The Obscure Traffic Law That Punishes Cyclists for Getting Doored

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Photo: John Greenfield

Keith Griffith is a Chicago-based freelance writer and arts critic.

Last October, while the dregs of Superstorm Sandy drifted over Chicago, Lilly was lying in the trauma unit at Northwestern Memorial. (For anonymity, she that asked we only use her nickname.) She’d been doored on Lincoln Avenue on her morning bike commute, and now doctors were swarming around her, trying to determine if her pregnancy, then five months along, was at risk.

That’s when the police officer who had responded at the crash scene walked in to drop off the incident report and to let Lilly, 30, know that — by the way — she was at fault for the crash. Her heart-rate monitor began beeping furiously — how could she be at fault? She’d been riding in the shared lane on Lincoln, passing between the line of stopped traffic and the line of parked cars, when a passenger in one of the cars idling in the traffic lane swung his door open straight into her bike, sending her spinning into the pavement.

State and local law, as it turns out, are ambiguous about this scenario. A section presumably written to prevent motorcycles from roaring down the shoulder of roads has been used to find cyclists at fault in traffic-lane doorings. It’s a rare but potentially serious issue — Lilly, who is expecting a healthy baby girl in March, is now in a legal battle over her medical fees. In 2010, California’s legislature revised their passing-on-right statute to fix its ambiguity, and now Illinois advocacy groups are gearing up to push for a similar change at home.

“This is one of the dumber laws that’s applied to bicyclists,” said local attorney Jim Freeman (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor), who has represented clients cited for passing on the right. He’s talking about section 11-704(b) of the Illinois Vehicle Code, which reads in part:

The driver of a 2 wheeled vehicle may not pass upon the right of any other vehicle proceeding in the same direction unless the unobstructed pavement to the right of the vehicle being passed is of a width of not less than 8 feet.

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Photo: Steven Vance

Bikes aren’t included in the code’s definition of “vehicle,” but elsewhere the code requires cyclists to follow the same rules as vehicles, except when the laws “by their nature can have no application.” Chicago’s municipal vehicle code is similarly worded.

Whether 11-704(b) can apply to bikes “by its nature” is up for debate, since there’s no clear precedent in case law, according to Freeman. But Chicago attorney Brendan Kevenides (also a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor) believes that from a common sense perspective, it makes no sense to apply the restriction to bikes. He wrote about the subject on his blog.

“If this section is applied to bicycles, it would completely turn the whole concept of ‘share the road’ on its head,” he told me. “What would happen if bicycles were not allowed to travel along the right, or pass along the right?”

Chicago police do selectively enforce the law for bikes, though. Amy Malick, a city employee, told me she was ticketed for passing on the right in 2006 after a traffic-lane dooring incident similar to Lilly’s. The citation was dismissed by the circuit court judge when she appeared, Malick says. CPD and CDOT spokespersons did not respond to requests for comment.

With such ambiguity around the law, advocacy groups are gearing up to seek a clarifying revision from the state legislature and city government. “This issue is pretty high on our list for 2013,” said League of Illinois Bicyclists Executive Director Ed Barsotti. “We’re probably going to look at where Illinois law is compared to other states on this and see if we need a change.” For the first time this year, the league’s bike-law handouts will reference the passing-on-right restriction in an effort to educate cyclists about the unusual law.

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Photo: John Greenfield

Amanda Woodall, policy manager at Active Transportation Alliance, says the advocacy group has studied the issue closely. “The double standard that we see is that bicycles are required to ride as far to the right as practicable,” she said. “They want bicycles on the right when cars are moving, and on the left when cars are stopped … We would certainly advocate for the municipal code and the state law to be amended.”

Facing a similar ambiguity, California’s state legislature revised their vehicle code in 2010 to specifically exclude bicycles from the passing restriction. “When you have other states as examples to point to, that makes it a lot easier” to change the law, said Barsotti.

Lilly, who has fully recovered from her crash, has her own idea to spur legislators to revise the law. “I want to plan a day of civil obedience,” she told me. “We could get a huge group of cyclists and ride down Lincoln exactly how we’re supposed to, and see how that goes over with drivers. Let’s just sit in traffic and not pass them at lights, and see how they like that.”

  • Jesse

    This is outrageous. The law requires you to ride in the door zone and then punishes you for getting doored.

    Note the crazy logic too: You are too slow to ride with the cars so move over into the gutter BUT in the event that you are moving faster than the cars because the cars have blocked each other out, then you must slow down too. Bikes are too slow and, if not, they must nevertheless slow down. If this isn’t a clear case of persecution then I don’t know what is.

  • Adam Herstein

    There is also a Chicago or Illinois law (can’t remember which) that makes it illegal for anyone to open their car door into traffic without looking.

  • This can be solved by inserting the word “motorized” in the existing law, as in “The driver of a motorized two-wheeled vehicle may not pass upon the right…”

  • This is true. But crash participants can share responsibility. In this case, Lilly shared some with the person who opened the door (or the driver, if not a taxi).

  • If this law was enforced before any crashes occurred on your trip (meaning you could not pass on the right), there would almost be no benefit to riding a bike in traffic.

  • Keith Griffith

    The “dooring” section of the IL vehicle code actually refers specifically to “the side available to moving traffic,” which you could argue lessens or removes the car’s responsibility in a scenario like Lilly’s. Jim Freeman breaks this down on his blog, which I should have linked to in the story: http://lawyerjimfreeman.com/blog/2007/09/12/passing-right

  • Mike Smith of San Francisco experienced this exact same thing in 2004 — passing on the right in a bike lane, doored, he was found partially at fault in the subsequent civil suit when he tried to recover damages.

    So the California Bicycle Coalition and San Francisco Bicycle Coalition asked lawmakers to change the law. Then-Senator Alan Lowenthal introduced SB 1318 and Governor Schwarzenegger signed it into law in 2010.

