I received an email from a friend who is an avid cyclist and former council member in a city in Washington. I will call him "Bill."
Earlier in the day, Bill had been out on a leisurely training ride when he had an encounter with a police officer that had the potential to get ugly.
Bill was traveling downhill at approximately the posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour. Although this stretch of road has a bike lane, because Bill was traveling with the flow of traffic, he chose to ride near the right side of the traffic lane.
About halfway down the hill, Bill's blissful descent was interrupted by the police officer's voice blaring over the patrol vehicle's external speaker, demanding that Bill ride in the bike lane. As the patrol vehicle came alongside and passed him, Bill shook his head back and forth to inform the officer that he was mistaken.
The officer proceeded to the bottom of the hill and parked with his lights flashing and waited for Bill to arrive. As Bill approached, the officer once again used his external speaker and demanded that Bill stop. Bill obliged and at that point the officer wanted to know why Bill was shaking his head when he instructed him to ride in the bike lane.
Instead of reacting and getting angry at the misinformed officer, Bill quoted Washington state law which states in pertinent part as follows:
"Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a rate of speed less than the normal flow of traffic at the particular time and place shall ride as near to the right side of the right through lane as is safe...A person operating a bicycle upon a roadway may use the shoulder of the roadway or any specially designated bicycle lane if such exists."
Bill was extremely familiar with this statute from his days debating it when he was a city council member and he correctly informed the officer that as a cyclist, he could ride in the bike lane, the shoulder, the traffic lane or on the sidewalk and interchange between these options at his discretion.
Initially the officer was somewhat hostile and threatened to write Bill a citation for not riding in the bike lane when one was available. After Bill cited the law, the officer informed Bill that he was unaware of this statute and that it was his opinion that if the bike lane was available, the cyclist should use it.
After a lengthy discussion, the officer backed down and took Bill's contact information and said that he would research the law and get back to him. Later that evening, the officer called Bill to apologize and to thank him for informing him about the statute.
Police officers, like most motorists, are often unfamiliar with cyclist's rights. If you find yourself in this unfortunate predicament, instead of getting belligerent, be like Bill—take the high road and calmly use the opportunity to educate the officer or motorist.
This will in turn make the roads safer and friendlier for all users.
John Duggan is an avid cyclist and Seattle attorney who represents injured cyclists. He can be reached at 206-343-1888 or email@example.com.