Who rules the road?: Cars, bikes often spar for pavement position on city roads

Photo The Incredible Matt Taylor/Special To The Town Crier

Arguments can easily erupt between cyclists and motorists as to who has the right of way.

It’s an age-old debate among Los Altos and Los Altos Hills residents: Do bikes or cars own the road?

Cyclists and motorists adhere to a nearly identical set of laws, according to Capt. Terry Calderone of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department, but that doesn’t stop them from arguing on the asphalt. Calderone, along with five other officers, patrols the ups and downs of Los Altos Hills – a town mostly void of bike lanes.

The California Vehicle Code states, “Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway has all the rights and is subject to all the provisions applicable to the driver of a vehicle.”

Although authorities say clear-cut laws should prevail, ignorance can lend itself to debate.

Perhaps a cyclist has a run-in with a cell phone-wielding motorist turning right into a bike lane while approaching an intersection. Maybe a driver nearly gets in a wreck thanks to a cyclist racing through a stop sign. Los Altos Hills Councilwoman Ginger Summit said cyclists “never stop at stop signs, ever.”

Confrontations can fuel the fiery controversy and annul recognition of the law. Depending on whether someone is riding a 10-speed or driving a V-10, it can shape one’s perspective of who’s in the wrong, according to Sgt. Paul Arguelles of the Los Altos Police Department.

“Some cyclists have that, ‘I control the road’ attitude. Some drivers feel same way,” Arguelles said. “I would say it’s pretty much 50/50.”

Calderone said, “To all cyclists on the roadway, the biggest message is that the vehicle code applies to them just as much as any vehicle. … A lot of cyclists forget that. They forget they don’t have the right of way as they would if they were a pedestrian.”

Stories circulate of cyclists becoming frustrated with drivers on roads as well.

Los Altos resident Maddy McBirney said her bike rides in Los Altos Hills can be harrowing when cars honk to alert her.

“Once I nearly swerved off the road, because the horn was so loud I thought they were going to run me down, and I was as far over to the right as I could go,” she said.

Bill Lloyd, an avid cyclist from Mountain View who stopped by Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Los Altos Thursday morning, suggested the problem is twofold.

“Drivers do stupid stuff and cyclists do stupid stuff, too,” he said.

Myths dispelled

Most people understand traffic laws from the vantage point of a car – stop at red lights, obey speed limits, don’t drink and drive, etc. But authorities say when people get on bicycles, the rules of the road can become a little fuzzier.

“It’s a very gray area,” Arguelles said.

Myth No. 1: Cyclists don’t have to stop at red lights or stop signs.

Los Altos Police Officer Eric Brooks said that’s one of the biggest myths cyclists accept – and the top reason police ticket cyclists.

“It’s extremely dangerous,” Brooks said. “As a cyclist, they have no protection at all (when going through a red light). That could be a death right there.”

While a bike and car are supposed to follow nearly identical laws, “a car can cause much more damage than a bike,” Calderone said.

Myth No. 2: A cyclist is entitled to the whole lane when there’s no bike lane.

This is true, with caveats. When a road lacks a bike lane separated from the roadway with a solid white lane, a cyclist is entitled to the whole lane but should still stay toward the right portion of it.

But, Calderone said, if, for example, a cyclist trudges up winding, narrow Page Mill Road and impedes the flow of at least five cars behind, the cyclist must yield the right of way to the queued motorists.

“If the cyclist is going slower, they have to move over,” he said.

Myth No. 3: A cyclist can ride his or her bike drunk.

Because nearly every rule that applies to motor vehicles applies to bicycles, one can, indeed, receive a BUI – biking under the influence.

Arguelles said that if a police officer cites you for biking drunk, it doesn’t affect your driving record, but you could spend time behind bars for it.

Myth No. 4: When using a bike lane to turn right, cars must yield to bikes.

Often the right of way is a judgment call for both cyclists and drivers.

If a car and a bike approach an intersection parallel to one another, and the car needs to merge into the bike lane to turn right, the bike has the right of way and the car should wait.

