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Legally Speaking- To impede or not to impede

By Bob Mionske

Legally Speaking – with Bob Mionske: To impede or not to impede, that is the question

Published Apr. 20, 2006 on VeloNews

Dear Bob:

I have the good fortune to live in Southern Minnesota where the roads are in good condition, and relatively free of traffic. Our club rides are always quite enjoyable and take us on some very pleasant routes through local farmland. Most of the roads we ride on have very minimal traffic,to the point where a car goes past us (in either direction) often only once every 10 or 15 minutes. In general, most motorists are quite considerate, but as always there are a few who feel that bicyclists simply do not belong on the roads. Minnesota law states that bicyclists are allowed to ride two abreast, as long as we stay to the right side of the road, and do not occupy more than one lane. Another provision is that we do not “impede the normaland reasonable movement of traffic.” Those motorists who do get angry that bicycles are on the road often tell us that we are not allowed to impede traffic, and this often seems to be the major basis for their complaints.This occurs even when there is no other traffic on the road, and the car may only have to slow for a few seconds until safe to pass us. So my question for you is from a legal standpoint, what exactly constitutes ”impeding the normal and reasonable flow of traffic? Of interest, these same motorists never seem to get upset when they end up behind some large piece of farm equipment driving down the road at a pace much slower than bicycles.

Thanks

T. M.
Minnesota

 

Dear T.M.,

Don’t you hate it when your ride on the beautiful roads in southern Minnesota, and some motorist who has no problem waiting behind some slow-moving farm vehicle, comes up behind you and starts quoting the MinnesotaTraffic Regulations chapter and verse to prove that you are violating the law?…So are you? I love questions like this, because the answer is easy, and it’s the right outcome:You are not impeding traffic, and therefore, you are not violating the law by riding in the right lane. Let’s find out why.

Let’s start with some basics. First, in Minnesota, Section 169.01(2)of the Traffic Regulations defines a “vehicle” as "Every device in, upon, or by which any person or property is or may betransported or drawn upon a highway, excepting devices used exclusively upon stationary rails or tracks." Now that’s a pretty inclusive definition of vehicle, and includes farm tractors, trailers, and yes, bicycles. So what rights do bicycles have on Minnesota roads? According to Section 169.222(1) of the Traffic Regulations, “all of the rights and all of the duties applicable to the driver of anyother vehicle…” However, as you’ve mentioned, Section 169.222(4) of the Minnesota Traffic Regulations also requires that 

“Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway, except under any of the following situations: When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions, including fixed or moving objects, vehicles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or narrow width lanes, that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge. Persons riding bicycles upon a roadway or shoulder shall not ride more than two abreast and shall not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic and, on a laned roadway, shall ride within a single lane."

There are a few interesting observations to be made about the language of this statute. First, the statute requires you to ride “as close as practicable”to the right. This is standard statutory language across the United States, and merely means that you have to ride as close to the right as is feasible under the conditions. It is not a commandment to ride as close to the rightas possible to the right under all conditions. In fact, the legislature suggests several conditions under which a cyclist would be justified innot riding to the right. Second, did you notice that there’s no requirement in the statute for a cyclist to ride anywhere other than the road? The statute anticipates that cyclists will be riding “upon a roadway or shoulder,” and that on laned roadways, cyclists can only occupy one lane. This language indicates that the legislature intends that bicycles will be riding on the road.Third, did you notice the words “normal and reasonable?” What is the“normal and reasonable” movement of traffic? And, as you asked, what constitutes impeding “the normal and reasonable movement of traffic”? For an answer, let’s ride over to Ohio.

In 1999, Steven Selz, a cyclist, was cited for “impeding traffic” inTrotwood, Ohio (see You gotta fight for your right to slooooow down). At trial, the cyclist’s attorney focused on establishing the following points:The cyclist was riding at a reasonably normal bicycling speed;There was no posted minimum speed limit; and the established maximum speed limit was not only an unreasonable speed for a bicycle, it was an unsafe speed for a bicycle.This part of the cyclist’s case focused on the “reasonable movement of traffic”—the bicycle was traveling at a reasonable speed. But is it reasonable for a bicycle to travel at a reasonable speed if other traffic on the roadis capable of moving at a faster speed? According to his attorney, Steve Magas…well, I’ll let him tell it in his own words:

I argued that the most important word in the Trotwood ordinancewas the word “traffic.” “Traffic” cannot be impeded, so just what is “traffic.”State law tells us that traffic includes far more than cars and trucksand buses. “Traffic” is defined to include “…pedestrians, ridden or herded animals, vehicles, streetcars, trackless trolleys, and other devices eithersingly or together while using any highway for purposes of traveling.”Thus a bicycle operator IS traffic — the bicycle operator is part of theclass of people protected by the statute.”Traffic” is a broad piece of fabric, with many different threads.Not all “traffic” goes, or is capable of going, 45mph. By including these slower moving objects in the definition of “traffic” the legislature isallowing for varying speeds of vehicles on the roadways. If something isgoing as fast as it can on a roadway on which it has a right to proceed,how can it be “impeding” traffic?

