Have you ever seen early motion picture footage of traffic or photographs of street scenes circa 1900? There are so many different kinds of road users interacting with each other! Around that time, new and detailed traffic laws had to be created to keep everyone safe. Though states and localities are ultimately responsible for encoding traffic law, there are fundamental federal principles that underpin those laws. These principles are neat because all road users, regardless of mode, abide by them. So whether you’re driving a car, riding a bike, or have a horse-drawn carriage, the same general rules apply. Even if you can’t remember every traffic law (we think you can), abiding by these principles on the road will serve you well.

 

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Principle no.1 First Come, First Served. Sounds selfish doesn’t it? It’s actually the opposite. It’s what we tell our kids - that everyone has a safety zone around them. We’re all entitled to safe space. This applies to every vehicle on the road too. Every vehicle is entitled to the space they are using, with clearance behind and to each side, along with a reasonable stopping distance in front. This keeps us from colliding with each other as we travel.

 

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Principle no. 2 Ride on the Right. Everyone must ride with traffic, not against it. This means in general that in the United States, we ride on the right hand side of the road. Many cyclists hear through the grapevine that they’re better off riding against traffic on the left side of the road. This isn’t true! Not only is this illegal, it’s also the number one thing you can do to get into a collision with a car. The safer and only legal option is to ride on the right with traffic. This means getting accustomed to faster traffic coming up behind you on your left. You are much safer and more predictable this way.

 

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Principle no. 3 Yield to Cross Traffic. Drivers on less busy roads, including driveways and alleys, must yield to traffic on busier roads. This always applies going from a parking lot to a road or from a residential street to a primary/arterial road. Yielding means looking until you see that no traffic is so close as to be a danger. Wait until the way is clear before proceeding. Unfortunately we see a lot of kids zip out of their driveways without making sure there is no oncoming traffic. Don’t proceed until it’s safe to do so.

 

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Principle no. 4 Speed Positioning. Parked cars are usually rightmost on our roads next to the curb. The slowest road travelers ride beside them whereas faster traffic tends to move closer to the center line. Because cyclists travel slower than automobiles, cyclists ride as far to the right as is practicable and safe, allowing faster traffic to overtake. Though there are exceptions (for instance when the vehicle ahead is turning left), never overtake on the right.

 

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Principle no. 5 Lane Positioning. When a cyclist is riding as far to the right as is practicable and safe (this never means riding in the gutter or an inch from the curb; give yourself room to maneuver), some lanes are wide enough for a cyclist and motorist to share side by side. But when there’s not enough room to share a lane and cars are passing too closely, the law allows a cyclist to come out into the center of the lane. This is called “taking the lane” or “controlling the lane.” It lets motorists know they have to pass at a safe distance, often by passing one lane over. When making any lateral movement, whether it’s switching lanes or moving out into the center, make sure the way is clear first.

 

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Principle no. 6 Intersection Positioning. Get in the correct intersection position before you arrive there. The rule of thumb is to use the rightmost lane that goes in the direction you're going. If you’re taking a left turn, get into the rightmost lane that allows a left turn. If you’re going straight, be in the rightmost lane that allows you to proceed straight. The same goes for right turns. Make your intention obvious with your visible position. There should be no question in other road users’ minds what your intention is. When there are no special turn lanes, make your intention obvious with your position in that lane: close to the center line for a left turn, in the middle of the lane when proceeding straight, and next to the curb when turning right. Use your hand signals to alert everyone else too.

When using these principles for the first time, stick to low traffic, residential streets. The fundamental tenet of safe cycling remains: “Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” That’s because by riding a bike, you are driving a vehicle! As was codified in the early twentieth century, all people have “an equal right to use the public streets for purposes of travel, by proper means, and with due regard for the corresponding rights of others.”