    Details here –> http://www.cyclelicio.us/2010/california-law-pass-right/

  • Anonymous

    Pass on the left.

  • Jacob Peters

    actually the law does not require you to ride in the door zone, however when you try to take the whole lane as the shared lane designation allows, no one ever passes w/ the minimum 3 ft required. In fact, someone often rolls down their window while trying to pass w/ mere inches, and chastises you for either riding in “their” lane, or for not “being safe”. Clarity in what is within the law, as well as education during license renewal, could make cycling much safer. then again, so could more physically protected bike lanes.

  • Thanks so much for spotlighting this issue. I’m not so sure that the law is vague. But if it is, that vagueness inures to the benefit of the bicyclist. Here is my analysis of the law: http://www.mybikeadvocate.com/2013/02/its-clear-as-mud-il-bicyclists-may-ride.html

  • Thanks, Brendan, that’s very important. Brendan points out that this law is part of the Illinois Vehicle Code, which itself provides a definition of “vehicle”, and that definition excludes devices that are human-powered. So even though the law refers to “the driver of a two-wheeled vehicle” not being allowed to pass on the right, since a bike is human-powered, it appears that the law does not apply to bicyclists.

  • ShareTheRoad

    I am a bicyclist and a motorist in the city… If carsvehicles are stopped at a stop light or at a stop sign a bicyclist should not be allowed to pass on the right. They
    should act just like every other mode of transportation and wait their turn
    behind the vehicle in front of them… It’s safer for everyone.

    I can’t count the time bicyclists have passed me on the
    right with less than 2 feet from me and a parked car. A bicyclist passing on
    the right can be hard for a motorist to see when making a right turn when
    coming out of the stop especially when the bicyclist is moving at a higher rate
    of speed than warranted and there is a line of stopped traffic.

    If there is a well-defined bike then passing on the right
    might be okay… but often in Chicago the bike lane markings end before the
    intersection… If a carvehicle is turning right from a stop in a right hand
    turn lane a bicyclist should not be able to overtake the carvehicle on the
    right…. I don’t think this is unreasonable…

    I understand it would slow down the bicyclists progress on
    streets like Milwaukee but we need to ‘share the road’ to keep it safe for
    everyone. I think that while the law in this case could be written a bit more
    clearly I agree with the way it is being executed even if it slows me down a
    bit on my bicycle.

  • Of course, in countries with a high bike mode share, motorists wouldn’t dare turn right without looking for bikes because it’s very likely there will be cyclists coming up behind them on the right.

  • That, and right turns on red are not allowed. It’s the default rule, the opposite of Chicago and most cities in the United States.

  • ShareTheRoad

    Every motorist should be looking right when turning right
    from a right-hand turn lane or otherwise!…For pedestrians and bicyclists… But in my experience depending on how fast the bicyclist is approaching on the right it can be difficult to see them and it just scares me as a motorist because I certainly don’t want to hurt anyone….

    Also ideally, the bicyclist should slow down and wait for me
    to proceed first when they see my turn signal on and the light going green… as they are behind me and should get in line… But I have experienced cases where this does not happen… It just seems
    safer to have bicyclists act as a carvehicle (Except maybe in those awesome new style bike lanes they are putting in)….

  • Passing cars on the right between intersections is clearly logical. At intersections, as a courtesy I do sometimes position myself to allow for a driver behind me to make a right turn. Grateful waves, good karma, etc, etc. However, if a light turns red, and I happen to be in front of a car, I do not *have* to move over. (Right?) When I get berated from behind, I think to myself, “Would you be hassling me if I was in a car?” Sometimes you are not in a position to turn right on red and you just have to deal. I know this is not quite the same as positioning yourself to the right of a driver that needs to turn red.

    Things would be so much easier if no one ever had to turn.

  • I pass on the right when car traffic is stopped or creeping, but I make a point to watch for turn signals and cars moving towards the right. If I’m already next to someone and they start to move over, I pass if I can. Otherwise I try to get the driver’s attention and take whatever evasive action seems the safest – slowing, stopping or moving to the right.

  • I think Lilly’s civil disobedience idea is a fine one. Lilly – After you’ve had the baby and you’re ready to ride again, I’d be willing to join you for a morning bike parade on Lincoln Ave.

  • Patriot

    California law has made a 3 foot clearance required for Vehicles to pass a cyclist, it doesn’t specify “bi”cyclist or “Motor”cyclist. People are interpreting the law in reference to bicyclists, however LANE SPLITTING by motorcyclists in heavy traffic often leaves less than 12 inches of clearance on either side and is the cause of many motorcyclist accidents. Ambiguous wording in the MOTOR vehicle code regarding non-motor vehicles.

    I believe that lane splitting should be banned.

  • Isn’t it about time to stop modifying laws piecemeal and simply pass a “Bicycle Code”? Has any organization written a model code that could be the basis for states to modernize bike laws? It’d be interesting for the Active Transportation Alliance & League of Illinois Bicyclists to produce a single document incorporating the entirety of the laws that need to be changed and then rally the troops around a single bill.

  • R.A. Stewart

    That may be a case of “be careful what you wish for”–similar to how, in the present climate, I wouldn’t want the U.S. to start in on revisions to the Bill of Rights. ATA and the League of Illinois Bicyclists certainly wouldn’t advocate, for example, licensing riders and registering bicycles, but there are a lot of people who would jump at the chance to get those provisions into a unified bicycle code.

  • But that’s why the ATA and LIB need to be the authors of the model code.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Absolutely agree with you there. My concern is with what comes later in the sausage-making process. :-) Unlike ALEC, ATA and LIB can’t count on lawmakers rubber-stamping their model laws without modification.

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