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Rules of the Road: Riding with the Flow of Traffic

If you’ve been cycling for long, you’ve probably wondered whether it’s better to ride with the flow of traffic – alongside motor vehicles – or against it.

While California state lawmakers have largely answered this question in legislation – yes, cyclists must ride in the same direction as traffic – there are also expert and scientific reasoning to justify the rule.

What California law says

Whether you’re riding the busy streets of San Francisco or taking a joyride along the California coast, it’s state law to ride your bicycle in the same direction as traffic. Not doing so could result in a traffic citation and fine from law enforcement.

The law also dictates that cyclists should ride as close to the right-hand curb as possible. There are, however, a few exceptions:

  1. When the cyclist is passing another bicycle or vehicle riding in the same direction.
  2. When preparing for a left turn.
  3. When avoiding potentially dangerous conditions, including surface hazards, substandard width lanes, parked cars, and anything else that may pose a threat to safety.
  4. When there is a one way street with two or more marked traffic lanes. In this scenario, cyclists may ride as near the left-hand curb as possible.

The only instance where it is permissible for a cyclist to head in the opposite direction of traffic is when they are walking their bicycle on the sidewalk. It’s often illegal to ride on sidewalks in California, but these laws are set by local municipalities, so it’s best to check with your city or county.

What experts say

Riding with traffic is the safest option for cyclists.

For some, this may not sound logical, but cycling safety experts agree that doing so enhances safety for all road users and maintains order on the streets.

“Going the wrong way, against traffic, is known as ‘salmoning’ in the bike community,” cycling advocate Laura Shepherd explains for Outside Magazine. “Salmoning is often frowned upon because it creates a hazardous situation for cyclists traveling in the correct direction.”

It also creates a few additional problems on the road.

First, riding against traffic means you’re more likely to miss important traffic signals and stop signs. Cyclists must abide by traffic lights and in California they must fully stop at stop signs – while this practice is changing in other states across the country, it’s still against the law to roll through a stop sign in California. If you’re having to look back to see a light or sign, you direct your attention away from the road, causing more of a risk for you, fellow cyclists, and drivers.

For drivers, being able to keep tabs on cyclists on one area of the road is easiest. When cyclists ride on the ride-hand side, drivers don’t need to shift their attention as much. If you’re going against traffic while most cyclists are not, you’re creating a hazardous situation for yourself and other cyclists.

This also applies to cyclists. A Washington D.C. cyclist writes that she crashed into a cyclist who was traveling the wrong way and ended up breaking her jaw.

“Seeing someone ride straight toward you in a narrow lane is scary, and I now have the medical bills, scars, chipped teeth, and dental implants to prove just how much damage a salmoning cyclist can do,” says Alex Baca, who cites infrastructure failures for her accident.

Causing more dangerous accidents

Salmoning is a dangerous game of chicken that can also increase the severity of being hit by a car. Physics explains why.

“If you’re riding at 15 miles per hour when a car hits you from behind at 35 miles per hour, the speed of the cyclist reduces the approaching speed to 20 miles per hour, since both the bike and car are going in the same direction,” Outside Magazine writes. “ If there’s a head-on collision at those same speeds, however, the impact happens at 50 miles per hour. The higher the impact speed, the higher the risk of injury and death for the cyclist.”

While you think you might be more aware of vehicles if you’re seeing them come head-on, a driver might be watching other cars or cyclists on the road and miss you – especially if they aren’t expecting you to be there – resulting in an accident that may have been otherwise avoidable.

Some statistics point to as many as 25% of bicycle accidents occurring because of salmoning, another reason why it’s a good idea to avoid it.

Bay Area Bicycle Law is committed to keeping cyclists safe. If you’re involved in a crash at the fault of a driver or another cyclist who isn’t obeying traffic laws, request a free consultation with one of our attorneys. Bicycle crash injuries can be serious and have lasting impact. Accessing the right treatment and getting proper compensation for damages is crucial.