California has three general categories of bicycle laws. These concern where a cyclist can ride a bike, how riders can or must equip a bike, and restrictions on operating a bike (including the use of helmets and biking after consuming alcohol). In general, per Vehicle Code 21200 VC, bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as motor vehicle drivers. Most violations of California’s bicycle laws are infractions punishable by a fine.
As to where cyclists can ride, the law largely restricts bikers to travel on the right side of the road and within bike lanes (if present). Exceptions to these rules do apply though (for example if a cyclist is turning left or hazardous road conditions make it impractical to comply with the law). Further, bicycles are generally prohibited from bridges and freeways unless a specific law states otherwise.
Rules regarding “equipping” a bicycle mostly pertain to structural elements of a bike and bike components/accessories. For example, bikes have to:
- be small enough for a biker to safely control,
- come with regular seats and handlebars,
- be equipped with fully functional brakes, and
- comply with all rules regarding lights and reflectors for night-time riding.
California bike riders also face several rules when operating their bikes. Some of these include that cyclists:
- must wear a helmet when riding a bike,
- cannot wear earplugs or headphones over both ears when cycling,
- must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians who are walking in crosswalks,
- are required to stop at stop signs, and
- are prohibited from operating or riding a bike while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Most violations of California’s bicycle laws are infractions. Unlike misdemeanors or felonies, infractions are not crimes under California’s criminal court system. Rather, infractions are violations of the law that are punishable by a fine.
A major exception to this rule is biking under the influence, which is a misdemeanor offense. The crime is punishable by a maximum fine of $250. Unlike most other misdemeanors, biking under the influence does not carry the potential of any time in county jail.
Our California bicycle accident attorneys will highlight the following in this article:
- 1. Where can a cyclist ride a bike?
- 2. Are there rules regarding bike equipment?
- 3. Are there restrictions on operating a bike in California?
- 4. What are the penalties for violations of California’s bicycle laws?
- 5. Are there legal defenses?
1. Where can a cyclist ride a bike?
California state law sets forth several rules on where bicycle riders can operate a bike. Rules pertain to the following:
- biking on the road,
- riding on bike lanes and bike paths, and
- riding on sidewalks, freeways, and toll bridges.
The law also sets forth specific laws in this area for riders of mopeds, motorized bicycles, and electric bikes.
1.1. On the road
If a cyclist is moving as fast as the speed of traffic, he/she can ride on any portion of public roads and roadways. This is true provided that the bike rider is obeying all applicable traffic and safety laws.
Otherwise, cyclists must ride on the right side of the road and in the direction of traffic.1
Exceptions to this rule do apply. Bike riders can “take the lane,” or travel from the right-hand side of the road into the center of a lane when:
- overtaking and passing other vehicle drivers moving in the same direction,2
- preparing for a left turn,
- the right half of a roadway is closed to traffic due to hazardous conditions (or other poor road conditions), construction, or repair,
- riding on a one-way street, and
- the roadway is too narrow to comply with the law.3
1.2. Bicycle lanes and bicycle paths
When there is a bike lane on a roadway, bicyclists must ride in the lane when biking slower than traffic. But a biker can drift out of the lane and into the road when:
- overtaking and passing another bicycle, vehicle, or pedestrian within the lane or about to enter the lane,
- preparing for a left turn
- reasonably necessary to leave the bicycle lane to avoid debris or other hazardous conditions, and
- approaching a place where a right turn is authorized.4
Note, though, that once a bike lane is separated from moving traffic, it is no longer a “bike lane.” The lane is technically a “separated bikeway.” In this event, a cyclist may travel outside of the separated bikeway for any reason.5
If a biker is riding on or within a bike path or lane, the cyclist cannot stop or park his/her bike on the path.6
1.3. Sidewalks, freeways, and bridges
If a sidewalk is available for a cyclist to ride upon, local ordinances control on whether using the sidewalk is lawful.7
As to freeways and toll bridges, cyclists cannot ride upon either unless expressly authorized to do so by the California Department of Transportation and local authorities.8
1.4. Mopeds and high/low-speed electric bikes
Local authorities may prohibit electric bikes on equestrian, hiking, or recreational trails.9 The Department of Parks and Recreation can also prohibit electric bikes on bike path or trails.10 So check with your local laws and the Department of Parks and Recreation before taking out your e-bike.
