"STAY TO THE RIGHT"
Another Safe Cycling Myth
by Avery Burdett
Myth rather than reality seems to be the basis of anything provincial
authorities from Ontario and Quebec embrace in regard to cycling.
In June 1994, Chantal Malard, a Montreal cyclist was killed when a
motorist opened a car door into her path. The ensuing collision
between bicycle and car door caused the cyclist to be thrown into
the path of a truck. She died on the road. In August 1994, an
almost identical fatality occurred on the streets of San Francisco.
Clearly in both of these tragedies, the individuals who carelessly
opened car doors were negligent. However, as in the case of most
car/bike collisions, it is rare that a single factor is the sole
The report on the Montreal fatality stated that Ms. Malard was
staying to the right, as the rules of the road say. The reporter,
himself a cyclist, added the qualifier that cyclists should ride
1.5 metres out from parked cars as a self-protection measure.
What the reporter could have added was that the "stay to the right"
rule of the road is one of the great safe cycling myths, and has no
basis in safety or otherwise. Provincial transportation
authorities, sometimes with endorsement from so called "bike safety
experts", help perpetuate such myths.
Riding too close to parked cars is not the only dangerous "stay to
the right" practice. Look at the dangerous options Ontario cyclists
following this rule create for themselves every day. Observe them
when they come across sewer grates, potholes, or debris in the
right one metre of the roadway. If the road is kerbed, they swerve
left, into the path of other vehicles. If the road is unkerbed,
they likely go to the right, risking loss of control on a gravel
shoulder or worse, ending up in the ditch.
What do these same cyclists do when proceeding straight through an
intersection where there is a "right turn only" lane? Some ride the
painted line between the lanes, thereby giving up their right of
way in either lane. Some ride in the "right turn only" lane, and
some to the right of the "right turn only" lane. In both latter
cases, they put themselves in conflict with right turning vehicles!
What do they do in a lane too narrow for a bike and motor vehicle
to safely share? Why, they stay to the right, effectively
invitating motorists to squeeze by. No wonder cyclists fear
being sideswiped from passing cars!
Oh yes, then there are left turns. Stay to the right and leave it
to the last minute to turn across the traffic. A young helmeted
Ottawa cyclist was killed last year effecting this manoeuvre.
Let me be clear, "stay to the right" means exactly what it says.
"Stay to the right" has little to do with correct cyclist
positioning, which normally is in the right half of a lane. A
cyclist needs a minimum of 1.5 metres of lateral operating space.
Generally, a cyclist should be positioned somewhere between .75
metres out from the right kerb (or lane edge-line or edge of the
roadway) and the centre of a lane.
In a lane too narrow to share, the cyclist limits the ability of a following
vehicle to pass by riding the centre of the lane. In all situations, the cyclist
needs to remain in the line of sight of motorists. Cyclists should always ride a
predictable path of travel (normally a straight line). Actual positioning in any
situation depends on road geometry, other traffic, and condition of the road. In
many cases, including the sharing of a lane with parked cars, "stay to the left"
is a more appropriate rule. Courtesy dictates that cyclists consider the needs
of others and not unduly hold up traffic. But this should never be at the
expense of cyclists' own safety.
It is a fact that "stay to the right" is an archaic rule
originating in the horse and buggy days of single track roads when
carriages meeting in opposite directions had to stay to the right
in order to pass each other. The era of two lane and multi-lane
roadways made this rule redundant, but the rule has found a new
purpose. Like many rules of the road, it is used to discriminate
against cyclists. The Cycling Skills Guide published by the Ontario
Ministry of Transport states "slower traffic stays right, slower
traffic must give way to faster traffic". This says to cyclists
"get out of the way of cars". The rule has been adapted for the
convenience of motorists!
A bicycle is a vehicle under the Highway Traffic Act of Ontario,
and cyclists allegedly have the same rights as other vehicle
operators. But this rule makes cyclists second class road users.
There is every justification for dumping the "stay to the right"
rule of the road. I'm not holding out much hope though, given the
myth-based attitudes of the Province of Ontario's "safety" people,
and having seen and heard their views on two abreast cycling, but
then that's another story .......
(This article was first published in the Ontario Bicyclist, Fall 1994 edition)