Many people are leaving their cars at home in the driveway and choosing their bicycles to get them around town. But as bicycle commuting and touring becomes more popular, it is important to know the laws that must be followed when riding a bicycle on a city street or other public way. Just as there are "rules of the road" for automobiles, Massachusetts General Law Ch. 85 s. 11B and Massachusetts General Law Ch. 85 s. 11E set forth "rules of the road" for those traveling about town on two wheels.
The rules outlined in M.G.L. ch. 85 s. 11B generally can be divided into two categories: rights and duties of a bicyclist, and proper equipment requirements and the use of that equipment.
Rights and Duties of A Bicyclist: M.G.L. ch. 85 s. 11B states that bicycles may lawfully travel on all public ways of the Commonwealth except for state highways or limited access roads where posted signs prohibit bicycle use. Bicyclists must follow all the usual rules and regulations for traffic on a public way, such as stopping at a red light or traveling on the right side of a divided roadway. However M.G.L. ch. 85 s. 11B also outlines special exceptions to the usual rules of the road for bicycle riders.
Special Exceptions for Cyclists
Unlike the driver of a car, a bicyclist may pass a motor vehicle traveling in the same direction on the right of the vehicle. When turning or stopping, the bicyclist must signal using hand signals. Either hand is allowed, and the signal need not be continuous so the rider can safely maneuver the bicycle with both hands. When riding on a road with one lane in each direction, bicyclists may ride two abreast, but the riders must allow vehicular traffic to pass when needed. If cycling on a road with two or more lanes heading in the same direction, bicyclists must stay to the right, single file. Finally, a cyclist may ride on the sidewalk if the rider is outside a business district and needs to be on the sidewalk for safety reasons. If a cyclist does end up traveling on a sidewalk the cyclist must alert pedestrians with an audible signal when overtaking people walking, though in general the bicyclist must yield to pedestrians when on the sidewalk.
When riding, a cyclist cannot be carrying a package in his hands so that both hands can be free to properly use the handlebar. If the cyclist needs to carry items he must use a basket or rack. It is illegal for a bicycle to be pulled by a motor vehicle and similarly it is illegal for a bicycle to tow a vehicle. A cyclist may tow a small trailer for children or small items that are properly attached and do not impede proper and safe use of the bicycle.
When riding on the roads of the Commonwealth, bicyclists have duties to non-riders as well. M.G.L. ch. 85 s. 11B(11) mandates bicyclists must report to the police any accident involving either personal injury or property damage totaling more than one hundred dollars. When a cyclist takes a break and parks his bicycle, the bicycle cannot be left so that it blocks motor vehicle traffic or pedestrian traffic. M.G.L. ch. 85 s. 11B(4). A rider must use audible warnings for safety when necessary. Whistles or sirens are not permitted for this use. M.G.L. ch. 85 s. 11B(3).
A police officer who witnesses a cyclist commit a traffic infraction may lawfully stop the bicyclist. When asked to provide his name and address to the police officer the cyclist must be truthful. If the bicyclist gives a false name, or does not answer, he may be issued a ticket and fined a minimal amount. But more importantly, should the cyclist refuse to give the officer his true name or address, the law also allows the officer to arrest the cyclist without a warrant. M.G.L. ch. 85 s. 11E.
Bicycles must have an actual seat and a bicyclist must ride astride a permanent seat attached to a bicycle. If the cyclist is carrying a passenger, that passenger must similarly ride upon permanent or attached seat. A trailer towed by the biker, such as those small children ride in, will also suffice. It is against the law to ride a child less than one year old, or under forty pounds, unless the child rides in a so-called "baby-seat" that is attached to the bicycle. The seat must allow the child to ride upright and it must have straps to harness the child in the seat. A "tag-along," (an attachment to a bike seatpost with an extra seat with no harness, a small wheel, working pedals and a handlebar), that is attached is also permitted for older children. These add-ons must be attached so that the hands and feet of the passenger or child cannot get entangled in the spokes of the bicycle wheel. In the case of the "tag-along," the extra child rider must also be able to comfortably ride with feet on their pedals and hands on their handlebars.
The law requires helmets be worn by all riders ages 16 and under. The law also mandates that bicycle handlebars must not rise above the shoulders of the rider.
M.G.L. ch. 85 s. 11B(7)-(10) lists safety features necessary for the bicycle. Every bicycle must have a proper braking system. A headlamp is required and should be used 30 minutes before sunset through the hours 30 minutes before sunrise. Similarly reflectors must be used during this time period.
Violation of M.G.L. ch. 85 s. 11B is punishable by a fine no more than twenty dollars. If the cyclist who is violating this statute is under 18, his bicycle can be impounded and kept by the police or the selectboard for up to fifteen days. Perhaps equally important, however, is that violation of the helmet requirement and the child-safety seat requirements cannot be used as evidence of contributory negligence should an accident or some other liability occur.
Safety is paramount when an unprotected cyclist is sharing the road with multi-ton cars and trucks. The Massachusetts Legislature created these statutes to make clear rules for bicyclists and to announce requirements for bicycle use, so that all users of the roadways know the rules of the road in relation to each other. Of course, cycling wisely with awareness of the situation at each moment is the cornerstones of safe cycling.
If you or a loved one is injured in a bicycle accident, contact an experienced lawyer for a consultation. Cyclists injured in accidents can arrange a free consultation with the Law Offices of Mark E. Salomone.