As a cyclist, do you follow the rules of the road?
According to a University of Colorado Survey, about eighty-five percent of cyclists do obey the law when riding. Almost three quarters of the scofflaws who break the rules claim to do so for their personal safety – saying they are simply getting out of the way of automotive traffic as quickly as they can. The most common law-breaking activity of cyclists is going through red lights or stop signs. In Australia, thirty-seven percent of cyclists admit to riding through red lights in the previous month. The UK is slightly lower at thirty-two percent.
Remember that many cycling rules vary from city to city. Statistics Canada data shows that over forty percent of Canadians cycle and the numbers among adults are growing. Some Canadian municipalities are aggressively improving the cycling infrastructure to encourage bicycle commuting. Edmonton spent $7.5 million on a seven kilometer bike network in 2017. Calgary put $5.75 million into successful trial program in 2015. Both cities have reported an increase in bicycle commuters.
Rules, rules, rules . . . .
In this article we are going to talk about some of the written laws that govern cycling. Be aware that the unwritten common law rules of negligence also apply to cycling. Everyone has a duty to take reasonable care to not harm others by their activities. If you fail to do so and you cause harm, you could be sued for damages.
In Canada, written cycling laws come from a variety of federal and provincial statutes and local bylaws. It is the responsibility of every cyclist to understand the rules that apply where they are riding. If you want to learn more about how law-making powers are divided between Canada’s levels of government, check out CPLEA’s publication “The Canadian Legal System”.
Some written laws that affect cyclists are “laws of general application”. In other words, they apply to everyone, including cyclists. An example would be the criminal laws passed by Canada’s federal government. If you commit a crime with or on your bike, you could be charged and if you are found guilty, you will be convicted and punished. An example would be intentionally running into a pedestrian with your bike. That could fit the definition of assault under section 265 of the Criminal Code. That section does not contain the word “bicycle” but it still applies to cyclists.
Other written laws specifically refer to cycling. Those laws generally dictate what kind of safety equipment is required, where cyclists can ride, and some aspects of how they ride, such as speed limits.
In other words, cyclists should assume that almost everything that applies to drivers of cars also applies to them. This includes rules about speed limits, signaling turns, obeying traffic signals, not driving carelessly or without due care and attention and the rules against distracted driving (use of cell phones). Let’s start with what one would think would be the easiest part – defining what a bicycle is. In Alberta a “cycle” is defined in the Traffic Safety Act as a “bicycle, power bicycle, motorcycle or moped”. To find out what a bicycle is you must look at section 1(c) of the Use of Highway and Rules Of The Road Regulation passed under the Traffic Safety Act. A bicycle is defined there as including “any cycle propelled by human muscular power on which a person may ride regardless of the number of wheels that the cycle may have”. Under the Traffic Safety Act, a unicycle (one wheel) is also a bicycle even though “bi” usually means two. For that matter, so is the twenty-five passenger “Big Bike” that gets ridden in the Calgary and Edmonton Corporate Challenge events each year. To make things a little more confusing, the Vehicle Equipment Regulation, also passed under the Traffic Safety Act, defines a bicycle as “a cycle propelled solely by human power on which a person may ride that has 2 wheels, and includes a bicycle with training wheels”.
Under the Traffic Safety Act, all bicycles are cycles and all cycles are vehicles. Cyclists must obey all provincial rules that apply explicitly to bicycles, cycles and vehicles. Bicycles are vehicles under the Traffic Safety Act but they are not motor vehicles. Drivers of motor vehicles have licencing requirements and duties at the scene of an accident that don’t apply to riders of bicycles.
But many of the rules that apply to motor vehicles apply to cycles, and therefore to bicycles. Section 75 of the Use of Highway and Rules Of The Road Regulation says that unless the context otherwise requires, a person who is operating a cycle on a highway also has all the rights and is subject to all the duties of a person driving a motor vehicle under the Traffic Safety Act and regulations that set out the rules of the road and the rules about the operation of vehicles. In other words, cyclists should assume that almost everything that applies to drivers of cars also applies to them. This includes rules about speed limits, signaling turns, obeying traffic signals, not driving carelessly or without due care and attention and the rules against distracted driving (use of cell phones). If a rule makes no sense to apply to a bicycle (for example the rule that you can’t leave a vehicle unattended if it is up on a jack) then it simply doesn’t apply.
A bicycle is defined there as including “any cycle propelled by human muscular power on which a person may ride regardless of the number of wheels that the cycle may have”. Some of the rules in the Traffic Safety Act and its regulations apply while a bicycle is being operated on a “highway”. A highway is defined to include just about everywhere that anyone would ever ride, including any type of street, trail, driveway, alley, bridge or other place that the public is ordinarily entitled or permitted to use for the passage or parking of vehicles, including sidewalks and ditches, regardless of whether the land is public or private.
