Saturday, October 04, 2008

"Taking the lane": Law or Custom?

I recently had an experience of road rage on Wilson Street, Newtown. Details of the event are posted over at SydneyCyclist, including comments from many other cyclists who have experienced the same thing. In summary, I was riding in the middle of the lane of this narrow one way street to avoid car-doors and to stop cars forcefully over-taking me by crossing into the oncoming “counter-flow” cycle lane. I’ve ridden down this street hundreds of times in the last few years and rarely had any problem. However, on this occasion I caused the ire of one cab driver who honked his horn at me then dangerously speed past me.

“Taking the lane” is one of the key things many cyclist needs to learn to ride in traffic. Its a way of asserting your position on the road and riding in a predictable manner so don’t get cut off or driven into the gutter. Its about claiming a bit more space for your own safety. Sadly, “taking the lane” is also one of the hardest skills to teach new cyclists because it involves putting yourself in the line of moving cars. For an explanation of why cyclists “take the lane” check out this video.

This whole road rage event got me wondering where does the law stand when it comes to taking the lane?

Firstly, in the RTA Road Users Handbook it states that:
You must ride with traffic on the left side of the road. (Page 52):
Ok that seems fair enough, but on page 51 it says:
At times bicycle riders may need a full width lane to ride safely due to rough road edges and gravel. Be prepared to slow down and allow the rider to travel away from the kerb.
Hmm… so we can only take the lane but only when there is gravel or rough edges? That's not very helpful. But then again, the handbook also states on page 51:
Allow ample room in case a car door is opened
Hmmm… seems to me that the Road Users Handbook is pretty ambiguous on this issue.

I also checked out the NSW Road Rules 2008 and I couldn’t find anything. Next stop, I headed south to see what I could find and came across document called Share the Road (pdf):
Share the Road
Are cyclists allowed to occupy a whole traffic lane?
Yes, this may be necessary in narrow traffic lanes where there is not enough space for another vehicle to overtake a bicycle safely within the lane.

Bingo, cyclists can "take the lane" when necessary… however I couldn’t find it stipulated in the Victorian road rules. Why? Why not? Finally, I headed over the sea and found the New Zealand Road Code. Here is what it said:
What cyclists would like drivers to know:
Cyclists may ride away from the kerb or occupy a lane – not because they want to annoy drivers, but to:
* avoid drains, potholes or roadside rubbish
* be seen as they come up to intersections with side roads
* discourage drivers from squeezing past where it's too narrow.
Brilliant. Applause. Rapture.

"Taking the lane" is essentially like any other traffic signal. It is sending the driver a message that they should slow down if they want to pass safely because the cyclists should not be pushed into a marginal and dangerous position on the road. However, it seems to me, that this behaviour is generated mostly out of custom or courtesy. As is seen in the NSW Road User's handbook, the laws can be profoundly ambiguous and many drivers can be affronted by what they perceived as cyclists being "arrogant" "road hogs". Positioning oneself in the lane should not be question of psychological and spatial assertion, it should also be a matter of care and legal inclusion.

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