2. Are there rules regarding bike equipment?
Yes. California does impose laws regarding bicycle equipment. These laws concern:
- the structural aspects of a bike (for example, bike size), and
- bike components and accessories.
2.1. Structural requirements
When it comes to bike size, California law says that a bike has to be small enough so that riders can safely:
- stop it,
- support it with one foot on the ground, and
- start it.11
As to seats, bike riders must have a permanent and regular seat attached to their bikes. The only exception is for a bike that is designed by a manufacturer to be ridden without a regular seat.12
If an adult is carrying a passenger who weighs less than 40 pounds, the passenger must be riding in a seat that restrains him/her and keeps him/her free from moving parts.13
With regards to handlebars, the law says that they must be at the rider’s shoulders or at a level below.14
2.2. Bike components and accessories
All bikes in California must have fully functional brakes where a rider can make a one-wheel braked stop on dry, level, and clean pavement.15
When it comes to riding bikes at night, bicycles must be equipped with the following:
- red reflectors (or flashing red lights) that get attached to the rear of the bike,
- white lights or yellow reflectors that get attached to either a bike’s pedals or to the cyclist’s shoes or ankles,
- white lights or yellow reflectors that get attached to each side of the front half of the bicycle, and
- red or white reflectors that get attached to each side of the rear half of the bike.16
3. Are there restrictions on operating a bike in California?
Yes. There are a few restrictions on operating a bike in the State of California. These pertain to:
- worn and carried items,
- pedestrians and parking of bikes, and
- alcohol and drug use.
3.1. Worn and carried/attached items
All bicyclists and bike passengers under 18 years of age must wear a helmet when riding upon a bike. At night, it is permissible for riders to attach a headlight to their helmets.17
Cyclists are prohibited from wearing earplugs or headsets if they cover both ears. The covering of a single ear is acceptable. Hearing aids are also allowed under the law (even if used on both ears).18
As to cell phones, bike riders are allowed to use a handheld device while riding their bikes. The practice, though, is not encouraged for safety reasons since cell phone use contributes to bike accidents and collisions.
If cyclists are carrying items while operating their bikes, they can do so only provided that they can maintain at least one hand on the handlebars.19
Finally, bike riders cannot attach their bike to any car while traveling on the road. This is often referred to as “hitching rides,” and it is prohibited under the law.20
3.2. Pedestrians and parking
Just like motorists, cyclists must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians walking in:
- marked crosswalks, or
- unmarked crosswalks.21
Bike riders must also yield the right-of-way to totally or partially blind pedestrians when they are carrying a white cane or using a guide dog.22
Recall that VC 21200 says that bike riders have the same responsibilities as drivers of motor vehicles. This means bikers in California have to stop at stop signs. Many riders fail to do so.23
When it comes to parking a bike, bikers cannot:
- leave their bicycles laying on their side on a sidewalk, or
- park their bikes in a way that obstructs pedestrians.24
3.3. Alcohol and drug use
It is strictly prohibited under California law for a person to ride a bicycle on a public road, path, or highway while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or both.25
California law says that a person is “under the inﬂuence” of alcohol or drugs if:
- his mental or physical abilities are so impaired that,
- he is no longer able to drive with the caution of a sober person.26
A judge or jury determines if a person is under the influence by looking at all the facts of the case.27
4. What are the penalties for violations of California’s bicycle laws?
Most violations of California’s bicycle laws are infractions.
Infractions are not considered crimes under the California justice system. Rather, they are violations of the law that are punishable by a fine.