“The bottom line is, out of common courtesy, the vehicle should yield to the bike,” Arguelles said. “But a bike could be in a car’s blind spot,” which could lead to injury or death.

Two weeks ago, a driver collided with a cyclist from behind while turning right onto San Antonio Road from Foothill Expressway. The driver told police the cyclist wasn’t visible. The cyclist was transported to the hospital for pain and minor abrasions.

Although the bicyclist technically had the right of way, police advise cyclists to yield if it would prevent an accident. When it comes to a car-versus-bike quarrel, the car usually prevails.

The cold, hard numbers

Lt. Skip Shervington of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department, who patrols Los Altos Hills, compiled traffic collision statistics in the city from July 1, 2008 to Oct. 31, 2009. The department made contact with 2,740 motorists and cyclists, issuing citations/warnings and taking accident reports. Sixteen pertained to cyclists and the rest to motorists, 69 of which involved collisions. Seven cyclists received citations or warnings.

Three accidents were bike-versus-car collisions – one on Page Mill Road and two near El Monte Road and Highway 280.

“Most (cyclists) don’t understand or abide by the rules of the road,” Calderone said. “They have to stay all the way to the right (in the absence of a bike lane) and can’t ride more than two abreast. You often get groups of bicyclists who don’t obey the rules and think they have the right of way in certain situations.”

There were also nine solo bike crashes, one resulting in a fatality on Purissima Road in August 2009.

Statistics from the Los Altos Police Department reveal that out of 356 citywide accidents from July 1, 2008 to Oct. 31, 2009, 26 involved cyclists. Six resulted in citations.

Since Jan. 1 police reported 10 accidents involving cyclists out 152 total accidents.

Cracking down

Calderone said it’s usually easier to catch offending motorists – authorities ticketed nearly 3,000 drivers, the report shows – but his crew plans to “crack down” more heavily on law-breaking cyclists in Los Altos Hills. Since February, officers have focused on warning cyclists who run stop signs, appear to be speeding or ride too far in the middle of the road.

Depending on the court’s decision, a cyclist can receive a base fine of approximately $100 for proceeding through a stop sign without coming to a complete stop. On top of that, extra penalties can be assessed for infractions like speeding or not wearing a helmet that can triple the base fine. Add court processing and administrative fees, and the fine could total close to $400.

Brooks and Arguelles last month hosted an educational forum at The Bicycle Outfitter to clarify questions cyclists had about what could be perceived as ambiguous laws of the road. Brooks said the department has educated students in the past, but this was the first time officers have held a forum with adult cyclists.

Back to school

Students will soon be on the roads in force, as local schools reopen this month. A recent study shows an increase in the number of students cycling to elementary schools in and around Los Altos. Data compiled by traffic commissioner Bill Crook shows 17 percent of Los Altos School District students bike to school, up from 10 percent in 2001.

Various Los Altos elementary and junior high schools have implemented programs to encourage alternative transportation to and from schools, which organizers hope will reduce traffic and car pollution. Programs at Almond, Santa Rita and Springer schools reward students for racking up bike or foot mileage.

But more bikes on the road can cause problems as well. An increase in inexperienced cyclists crowding bike lanes and sidewalks is a potential safety issue.

Because cycling doesn’t require a state-granted license like driving a car, Arguelles said education is the key when it comes to youth bicycle safety.

“It starts with the parents,” he said. “Sure (children) can get pamphlets, but it’s not required and it’s not publicized.”

McBirney, a member of the non-profit GreenTown Los Altos, added, “Children are the future. The more they ride, the more experience they get looking out for cars, which will help when they learn to drive a car.”

Regarldess of what the law says, authorities say the bottom line is cyclists and motorists alike ought to be more courteous.

“We should always try to share the road,” Calderone said, “and use it safely and reasonably. Try to respect those in vehicles and vice-versa.”

Easier said than done.

Contact Elliott Burr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Schools »

Read More

Sports »

Read More

People »

Read More

Special Sections »

Special Sections
Read More

Photos of Los Altos

Browse and buy photos