Bicycles aren’t vehicles

As we all know, bicyclists must follow the same rules as other vehicle drivers; but from time to time one hears of a story such as this one:

I was involved in an accident with a bicyclist. He was going west along a main road, I had a stop sign. After stopping and yielding to on-coming traffic I entered the intersection. It was evening and the sun was almost down and he didn’t have any lights on his bike. I crossed and the cyclist slammed in to my passenger door. I was cited for not yielding to on-coming traffic. I challenged it and won the decision based on: The law says motorist are to yield to all on-coming vehicles. In Arizona, bicycles are not defined as vehicles. One of the major points also (as a side note) in this case was the bicyclist didn’t have a light on his bike.

There are a couple of reasons I can think of why this story may be both true and misleading at the same time. The first is that justice and municipal courts often make errors. See Take the Lane for just three examples of justice/muni court decisions reversed on cyclist cases. Justice courts are not “of record” and there’s really no way to track down the reasoning after the case has been decided. A second explanation is the court may have found that the bicycle was required to have been lit at the time of the collision, and why lacking a headlight was a “major point” according to the anecdote; if so then the motorist would not be responsible for the collision. In my guesstimation, the latter explanation is quite likely, and that the motorist misunderstood the reason for dismissal, after all how can whether or not the cyclist had a light have been important to his case that purportedly revolved around the fact that a bicycle is not a vehicle? (in other words, a bicycle is not a vehicle during any time day; in the sun, in the dark, with or without a headlight).

On the other hand, the story may simply be made up, or embellished. In any event the central point bears closer examination.

In Arizona Bicycles are not Vehicles

§28-101 … 57. “Vehicle” means a device in, on or by which a person or property is or may be transported or drawn on a public highway, excluding devices moved by human power or used exclusively on stationary rails or tracks.

So then why do we say things like “bike must follow the same rules…”? It’s because of the applicability statute (As an aside,  NOTE WELL that there is no mention of motor vehicle in the applicability statute):

§28-812 Applicability of traffic laws to bicycle riders

A person riding a bicycle on a roadway or on a shoulder adjoining a roadway is granted all of the rights and is subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this chapter and chapters 4 and 5 of this title, except special rules in this article and except provisions of this chapter and chapters 4 and 5 of this title that by their nature can have no application.

A driver’s duty when entering an intersection is described by

§28-733. Intersection entrance

The driver of a vehicle shall stop in obedience to a stop sign as required by section 28-855 and then proceed with caution yielding to vehicles that are not required to stop and that are within the intersection or are approaching so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard.

Ah ha! Then the anecdote is correct; drivers only need to yield to vehicles, right? And since bicycles are by definition not vehicles then drivers have every right to simple plow into them? Well no, not quite. Like all urban legends both a grain of truth and a huge, gaping flaw, which is the applicability statute also grants bicyclists “all the rights… of a driver of a vehicle”.

So a bicyclist has the right-of-way any time a similarly situated driver of a vehicle would have had the right-of-way.

A closely-related topic is Bicycles are not motor vehicles, and why it matters.

The Arizona MVD Drivers License Manual

The manual contains the well-phrased sentence, emphasis added, copied from comment here, and also appears in take the driver’s test:

Bicyclists must obey the same traffic laws as drivers of vehicle, and they have the right of way under the same conditions as motorists.
— p.41 Arizona Drivers License Manual, revised April 2015

Iowa (#iowa)

The Iowa Attorney General considered in 2012 the question of  Whether a Bicycle Constitutes a “Vehicle” under Iowa Code §321.299 (vehicle overtaking statute); and concluded that since a bicycle rider is granted the rights of the driver of a vehicle — the same as in Arizona — that the driver of an overtaking vehicle must exercise the same caution when overtaking a bicycle as any other vehicle.

The Iowa Supreme Court has also embraced the general concept that it is lawful for a bicyclist to ride on the streets and highways ofthis State. Vasconez v. Mills, 651 N.W.2d 48,52-53 (Iowa 2002)(Iowa Supreme Court references Iowa Code §321.234(2) and rejects motorist’s defense that injured bicyclist was at fault for riding on a
county road instead of a bike path, riding alone and riding into the sunset because “none of this conduct is illegal and ascribing negligence to such choices would be ludicrous if applied to any other motorist.”).

Vasconez contains much very powerful language regarding what it means to maintain a proper lookout. Bizarrely, the motorist claimed the bicyclist failed to keep a proper lookout to the rear. The Iowa Supreme Court soundly rejected that argument.

This case involved many of the usual driver excuses: sun glare (it was near sunset) as well as “the bicyclist was voluntarily performing an activity “which he knows involves a risk’ “. The driver was a contract US Postal Service driver.

As noted by the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, In 2008, the O’Brien county (Iowa) attorney rejected this notion, stating a motorist striking a bicyclist while overtaking was not in violation of Iowa’s vehicle overtaking statute; so the more recent AG opinion is at odds with that interpretation.

