Mandatory Use Law

Bicycle lanes are something of a double-edged sword in certain circumstances.  Study after study has shown that the presence of bicycle lanes has a positive effect on overall cycling.  However, some will argue that traditional bike lane placement – especially on city streets – comes with its own problems.  Usually, bike lanes are placed in the exact spot where drivers would get out of their cars when parallel parking next to the curb – the “door zone.”  Bike lanes can also put cyclists in conflict with motorists that are making right hand turns at stop lights.

One of the less obvious conflicts, however, are laws that are often referred to as “Mandatory Use Laws.”  California has just such a law on the books in the form of CVC 21208:

(a) Whenever a bicycle lane has been established on a roadway pursuant to Section 21207, any person operating a bicycle upon the roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride within the bicycle lane, except that the person may move out of the lane under any of the following situations:(1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle, vehicle, or pedestrian within the lane or about to enter the lane if the overtaking and passing cannot be done safely within the lane.

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

(3) When reasonably necessary to leave the bicycle lane to avoid debris or other hazardous conditions.

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

(b) No person operating a bicycle shall leave a bicycle lane until the movement can be made with reasonable safety and then only after giving an appropriate signal in the manner provided in Chapter 6 (commencing with Section 22100) in the event that any vehicle may be affected by the movement.

I’m not going to comment on the law itself.  However, I do object to the summation of this as a “Mandatory Use” law.  In fact, the law is written with more language regarding the exceptions where the law does not apply than statement of the law itself.

Why do I object to calling it mandatory use?  Well, in truth very few of us actually take the time to read the law.  Rather, we rely on basic understanding to guide our actions and opinions.  Summarizing and tagging this as “Mandatory Use” spreads the message that, if there is a bike lane, cyclists must use it.  Period.

Unfortunately, some even interpret this phrase a bit further and assume that mandatory use means that cyclists must always use bike lanes, and extrapolate that to mean that if there is no bike lane than cyclists should not be on the road.

I’ve experienced driver frustration as I took the lane – legally and safely – to prepare to make a left hand turn.  I’ve also witnessed cyclists attempting to figure out how to make left hand turns from the bike lane against the right curb – apparently thinking that was the proper place for them to be.

There are many challenges to getting understand among the community – both cyclist and motorist alike – about the rules and regulations of our highways.  I strongly believe that the usage of the phrase “Mandatory Use Law” makes these challenges more difficult by creating a false understanding among folks on the roads.