Some of the province wide rules from the Alberta Traffic Safety Act and its regulations that refer to bicycles specifically are:
- Power over the licensing of bicycles is given to local municipalities;
- If a bicycle is in motion on a highway after dark, its lights must be lit;
- Operators of bicycles are not to use their “audible warning device” (horn) except where it is reasonably necessary as a warning;
- Riders and passengers under 18 years of age must wear an approved helmet;
- Parents must not “authorize or knowingly permit” their children under 18 to ride or be a passenger on a bicycle unless the child is wearing a helmet;
- Helmets must have an approval from a designated safety organization, must fit properly and have a chin strap, must have a hard smooth outer shell and be capable of absorbing an impact;
- If you ride at night, your bicycle must have at least one, but not more than two headlamps, a red tail amp and a red reflector on the rear; and
- A rider may not operate a bicycle unless it has a brake.
According to Statistics Canada, forty-two percent of Canadian cyclists wear a helmet every time they get on their bike (here). Minors in Alberta have been required to wear helmets when riding since 2002 and a 2011 University of Alberta study concluded that the law has been effective at reducing head injuries but that youth cycling may have decreased since the law was enacted.
Where can I ride?
Sections 13 and 14 of the Alberta Traffic Safety Act permits municipalities in Alberta to make rules about a wide variety of matters governing traffic and vehicle operation within their own boundaries. Where you can ride and the rules for doing so are governed by the local municipality and vary from place to place. The best and easiest rule is to simply understand and obey the signs. If you want to dig further, search online for the city name along with “traffic bylaw” and then searching for “bicycle” within the bylaw for rules about cycling.
Highways – Bikes are permitted on highways (remember that “highway” includes any sort of street). Municipalities have the authority to ban bicycles from certain busy highways for safety reasons.
Sidewalks – Both Calgary and Edmonton ban riding on sidewalks and both cities have exceptions for children and sidewalks where signage permits riding. Calgary adds a further exception for anyone delivering newspapers. Red Deer, by contrast, allows bicycles on sidewalks unless they are prohibited by signs.
Crosswalks – Riding a bicycle in a crosswalk (using the crosswalk as a pedestrian would) is not specifically banned by the Traffic Safety Act or its regulations and is not banned by city bylaws in Calgary or Edmonton. Although, as noted above, riding on the sidewalk approaching the crosswalk is likely prohibited. Calgary has designated a special kind of crosswalk called a “multiuse crossing” where bicycles are explicitly allowed to cross with pedestrians. As with all things when you are on a small bicycle amongst the big cars, common sense is important. If you appear unexpectedly in a crosswalk, drivers might not see you. Take care for your own safety. Also, when you are on a bicycle in a crosswalk, you are a vehicle, not a pedestrian. You may not have the right of way over other vehicles as a pedestrian would.
Parks and pathways – Municipalities may make further rules governing cycling in parks and on separated pathways. For Calgary, these rules are in the Parks and Pathways Bylaw (here). Pathways often have speed limits. In Calgary its 20 kph, which would surprise many commuters.
Outside of cities – To ride on private land or leased crown land you must have permission from the owner or lessee. The rules around riding on non-agricultural crown land or in parks are complex and vary with ecological conditions in the area. You should stick to designated trails, obey all signs and if in doubt about whether you should be there, check with a local authority.
How to learn more
In this article we have just scratched the surface about the laws that apply to cycling. If you want to learn more we highly recommend Every Cyclists Guide to Canadian Law by Craig Forcese and Nicole LaViolette. Every serious Canadian cyclist should own this well-written book. It is easy to read and the authors cover just about every conceivable cycling topic. As a bonus you will learn a lot about the Canadian legal system. It is available online, at major bookstores and at some bike shops.
Be aware that the unwritten common law rules of negligence also apply to cycling. Your city or town may have a webpage about local cycling like this one for Calgary or this one for Edmonton. Remember that many cycling rules vary from city to city. These sites can help you understand your responsibilities in the city you are riding in.
Quality bike shops will always have knowledgeable staff who can help you find out more and give you tips on where to ride.
Finally, we both want to stress that while knowing the rules that apply to you when you are cycling is important, it is even more important to have cycling survival skills. Stay alert. Constantly look ahead and try to anticipate what cars and pedestrians a half a block ahead might do. Make eye contact if you can. Be respectful of others on the road. Remember that in a collision with a vehicle, you lose even if you are legally in the right.