California is a large, wonderful state to ride in with sweeping scenery, plenty of urban landscapes, and lots of opportunity to cycle in all sorts of locales and geographies. While it can be great fun to ride your bike all over the state, it’s important to do it legally and safely so that you don’t run into any trouble! What sort of bike laws can you expect to work with while in California?
Where to Ride, Where Not to Ride
California actually specifies that if you’re moving as fast as traffic, you can ride wherever you want, ha! But since most bikes, even electric bikes, cannot move as fast as a car, you must follow some basic laws and practices. Keep in mind that cyclists have the same duties and obligations as drivers, but with some differences when it comes to logistics.
First of all, when you’re moving slower than traffic, which will be most of the time, you can still use the lane when passing, preparing for a left turn, avoiding hazards, if the lane is too narrow to share safely or in cases of a legal right turn. The rest of the time, cyclists are to ride as close to the right side of the road as practical and bike lanes wherever they are. California is a bit uncommon in its allowance of cyclists to take a lane and as a result, many motorists, police and cyclists don’t know this or understand it, leading to misunderstandings. (You can see for yourself: CVC 21202.) You also have to make sure to ride with traffic (on the right side of the road), except when passing, making a legal left turn, riding on a one-way street, riding on a narrow road, or if the right side is closed because of construction.
Another note about bike paths: you can’t stop or park a bike on a bike path. The law actually specifies this! (CVC 21211). You also can’t ride through crosswalks, though you can get off and walk.
Where you can’t ride? You are not allowed to ride on freeways and expressways, even if you’re riding an electric bike. You also cannot cross a toll bridge on a bike (unless specified otherwise). Riding on sidewalks is left to the cities and counties to decide, so check up on municipal law.
Gear and Tools for Your Bike
What sort of safety equipment do you need to have before you ride your bike? The answers may surprise you as California has some laws around things that other states ignore.
- Bikes must have brakes that allow the rider to do a one-braked-wheel skid.
- Size! Yes, size matters in California. The bike must be small enough that its rider can stop, support it with one foot on the ground, and start it safely. Furthermore, the handlebars must not be higher than the shoulders of the rider. (We don’t really want to know what prompted that particular law).
- A white headlight must be visible from the front of the bike at night and a red reflector visible from the back while riding at night. You can also have a solid or flashing red light. You also must have a white or yellow reflector on each pedal or on your shoes or ankles; a white or yellow reflector on the front half of the bike and a red or a white reflector on each side of the back half of the bike which must be visible from the side. You are going to be visible!
- Your bike must have a seat, unless the bike was designed without a seat (we don’t want to know what prompted that law either). Passengers wearing less than forty pounds must have a seat that will keep them in place and protect them from parts in motion.
- Riders under the age of eighteen must wear a helmet while riding a bike. You should probably still wear a helmet if you’re older than eighteen because head injuries are serious.
- Cyclists cannot wear earplugs or a headset in both ears while riding. Hearing aids are fine though.
- Cyclists can use to a cell phone while riding! But no drinking or using drugs and riding and no hitching a ride on a vehicle. You also must be able to keep one hand on the handlebars at all times.
- Cyclists must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians in crosswalks, intersections and to people who are blind or partially blind if they are carrying a (mostly) white cane or using a guide dog.
If you’re an adult, you don’t have to wear a helmet, but you do have to be lit up from all sides when riding at night. California is a bit weirdly specific on some points and skates over others.
California is one of a few states which has laws around the use of electric bikes and they are comprehensive, at least compared to other states. California does differentiate between different kinds of e-bikes, depending on whether or not they are gas powered and how fast they can travel.
Mopeds and high-speed (top assisted speeds of 28 miles per hour) are not treated the same as pedal bikes. They can’t be used on trails, bike paths, or lanes, unless local law allows it. They may be used in bike lanes or separate bikeways by the road. You must wear a helmet while riding one and they are limited to drivers who are sixteen years of age or older.
Low-speed electric bikes are allowed wherever regular bikes are allowed, unless specified otherwise. Low-speed bikes are bikes with a top assisted speed of 20 mph.
California has many similar laws to other states in America, but it is more exact in other ways. It’s one of the few states that has legislation around electric bikes and while California is a bit laissez-faire when it comes to helmets, the state certainly wants riders visible at night. There are other things which are only covered by municipal and county law, so it’s important to check the bylaws wherever you ride to make sure you understand your obligations and your rights before you ride. Don’t be one of thousands who gets injured, fined, or in trouble for riding; know the laws in California and focus on enjoying yourself!
You can read more about the many laws around biking in California here: http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=VEH§ionNum=21201.