Legal Brief – Overtaking on the Right

When traffic laws designed for cars are applied to bicyclists, their application may not always make perfect sense. One obvious example? The matter of overtaking on the right.

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When traffic laws designed for cars are applied to bicyclists, their application may not always make perfect sense. One obvious example? The matter of overtaking on the right.

Bicyclists are generally expected to obey the same traffic laws as drivers of motorized vehicles. In the United States, motorized vehicles and bicycles travel on the right-hand side of the road, and overtaking another vehicle is ideally accomplished by passing to the left. In fact, many traffic laws prohibit or limit when someone – including bicyclists – can overtake by passing on the right.

When markings for bicyclists, such as shared-lane marking, are painted on a street, they are typically placed toward the righthand side of the street, reinforcing our training and experience as bicyclists to “keep right.” Therefore, when we encounter a line of cars that are waiting at a traffic light or stop sign, it doesn’t make sense for us to pass to the left when there is space to the right. But in some states that is exactly what the law suggests.

My home state of Illinois is a perfect example of a jurisdiction where bicyclists may not – because of legal ambiguity – understand how to legally negotiate cars that are stopped in front of them; it is also a perfect example of a jurisdiction where most police officers believe that the law applicable to two-wheeled motor vehicles also applies to bicycles. In Illinois, the law dictates that two-wheeled vehicles must pass on the left and that bicycles may overtake a vehicle on the right only if there is eight feet (2.4 meters) of unobstructed pavement or if there is an open lane of travel. Consequently, if bicyclists encounter a line of traffic stopped for a light and ride through on the right-hand side, they may be seen as violating this statute; and if they are involved in a collision while passing on the right, they can be found responsible for damages and charged.

The good news? Some states, such as Oregon, have addressed this issue legislatively. Ray Thomas, an attorney in Portland, Oregon, who has been representing bicyclists since 1982, drafted the passing on the right law that went into effect in 2006. The law states: “overtaking and passing on the right is permitted if the overtaking vehicle is a bicycle that may safely make the passage under the existing conditions.”

As with all laws, it is of primary importance that you are familiar with your state and local laws as applied to bicyclists. If the law in your jurisdiction prohibits overtaking on the right, you may be blamed for any ensuing collision.


Jim Freeman is a personal injury lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. His practice concentrates mainly on advocating on behalf of the “vulnerable users” of roadways, such as bicyclists and pedestrians. lawyerjimfreeman.com

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