As he notes in his account, the trial court didn’t buy that argument, and Selz didn’t get the yellow jersey. However, Selz wasn’t quite ready to quit just yet, so he advanced to the next stage—The Ohio Court of Appeals.There, the Justices

agreed with Selz that the ordinance cannot reasonably beread as prohibiting bicycles from using a public highway. In this regard,the case before us is similar to Lott v. Smith…That court held that an operator of a corn combine could not be found to have violated the statute…The corn combine was traveling at or near its highest possible speed…The facts in the case before us are virtually identical, except that a bicycle is substituted for the corn combine. In both cases the vehicle was being operated at, or close to, the highest possible speed. In either case, holding the operator to have violated the slow speed statute wouldbe tantamount to excluding operators of these vehicles from the public roadways, something that each legislative authority has not clearly expressed an intention to do.

Based on that analysis, the Ohio court held in Trotwood v. Selz that

a bicyclist is not in violation of the ordinance when heis traveling as fast as he reasonably can.

Now let’s ride back to Minnesota. As we saw in Ohio, the statutes are virtuallyidentical. In fact, let’s look at Minnesota’s definition of “traffic”;under Section 169.01(44) of the Minnesota Traffic Regulations

“Traffic” means pedestrians, ridden or herded animals, vehicles,street cars, and other conveyances, either singly or together, while usingany highway for purposes of travel.

Almost exactly what Ohio’s code says. Now, the appellate decision in Trotwoodv. Selz wasn’t explicitly based on that definition, but let’s look again at an interesting point Selz’ attorney raised at trial:

a bicycle operator IS traffic — the bicycle operator ispart of the class of people protected by the statute.”Traffic” is a broad piece of fabric, with many different threads.Not all “traffic” goes, or is capable of going, 45mph. By including theseslower moving objects in the definition of “traffic” the legislature isallowing for varying speeds of vehicles on the roadways. If something isgoing as fast as it can on a roadway on which it has a right to proceed,how can it be “impeding” traffic?

That’s basically what the Ohio Court of Appeals said. Keep in mind that the holding in Ohio isn’t binding authority upon courts in Minnesota; however, it is persuasive authority, which makes it extremely likely that any caseof a similar nature in Minnesota would be decided the same way.Now, what I’ve really done is tell you what doesn’t constitutei mpeding the normal and reasonable movement of traffic, but that’s really all the courts have told us, and as long as you’re riding within what thelaw allows, you won’t run the risk of impeding traffic. What do you think? Is it timefor a ride?

Good luck,

Bob

(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi-law student-Lewis and Clark)

 

This article, To Impede Or Not To Impede, That Is The Question, was origially published on VeloNews on April 20, 2006.

Now read the fine print:
 
Bicycle and the Law, Bob MionskeBob Mionske is a former competitive cyclist who represented the U.S. at the 1988 Olympic games (where he finished fourth in the road race), the 1992 Olympics, as well as winning the 1990 national championship road race.
 
After retiring from racing in 1993, he coached the Saturn Professional Cycling team for one year before heading off to law school. Mionske's practice is now split between personal-injury work, representing professional athletes as an agent and other legal issues facing endurance athletes (traffic violations, contract, criminal charges, intellectual property, etc).
 
Mionske is also the author of Bicycling and the Law, designed to be the primary resource for cyclists to consult when faced with a legal question. It provides readers with the knowledge to avoid many legal problems in the first place, and informs them of their rights, their responsibilities, and what steps they can take if they do encounter a legal problem.
 
If you have a cycling-related legal question, please send it to mionskelaw@hotmail.com Bob will answer as many of these questions privately as he can. He will also select a few questions each week to answer in this column. General bicycle-accident advice can be found at www.bicyclelaw.com.
 
Important notice:
The information provided in the "Legally speaking" column is not legal advice. The information provided on this public web site is provided solely for the general interest of the visitors to this web site. The information contained in the column applies to general principles of American jurisprudence and may not reflect current legal developments or statutory changes in the various jurisdictions and therefore should not be relied upon or interpreted as legal advice. Understand that reading the information contained in this column does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Bob Mionske. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained in the web site without first seeking the advice of legal counsel.

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