In any event, the simple concept that bicyclists are due the same rights-of-way as a motorist took an odd turn in Illinois…

Illinois HB5912 from year 2016 (#illinois)

So this is sortof interesting/related. In 2016 the IL legislature passed a bill which sought to make clear that bicyclists are drivers of vehicles, HB5912 BICYCLES-RIGHT OF WAY:

(625 ILCS 5/11-1502) (from Ch. 95 1/2, par. 11-1502)
Sec. 11-1502. Traffic laws apply to persons riding
bicycles. Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway shall be granted all of the rights, including, but not limited to, rights under Article IX of this Chapter, and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this Code, except as to special regulations in this Article XV and except as to
 those provisions of this Code which by their nature can have no application.
 underline is new text, strike through is deleted text

IL 11-1502 is Illinois’ version of Arizona’s §28-812, the fundamental bicycling-enabling statute. But is this change necessary? Helpful? At first glance it appears to fix the problem, but in reality it doesn’t; it grants no new rights (to bicyclists), and it still doesn’t make it a violation for a motorist to fail to yield to a bicycle. In other words, after the new language goes into effect, the motorist would still not in violation of  Illinois 11-904. (see def’n of vehicle Sec. 1-217; also see handy link to entire IL Vehicle Code)

The impetus for this particular law was:

I am very proud to announce a recent legislative victory in Illinois. On Friday Gov. Rauner signed into law a bill I drafted regarding bicyclist’s rights to the “right of way” under Illinois law. In short, the new law makes clear that a bicycle is a “vehicle” under Illinois law and that bicyclists are entitled to the “right-of-way” under Illinois law, just like any other vehicle. Gov. Rauner is staunchly pro-tort reform and against anything that is “progressive” in any way. To get this bill pushed through under a difficult political climate is a victory in and of itself.

Here is the link to the bill, House Bill 5912. It is now Public Act 99-0785.

It is a very simple change in the law, but will provide great clarity with regards to bicycles being “equal” as vehicles and always having the “right” of the right-of-way when applicable. I believe this change, in the year 2016, will have a ripple effect going forward since legally this change can be relied on as persuasive authority for other laws.

The push for this law came from the family of Dennis Jurs who was killed in a collision with a driver who was ticketed for failing to yield the right of way to Dennis. The ticket was thrown out of court by the judge because he said there was conflicting case law that said that a bicycle was not a “vehicle” and therefore the law did not apply. I represented the family in their civil case and drafted the bill and helped them work with their State Representative as a sponsor to get it done.

Hope this doesn’t come across as unnecessarily immodest, just very pleased with this result and thought it was worth sharing. Thanks. Ride Safe and keep fighting the good fight!

Michael S. Keating
Keating Law Offices, P.C.

See also Keating’s website. Here is a news story from the Chicago Tribune about the collision. And some searching confirms that the driver, James Connors, indeed had his citation for FAIL TO OBEY STOP SIGN (11-904) dismissed.

[update: there’s a fairly detailed explanation of the logic of the dismissal at; it sounds as though the cases cited did not support dismissal: “In tossing the driver’s ticket last fall, Tegeler relied on three cases — the 1981 1st District Appellate Court decision in Lewis v. Illinois Gas; the 2nd District Appellate Court decision in People v. John R. Schaeffer from 1995; and the 3rd District Appellate Court opinion in Standard Mutual Insurance Co. v. Rogers from 2008”]

So here are three cases the judge referenced:

  • Lewis v. Northern Illinois Gas Co., 422 NE 2d 889 – Ill: Appellate Court, 1st Dist. 1981.  Sidewalk bicyclist case. A bicycle when ridden on a sidewalk is not a vehicle, as the no driving on the sidewalk statute explicitly states. The Court’s use of the term ‘seemingly’ in their opinion, it seems to me, was to emphasize their expression of incredulity at the defendant’s position to the contrary…
    — quote —
    Defendant seemingly maintains that plaintiff had a duty to act in accordance with section 11-1412.1 of the Illinois Vehicle Code which prohibits a person from driving any vehicle upon a sidewalk or sidewalk area. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 95 1/2, par. 11-1412.1.) However, we note that this case involved a bicycle which is not considered a vehicle for purposes of the statute. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 95 1/2, par. 1-217.)
  • People v. Schaefer , 274 Ill. App. 3d 450, 654 N.E.2d 267, 1995 Ill. App. LEXIS 623, 210 Ill. Dec. 968 (Ill. App. Ct. 2d Dist. 1995)… a bicyclist is not subject to IL’s DUI law due to ambiguities in the DUI law versus the bicyclist applicability statute. This one is perhaps the closest to being on-point; it does however refer to a bicyclist’s duty, and not a motorist’s so in any event it’s essentially upside-down, which i would think limits its relevance.
  • Standard Mutual Insurance Co. v. Rogers 3rd District Appellate Court 2008. Uninsured Motorist insurance case — this one has nothing whatsoever to do with the case-at-hand and involves insurance law. Bikes aren’t motor vehicles, no surprise there.
    — quote. emphasis added —
    Given these legislative distinctions, it is clear that a “bicycle” cannot be considered a “motor vehicle” for the purposes of uninsured motor vehicle coverage.

