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Now clarified in state law: Bicycles may pass cars on the right

Starting New Year's Day, 2014, Illinoisans riding bicycles may confidently pass slow-moving cars on the right side of the road and know that they are on solid ground legally. The Active Transportation Alliance-backed bill was adopted by the Illinois legislature in May and was signed into law this month by Governor Pat Quinn.

The bill (HB 3367) does not change the intent or meaning of current law, but rather clarifies it — to end dangerous misunderstandings that have already caused real harm to Illinois bicyclists, as documented in a February Chicago Streets Blog post, The Obscure Traffic Law That Punishes Cyclists for Getting Doored, by Ken Griffith.

The article documented the case of Lilly, who was doored by a car while riding her bike and then blamed by police for the crash:

Lilly was lying in the trauma unit at Northwestern Memorial (for anonymity, she that asked we only use her nickname). She’d been doored on Lincoln Avenue on her morning bike commute, and now doctors were swarming around her, trying to determine if her pregnancy, then five months along, was at risk.

That’s when the police officer who had responded at the crash scene walked in to drop off the incident report and to let Lilly, 30, know that — by the way — she was at fault for the crash. Her heart-rate monitor began beeping furiously — how could she be at fault? She’d been riding in the shared lane on Lincoln, passing between the line of stopped traffic and the line of parked cars, when a passenger in one of the cars idling in the traffic lane swung his door open straight into her bike, sending her spinning into the pavement.

Barring extenuating circumstances, liability in dooring crashes is straightforward. If you're driving a car and I'm on a bike, and you open your door into my path, then you're at fault, and your insurance pays my medical bills, Lilly said.

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But in this case, the responding police officer said Lilly was at fault for passing on the right, and not the car passenger for opening a car door into the path of an oncoming cyclist. Subsequently, the driver's insurance company denied Lilly's claim and she has since been embroiled in a nearly year-long legal battle regarding $10,000 in medical bills that may never be reimbursed.

What gives? In a state where the law requires bicycles to ride as far to the right as safely possible, where they pass and get passed by cars dozens of times on every ride, why would Lilly be liable for being hit by a passenger who forgot to check for a cyclist before opening a car door?

People on bikes do have the right to pass cars on the right, but as bike lawyer Brandon Kevenides wrote in a subsequent blog post, the language of Illinois law on this matter makes that fact about as clear as mud.

The law in question is known as eight foot rule and, as Griffin wrote, is intended to prevent motorcycles from roaring down the shoulder of the road.” It prohibits two-wheeled vehicles from passing cars on the right unless there is eight feet of space.

Dozens of pages earlier in the statute, the term vehicle is defined as a device that transports people and property . . . except devices moved by human power.” So the law is limited to motorized devices like motorcycles and does not apply to bicycles.

That limitation makes sense because motorcycles may need eight feet of space to pass cars because they are much wider, heavier, and operated at much higher speeds than bicycles. But if applied to bicycles it would turn the whole concept of ‘share the road’ on its head, said Kevenides, because bicycles routinely and safely share the road in parallel streams of traffic with cars in cities where there is less than eight feet of space between traffic and parked cars.

Even designated bike lanes, which are normally 5 feet wide and have a long history in national and state standards, would be in violation of the 8 foot rule if cyclists were subject to it, said Ed Barsotti, executive director of the League of Illinois Bicyclists.

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HB 3367 should help prevent future situations like Lilly's by clarifying that the 8 foot rule applies only to motorcycles and not bicycles. It was passed less than a year after the current law's problems were first noted by Griffith and Kevenides — thanks in large part to the work of its sponsors, State Representative Laura Fine of Glenview and Senator Thomas Cullerton of Villa Park.

I drive a car and ride a bicycle, and I think this bill is a big victory for both, said Fine. Whether or not a person agrees with a particular law, everyone agrees that the law should at least be clear.

With this bill's passage, Illinois cyclists will now have a crystal clear understanding about their right to pass cars on the right side of the road.

Active Trans is your voice for better biking, walking and transit. Support our efforts to make active transportation safer and easier by donating or becoming a member today.