June 17, 2021

Gp Delivers

The excellent automotive artisans

WA roadway sharrows, bicycle lane traffic rules explained

Question: I was driving on a street that had no adjacent bicycle lane but instead had a bicycle symbol and arrows pointing in the direction of travel. A bicyclist pulled into the lane of traffic but instead of staying as far right, near parked cars, insisted on pedaling as near the center of the lane as possible at a leisurely pace, preventing following motor vehicles from passing him. I’m retired and wasn’t in a hurry but can imagine that people on an errand or in a rush might do something foolish and/or dangerous. Was the bicyclist correct or should he have been traveling more to the right-hand side of the lane?

Answer: To start with, let’s talk about those arrows with a bicycle symbol. They have a name. And maybe you know the name but couldn’t get yourself to put it in print. I don’t blame you. They’re called “sharrows.” It’s a portmanteau of share and arrow. Yeah, silly, like all those celebrity name mash-ups. But their purpose isn’t so silly; sharrows indicate to drivers and cyclists that the road is a preferred cycling route.

I know you didn’t ask about sharrows, but understanding them might help answer your original question. In addition to indicating cycling routes, sharrows give cyclists guidance for their lane position.

When a street has parking on the side (like the road that you described), riding in line with the sharrows should keep a cyclist far enough from parked cars to avoid a collision with the unexpected opening of a car door. On a narrow road, that might put the sharrow, and the cyclist, near the center of the lane.

Maybe that sounds like it’s in conflict with the law, which states, “Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a rate of speed less than the normal flow of traffic … shall ride as near to the right side of the right through lane as is safe ….” However, that’s only part of the law. That sentence is followed by several exceptions, one of which is, “when reasonably necessary to avoid unsafe conditions including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, bicyclists, pedestrians, animals, and surface hazards.”

On a narrow road, drivers probably won’t have room to pass a cyclist without going into the oncoming lane. To deal with that, I’ll offer a suggestion that might seem unnatural in our current fast-paced culture: Just wait a bit. Don’t trade seconds for safety.

As to the part about drivers doing something foolish and dangerous, maybe we can offset the frustration of being delayed by a cyclist (or other slower-moving road user) by reminding ourselves that the person on that bike isn’t an adversary; they’re somebody’s (maybe my) neighbor or friend or family member.

Our brains like to put things in categories, and often it’s pretty binary — my group vs. not my group. I sometimes hear that language in traffic. Things like, “Those cyclists don’t obey the law,” or “Those drivers don’t obey the law.”

The truth is, we’re more alike than some might want to admit. A study investigating which group violates the law more found that between drivers and cyclists it’s about even; cyclists complied with the law 88% of the time and drivers complied 85% of the time. Most of the time, whether we’re riding a bike or driving a car, we’re following the law. And that was probably true in the situation you encountered. The cyclist was likely in the most appropriate lane position, both for safety and according to the law.

Doug Dahl, Target Zero manager communications lLead, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.