Cyclists’ Position on the Roadway

Freudian slip or slip in judgment?  You decide.

I generally don’t follow the opinion section in the local newspaper.  Extreme political views, conspiracy theories, and thinly-veiled self-promotion are all a bit.. unseemly.   While recently penning a letter to the editor of my own, a fair amount of self-reflection was required.  Here’s how I wound up on the pedantic side of crazy.

A couple of weeks ago our local rag, the Idaho Statesman, printed a front-page article about some new cycling and pedestrian-oriented questions that are being added to the Idaho driver’s exam.  This move is much-needed acknowledgement that it is humans, not cars, that utilize Idaho’s public roadways.  Good stuff.

In the article was a made-up quiz that loosely resembled some of the questions on the driver’s exam, provided so that readers could test how well they might answer them.  One of the questions asked where a cyclist should be positioned on a highway.  Among three obviously nonsensical answers was the “correct” one:  as far right as possible.  As we’ll see, this answer is neither correct nor desirable.  The correct word, taken directly from Idaho state law and printed correctly later in the newspaper article, is practicable.  Here is my response to the editor:

As a cyclist, I was disappointed in the April 11 front-page quiz. Riding as close as “possible” to the right-hand edge of the roadway is dangerously incorrect. Better wording is revealed on page 4A, but the damage is done: reinforcing the misconception that cyclists are safest when skirting traffic at the extreme edges of the roadway.

Words matter. “Practicable” accounts for the judgment necessary for a cyclist to safely maneuver along our roadways in ways that “possible” does not. There are many sensible and lawful reasons why you’ll find cyclists in the lane, only a few of them listed on page 4A. This is a reality that many motorists and even some in local law enforcement don’t understand.

As a motorist, when I encounter a cyclist riding lawfully in “my” lane, I recognize that she has the same rights and responsibilities I have in deciding how and where to travel and treat her as I would another motorist. This means, among other things, slowing down if necessary and passing when it’s safe (for both of us) to do so. If this concept is foreign to you, I encourage seeking out any of a number of local or national cycling organizations for guidance.

I’ll admit this may come off as a bit picky.  When I discussed this with a friend of mine, he accused me of being too much of an engineer, of “verbally over-correcting”, and my favorite— Freudian transference of past vehicular transgressions.  Ouch.  I’m not sure how my friend missed anal-retentive.

Psychologically well-adjusted or not, I stand by my statement.  Here are a couple of examples that illustrate how this distinction matters to cyclists in very real ways.

One way to articulate the nuanced distinction between possible and practicable is that possible means “able to done” whereas practicable means “able to be done, successfully.”  An example of “able to be done” is the right hook—riding in the gutter and getting creamed by a car making a right turn at an intersection.  An example of “able to be done, successfully” is riding in the lane behind and/or in front of cars turning right at the intersection and living to tell the tale.  Both are possible.  Only one is successful by any practical or rational view of the term.  Yet there are many, both cyclists and motorists, who will insist that the correct position for the cyclist is as far right as possible, not allowing for the possibility of being in the lane.

This right hook scenario is perhaps the most serious threat to a cyclist’s safety, but there are many others that warrant riding in the lane instead of beside it.  The pictures below illustrate dramatically improved sight lines when cyclists simply use the correct lane when traveling through intersections.  The correct lane is the outermost lane that is traveling in the cyclist’s intended direction.  Even when turning right, that never means plastered to the extreme right edge of the roadway.









As far right as possible                                                       As far right as practicable


Here’s an example that is closer to the situation described in the quiz, which was concerned with positioning on a highway.  As mentioned earlier, practicable is the actual term used in Idaho law.  A few years ago, a friend of mine was stopped and cited by a sheriff for not riding his bike as far right on the roadway as possible.  The shoulder was narrow, uneven, and strewn with debris—riding there would have significantly decreased his safety.  It was relatively easy for him to beat the rap in court by explaining that he was operating his vehicle as far right in the lane as practicable.  It would have been tougher to defend his actions if the law said possible.  Again, words matter, perhaps even more so in a legal setting.  Practicable was chosen for the law because it means something specific, and different than possible.

The point of all of this, really, is that motorists and cyclists have equal access to our public roadways, and that no one can make a better decision about how and where to ride than the cyclist whose life is on the line.  We would all, motorists and cyclists alike, do well to simply operate our vehicles within the law and accept when others are doing the same.  This first requires knowing the law; mistakes like the Statesman’s do more to obscure it than clarify it.

So who needs therapy– me or the motorists who believe it’s their right to run cyclists off the road?  Now that the gates are open, maybe my next letter to the editor will discuss tinfoil hats and aliens among us.

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