Look Twice for Bikes – Bicycles and the Rules of the Road

Bicycles on roadways tend to strike up a spirited debate in Iowa these days.  The arguments can best be summarized as “Share the Road” vs. “Get off the Road.”
There are really three primary attitudes that surface in this debate.  Some members of the motoring public do not believe they should have to share the road with bicyclists, especially given central Iowa’s extensive bike trail system.  Others argue that bicyclists have just as much right to use the roadway as motorized vehicles and the motoring public should understand and respect that fact.  Finally, another group understands that bicycles will use the roadways but get annoyed and upset when cyclists appear to disregard the rules of the road.
Recently, this debate was fueled when a Polk County Sheriff’s Deputy ticketed a Boone High School teacher for allegedly failing to stop at a stop sign on a bike path.  So who is right?
The answer is surprisingly straight forward.  Iowa Code Section 321.234 addresses the rights and responsibilities of cyclists (in addition to persons riding a horse or driving an animal drawn vehicle) on the roads.  It provides that person’s riding a bicycle on a roadway are subject to the same rules of the road as are applicable to the driver of a vehicle, except of course, those rules that by their nature can’t be applicable to bicycle riding.  In other words, bicycles have the same right to use roadways as a motor vehicle but must also obey the same rules as a motor vehicle.  They must stop at stop signs, yield at yields signs, stop at stop signals, and signal their intentions to turn.  When riding on designated bike paths, they must similarly comply with the posted regulatory signs.
Absent a police officer stopping a cyclist and giving them a ticket for failing to obey a rule of the road, what practical impact does this have?  The answer can be found in accidents involving cyclists.  The fact that bicyclists are required to obey the rules of the road when riding on Iowa’s roadways means that the rules of the road will determine who is at fault in a car vs. bike accident.  If the bicyclist was complying with the rules of the road when struck by a car, the driver of the car will be legally responsible for the damages caused by the injuries to the cyclist.  The flip side is also true. A cyclists can also be legally responsible in an accident with a vehicle if the accident is caused by the cyclists failing to comply with a rule of the road.  It all depends upon who broke the rule of the road and caused the accident. Comparative fault, as it is referred to in court, is applicable to accidents involving bicyclists. 
According to the Iowa Bicycle Coalition there were 5 bicycle fatalities resulting from crashes with motor vehicles last year in the state of Iowa.  There have been two reported so far this year.  Anytime a bicycle collides with a vehicle, the consequences are usually severe. In a State that is becoming increasingly bicycle friendly with events like RAGBRAI and DOT issued “Share the Road” license plates in support of the Iowa Bicycle Coalition, cycling traffic is a way of life and should be expected.  Both the drivers of vehicles and bicyclists should remain vigilant to keep a proper lookout and ensure that the rules of the road are obeyed.  It doesn’t hurt to share the phrase used by motorcyclists: “Look twice for bikes.”  It just may save a life.
For more information regarding GRL Law’s representation of individual’s injured in cycling accidents please visit our Pedestrian and Bicycle Accidents page.