Law may oppose sidewalk bicyclist 

This week's question comes from an anonymous reader:

Q: "I recently was riding my bike on a sidewalk crossing over the entrance to a shopping mall when somebody pulled in front of me, hit me and I went over the front of their car. They are claiming that I am at fault for riding on the sidewalk. The street was all backed up and there was really nowhere else to ride safely. What are my rights?"

A: Riding on the sidewalk is generally prohibited by local ordinances. It is true that state law permits bicycles to be ridden on the sidewalk. However, cities and counties may regulate bicycle operation and thereby restrict the right to ride on the sidewalk (California Vehicle Code 21206-21207). San Francisco, for example, requires anyone older than 13 to ride on the road (San Francisco Transportation Code 7.2.12, 1007).

When bicyclists are allowed to use the sidewalk, there is some ambiguity as to their exact rights and obligations. A formal opinion from the state Attorney General's Office suggests cyclists are otherwise subject to the rules of the road (California attorney general opinion No. 93-418). On the other hand, in one specific case, the court of appeal found that, where there was no local regulation, a bicyclist was not necessarily negligent simply because he or she rode the wrong way on a sidewalk, and was then hit by a car exiting a parking lot (Spriesterbach v. Holland, 2013).

The best practice -- and the law for everyone over the age of 13 in San Francisco -- is to use the road when riding a bike. Once on the road, a bicyclist is subject to the rules of the road (CVC 21200). Bicyclists should use designated bike lanes and ride in the same direction as traffic. If a designated bike lane directs cyclists onto a sidewalk, then of course they may use that sidewalk.

When riding slower than the speed of traffic, bicyclists must ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb, except when passing, preparing to turn left or avoiding unsafe conditions. On one-way streets with more than one lane, bicycles may also ride next to the left side of the road (CVC 21202). A bicyclist may exit a bike lane to avoid debris or hazardous conditions when it is reasonably safe to do so, and after signaling if necessary (CVC 21208). Bicyclists are to occupy the whole lane in order to avoid unsafe conditions, and to travel with the flow of traffic. However, bicyclists should still stay as close to the right as practicable (CVC 21200, 21202).

In this case, our reader's rights depend on circumstances not shared with us. California law divides fault for an accident between the parties. If the bicyclist was riding slowly on the sidewalk and the motorist was not paying attention to sidewalk traffic, the bicyclist may not be the person primarily at fault. However, if our reader was riding quickly against traffic on a sidewalk in San Francisco, the chances are he or she will bear much more of the blame.

In any event, always remember to wear a bicycle helmet. The Vehicle Code requires helmets for those under 18 years old (CVC 21212). However, helmets saves lives, and it is a good idea for every bicyclist to wear one for his or her own safety.

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Christopher B. Dolan

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