way to ride. The times I’ve been hit — or close to hit — have all been times where the driver wasn’t paying attention. I seriously doubt even an orange vest woulda helped me.

    Also it’s best to assume that every parked car is about to open there door any second and that every car at an intersection is about to quickly turn into your path without their turn signal. Oh yeah and assume that every pedestrian is gonna step out into the street right in front of you to hail down a taxi or look for the next bus or some such stupidity — if I had a dollar for every time a pedestrian stepped out in front of me seemingly completely blind to my presence on the road I’d be able to afford a new bike.

  24. Iron Man

    A coworker was following me in her car the other day. I was controlling the lane, but from her vantage point she was a little unclear as to what I was “going to do.” I think that’s a big thing with drivers, they are so used to the erratic habits of the “other” cyclists out there. So even though I was holding my line a good 3 to 4 ft off the right stripe, she was thinking “Is this guy going to turn? Veer into the opposite lane? What?!” She also didn’t realize the speed limit was 20 which I was doing, so getting around me would require breaking the speed limit.

    All that to say the more helpful you can be to drivers with hand signals and waves for them to go ahead through that stop sign when they have the right of way can’t you see my friggin’ foot is on the ground already (I hate that), the better you can help a driver know your intentions. If I’m going to drift to the center as a stop is approaching I’ll stick my left hand out, but not like a turn and straight out, but more like a roadie pointing out roadkill to the pack. That’s enough of a hand signal that drivers behind me get the idea that I’m coming over.

  25. Twodeadpoets

    I am a cyclist, have a car and am a professional driver and I’ve seen just about everything and have had to endure rants about bikers by drivers and seen injustices perpetrated toward bikers, including myself. I once had a car load of young “girls” drive in the opposite lane in order to run me off the road, all the while laughing and shouting. I have also had drivers pull guns on me… while I was standing astride my bike pulled over on the sidewalk. I have had beer bottles thrown at and hit me while minding my own business riding down the shoulder. Last year I was driving professionally and a woman past me (in a no passing lane) forcing a oncoming cyclist to bail off his bike off the side of the road. I reported her and even filled out a police report and watched her cry to the police officer but I still see her driving erratically on the road from time to time.

    Honestly I think the amount of drivers who change their driving habits because of “educational” interactions with cyclists are nil and don’t think by the way we ride, how nice we are, or aggressive we act will change how dangerous it is riding on roads (that were built with cars in mind) with cars.

    I think what can change behavior is if we start demanding, either by voting, fund raising, or campaigning, changes in laws. Petitioning to put on ballots laws that give cyclists the right of way, building more biking lanes, making bicycle rights a mandatory part of driver’s tests or education, education in schools for kids about to get their licenses, harsh penalties for people who are found at fault for collisions with cyclists, etc, etc, etc… These are the kinds of things that will have any chance to changing attitudes and behavior on the roads… imho

  26. Jon Karak

    I just assume that the drivers out there are about to run me over, so I ride very defensively. For the most part, I “take the lane” when I’m approaching a dangerous intersection, and on rare occasions, I will even ride on the sidewalk.

    But what really makes my blood boil is when they yell, honk, or otherwise scare the sh*t out of me while I’m riding. They think its real funny. HA HA F***ING HA. It makes me want to drag them out of their vehicle and kick their teeth in.

  27. Shek

    Than you for all your encounters. I am moving to my company’s Amsterdam office!!! kidding…though it is not a bad idea 🙂

  28. Doug

    Sacramento is an OK cycling town, but I ride like everyone is about to hit me. I had the same “30 something” women run a stop sign three times in one week. One day she was on the phone, the other two she was putting on make-up, so I just always try to assume the next car I see may hit me. When gas is $10/gallon there will be more bikes and very few cars on the road.

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