The Dangers of Passing on the Right

One of the benefits of riding in the bike lane or shoulder is not having to travel 2-3 miles per hour and wait in traffic through seemingly endless light cycles.

However, whether you are riding your bicycle or driving your car, passing on the right is inherently dangerous. Although it is legal to pass on the right in certain situations, when doing so, cyclists need to be extra vigilant.

As cyclists, we encounter many situations where either the line of traffic to our left is stopped or moving slowly and there is a wide-open shoulder, bike lane, or "pavement of sufficient width" for the bicycle to pass on the right.

While the bike lane and shoulder scenarios seem clear, whether it is legal to pass in situations where there is "unobstructed pavement of sufficient width" depends on the facts of each situation. 

For example, attempting to pass in the 18-inch gap between the curb and the line of cars would not be legal.

Just because the law says you can travel 25 miles per hour in the wide-open bike lane, shoulder or unobstructed pavement, and therefore pass all of the cars that are either stopped or slowly moving to your right, does not mean that this is the most prudent and safest course of action.

As cyclists, we must keep in mind that we are essentially invisible to motor vehicle drivers and therefore must ride defensively. When passing on the right, cyclists need to slow down and anticipate that motor vehicle operators may do the following:

  • Suddenly turn right into a driveway or side street without looking or signaling.
  • Unintentionally drift into the bike lane/shoulder.
  • Open a courtesy gap for a left-turning car to cut across stopped traffic and in the cyclist's path of travel.
  • Open a passenger door.

There is case law in Washington that states that a vehicle driver, when passing another vehicle, has the right to presume that the driver of the overtaken vehicle will comply with the law and signal and look before turning. While the case law may help you argue your claim to the insurance company or judge, it will not do anything to help your broken bones heal faster.

Never presume that a motor vehicle operator is aware of your presence until you have made direct eye contact.

Enjoy your open lane of travel, but ride defensively and travel at a safe speed that allows you to stop or take evasive action when you are suddenly confronted with an emergency situation. You need to ride with extreme caution when passing on the right.


John Duggan is an avid cyclist and Seattle attorney who represents injured cyclists. He can be reached at 206-343-1888 or john@dugganbikelaw.com.

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