On the other hand, Keating’s bench brief (I never heard that term, it apparently is something akin to an amicus brief)  references this case

  • People v. Isaacson, Ill: Appellate Court, 4th Dist. 1997. Another sidewalk riding case, by the way. Keating (the bike lawyer) said that “In that case, the defendant hit a bicyclist on the way out of an alley, and the panel ruled the biker deserved the protection of right of way laws.”
    My spin on that is that since the bicyclist was riding on a sidewalk, the court said a bicyclist riding on a sidewalk is owed the right-of-way as a pedestrian. In other words this case didn’t say anything about non-sidewalk riding.

Note we can’t tell from this why it was dismissed, e.g. perhaps no one was able or available to testify for the state.  (I guess the term “case law” is technically accurate, meaning anything and everything, including this result from an inferior court?) Regardless, it’s in no way precedential, it’s just that: a dismissed citation. I don’t know the status of a civil suit against the driver by the estate of Jurs, but in any event these results are immaterial; they can’t be used in civil suits (or so my P.I. lawyer acquaintances tell me).

Historical note: it was pointed out in that in an earlier version of the bill; a new section was added that grants bicyclists r-o-w everywhere in every situation(!) “Sec. 11-903.5. Bicycles. A driver of a vehicle upon a highway shall yield the right-of-way to any person operating a bicycle”

The Laundry List of ARS Yielding Statutes

cross referencing note; this article is very similar to the-driver-of-a-vehicle

The applicability/enabling statute, 28-812 in AZ, doesn’t make bicycles into vehicles; rather, it (effectively) makes bicyclists into drivers of vehicles.

In AZ’s yielding statutes the language is “yield to vehicle”, with the singular exception of 645-3-C (inoperative traffic signal), and it’s possible to construe that that language fails to require yielding to bicyclists in many important scenarios:

  • 28-645-1-A: shall yield the right-of-way to other vehicles and to pedestrians
  • 28-645-3-C: yield the right-of-way to the DRIVER OF THE vehicle on the right.
  • 28-771 yield the right-of-way to the vehicle on the right
  • 28-772 yield the right-of-way to a vehicle
  • 28-773 yielding to vehicles that are not required to stop
  • 28-774 yield the right-of-way to all closely approaching vehicles
  • 28-776-A yield the right-of-way to each vehicle
  • 28-777 yield the right-of-way to a vehicle
  • 28-793 yield the right-of-way to all closely approaching vehicles
  • 28-855 yield the right-of-way to any vehicle
  • 28-856-3 yield the right-of-way to all closely approaching vehicles

UVC has all the same language, but since 1978 defines vehicle without excluding bicycles, so has no issue. But, language should probably be changed to say “driver of vehicle” to maximize consistency of language and ease adoption by states which still define vehicle to exclude bicycles.

Note that in the list of proposed ARS fixes at the moment only lists fixes to 772, 773 and 774.

How bicycles and bicyclists get defined for the purposes of legal treatment varies quite a bit; here is another spin from Oregon.

4 thoughts on “Bicycles aren’t vehicles”

  1. Here’s an imponderable for you: why do you supposed the Arizona statutes deliberately exclude human-powered machines from the definition of a vehicle? What’s the upside?

  2. dug up more info confirming the case was dismissed as claimed. However, it’s unclear if modifying the enabling/applicability statute adequately resolves the problem. 20 years from now, an IL judge can still claim (with some justification!) that a driver of a vehicle, having stopped for a stop sign, isn’t required to yield to a bicyclist. Details follow.

    County of Kane
    2015TR025519 CONNORS JAMES P (the article has wrong spelling) citation #000286120
    Judge DONALD TEGELER JR / Defense attorney: David CAMIC
    statute 625 5/11-904(b) FAIL OBEY STOP SIGN
    Disposiiton not guilty / Judges notes filed not of record

    Find here definition of vehicle, Sec 1-217

    So this is exactly the issue Ed described here (in the context of a different ROW rule):
    .. and for which I had proposed language to resolve this problem:

    In IL, (non-serious) traffic violations are “petty offences”, I gather, treated as minor crimes. Though upon re-reading the code, it’s not clear whether or not these petty offenses amount to criminal or civil charges (and thus a different burden of proof).

    Sec. 5-1-17. Petty Offense. “Petty offense” means any offense for which a sentence of imprisonment is not an authorized disposition. (Source: P.A. 95-1052, eff. 7-1-09.)
    and (a) FINE. A defendant may be sentenced to pay a fine not to exceed $1,000 for each offense or the amount specified in the offense, whichever is less. A fine may be imposed in addition

    Facebook threads on CaD! and SoFLR4B generated surprisingly little chatter.

  3. In Oregon, bicycles are not excluded from the definition of vehicle (ORS 801.590); they have added this to an otherwise boilerplate bicyclist applicability statute
    ORS 814.4000(2)
    Subject to the provisions of subsection (1) of this section:
    (a) A bicycle is a vehicle for purposes of the vehicle code; and
    (b) When the term vehicle is used the term shall be deemed to be applicable to bicycles.

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