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.

      Nowhere in the HTA is cycling side by side prohibited and only in one set of infrequent circumstances could it be implied. Section 148 reinforces the North American convention that in Ontario we drive on the right side of roads and highways (unlike in some other countries such as the UK). Section (1) makes that clear. When vehicles are driven approaching each other. Each driver must leave the left half of the roadway free. Other sections of 148 are consistent. Section (6) states that 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 (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. Provided cyclists in such a formation are positioned to the right half of the roadway, there is no violation. In addition, the cycling practice of "taking the lane" to discourage unsafe passing is explictly validated.

      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). So, if two or more cyclists are riding together and a single motor vehicle approaches from the rear, who is travelling at the normal speed of traffic at that time and place? I 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, (and this is critical because it is frequently misinterpreted, often deliberately) cyclists are offered two places to ride when being passed - either in the right-hand lane or close to the edge of the roadway.

      This is written to apply to all types of roads - single track roads, those with no centre line, two lane roads, and roads with multiple lanes in the same direction. On a road with a right-hand lane available, cyclists may choose to occupy the whole lane. Riding single file close to the edge of the roadway is an option which cyclists might choose in order to assist following drivers to pass. A road with no centre line by definition has no lanes. On such roads, a vehicle moving less than the speed of traffic has no choice but to be driven near the right-hand edge of the roadway. In this case alone, it reasonably could be interpreted that groups of cyclists are required to ride in single file. Cyclists rarely find themselves riding together in these types of environments. Regardless of legal niceties, I believe the practice of curb- hugging which results from the simplistic application by cyclists of "ride as far to the right as practicable" just encourages aggressive motorists to carry out dangerous manoeuvres when there 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. (A law was subsequently introduced which requires motorists to leave at least 1m when passing a cyclist).

      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. Some editing to add clarity was carried out June 2019)

September 2003
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