While fines can vary depending on which law a cyclist violates, they are usually in the amount of $250.00.
Note, though, that cycling under the influence is a criminal offense. Namely, the crime is a misdemeanor that is punishable by:
- a fine of up to $250.00, and
- no time in county jail.28
Note, too, that many violations of California’s cycling laws will result in a biker receiving a point on his/her California DMV driving record.
Points put on a person’s record are ultimately reported to his/her insurance carrier. The result is typically an increase in the person’s insurance rates for several years.
A problem also occurs when points accumulate over time. If a person in California receives 4 points in 12 months, 6 points in 24 months, or 8 points in 36 months, the DMV can either suspend or revoke his/her driving privileges.
5. Are there legal defenses?
A bicyclist charged with violating a California biking law does not have to automatically plead guilty or admit that he/she was at fault.
The cyclist can always challenge a traffic ticket by raising a legal defense. But, if this is done, it is best for the bicyclist to contact an experienced attorney for help.
5.1. Common defenses to violations of California’s biking laws
Every case will have different underlying facts and circumstances. This means defenses will change depending on the facts involved. However, two common defenses that cyclists typically raise in these cases include:
- there was an emergency that forced the bicyclist to disobey the law, and
- the police officer who stopped the cyclist made a mistake.
No matter which defense a biker raises, he/she will have to support it with credible evidence. The best evidence typically includes:
- photographs, and
- surveillance video.
5.2. Contact an experienced lawyer for help
Bicyclists can represent themselves if they challenge a bike-related ticket. However, it is usually in a cyclist’s best interests to contact a skilled California defense attorney for help.
There are three main reasons why it is advantageous to hire a skilled lawyer. These are:
- prosecutors typically offer better deals to defendants with lawyers,
- defense attorneys know how to get charges reduced and dismissed, and
- if a defendant has an attorney, the defendant does not have to go to court – the defendant’s lawyer can go on his/her behalf.
For additional help…
If you or a loved one has been injured and would like to pursue a bicycle accident lawsuit, we invite you to contact our law firm at the Shouse Law Group. Our California personal injury attorneys provide both free consultations and legal advice you can trust.
Our lawyers also represent clients throughout California, including those in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco.
- California Vehicle Code 21202 VC.
- See, for example, People v. Escarcega (2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 362.
- See same, CVC 21202. If a person moves into the center of a lane, he/she can only do so when reasonably safe and after giving any appropriate hand signals.
- California Vehicle Code 21208 VC (or, CVC 21208).
- California Streets and Highway Code 890.4d SHC.
- California Vehicle Code 21211.
- California Vehicle Code 21206 VC.
- California Vehicle Code 21960 and 23330 VC.
- California Vehicle Code 21207.5 VC. Note also that people cannot ride the aforementioned bikes unless they are wearing an approved helmet and are 16 years of age or older. AB-1909 (2022).
- See same.
- California 21201c VC (or CVC 21201c).
- California Vehicle Code 21204 VC.
- See same.
- California Vehicle Code 21201b VC.
- California Vehicle Code 21201a VC.
- California Vehicle Code 21201d VC.
- California Vehicle 21212 VC (or CVC 21212). See, for example, In re Devon C. (2000), 79 Cal.App.4th 929.
- California Vehicle Code 27400 VC.
- California Vehicle Code 21205 VC.
- California Vehicle Code 21210 VC.
- California Vehicle Code 21950 VC.
- California Vehicle Code 21963 VC.
- See again CVC 21200.
- California Vehicle Code 21210 VC.
- California Vehicle Code 21200.5 VC.
- CALCRIM No. 2110 – Driving Under the Influence. Judicial Council of California Criminal Jury Instructions (2017 edition). See also People v. Schoonover (1970) 5 Cal.App.3d 101; and, People v. Enriquez (1996) 42 Cal.App.4th 661.
- See same.
- California Vehicle Code 21200.5 VC.