Two Abreast Cycling is Legal

      by Avery Burdett

      Last summer, two police officers stopped my wife and I near the Ottawa International Airport and informed us we had been breaking the law by riding two abreast. Apparently a motorist had complained. He was likely the one who had blasted his horn at us earlier. We politely asked the officers which section of the Highway Traffic Act (HTA) we had violated. Quickly backpedalling, they said they didn't have a copy of the HTA with them, and anyway even if cycling that way wasn't illegal, it was dangerous and we should "ride as far to the right as possible". We responded that we were cycling neither illegally nor dangerously but there were motorists driving that way, and inquired as to why the police officers weren't doing something to protect us from such drivers.

      While it is general practice to ride to the right, the HTA is less than clear on the subject. There is no provision prohibiting side by side cycling. Section 148(6) requires a person on a bicycle which is overtaken shall turn out to the right, and the overtaking vehicle shall turn out to the left. Section 148(5) states that a driver of a vehicle (e.g. a cyclist) when being passed is not required to leave more than one half of the roadway free, which on a two lane highway is the other lane. It is silent on how this applies to cyclists riding side by side. Provided cyclists in such a formation are positioned to the right-hand side of the roadway, there can be no violation.

      Section 147 (1) deals with slow moving vehicles. Any vehicle, including a bicycle, travelling at less than the normal speed of traffic at that time and place shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for traffic or as close as practicable to the right-hand edge of the roadway (the edge being the solid edge-line, or if none exists then the kerb or edge of the pavement). This wording is somewhat confusing. If two or more cyclists are riding together and a motor vehicle approaches from the rear, who is travelling at the normal speed of traffic at that time and place? I would argue the cyclists are, since the bicycles, being the majority, constitute the traffic. Thus the section would not be relevant. Even when bicycles are travelling at less than the normal speed of traffic, cyclists are offered two places to ride when being passed - either in the right-hand lane or close to the edge of the roadway.

      I speculate this was written to allow for all types of roads - those with no centre line, two lane roads, and roads with multiple lanes in the same direction. A road with no centre line by definition has no lanes. With no lanes available, a vehicle moving less than the speed of the traffic must be driven near the right- hand edge of the roadway. In this case, it could be interpreted that cyclists are required to ride in single file, but cyclists will rarely find themselves in such circumstances. Under similar conditions but with a right-hand lane available, cyclists may choose to ride single file close to the edge of the roadway but they are also given the alternative of using the lane. Nothing in the latter implies that they cannot ride double. I wonder if the legal beagles who drafted this section realized they were giving cyclists the same choice as four wheeled vehicles. Regardless of legal niceties, I believe the practice of kerb- hugging which results from the simplistic application by cyclists of "ride as far to the right as possible" rule just encourages aggressive motorists to carry out dangerous manoeuvres when there really isn't sufficient room to pass. As vulnerable road users, we cannot hand over decisions for our safety to those who would rather we not be on the road at all. I should add it also helps when we are able to explain how the rules of the road relate to good cycling practices whenever overzealous police officers try to intimidate us. There was a happy ending to our trip. The officers radioed to another cruiser a few kilometres down the road to get us free passage via a road which otherwise would have been closed to us because of the Annual Air Show!

      Originally published in the Spokesperson, the newsletter of the Ottawa Bicycle Club, May/June 1997.

September 2003
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