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Motorists and bicyclists - finding a happy median

Automobile drivers are not the only ones enjoying the rural roads of Fallbrook. On weekends especially, a growing number of club cyclists are taking in the country sights and diverse terrain.

Yet, there is a problem. Some drivers and cyclists are trying to determine who has the “right-of-way” and if there is such a thing as true peaceful co-existence between the two.

“Bicyclists are allowed to ride in the center of the lanes just like a motorist would if they are going the speed limit or with the flow of traffic,” explained Eric Newbury, public information officer for the California Highway Patrol in Oceanside. “The problem we have is once [cyclists] start to move slower than the normal speed of traffic they are supposed to move as close to the right as they possibly can so vehicles can pass them.”

Rule exceptions are when bicyclists pass a slow vehicle, prepare to make a left turn at an intersection, private road or driveway, and roadway conditions.

A flock of cyclists have a right to be on the road. However, they cannot dominate the whole lane width if they are going slower than the speed of traffic.

“Once [cyclists] start bogging down the flow of traffic, they can be cited for it; there is a section in the vehicle code that they need to move to the right,” he said.

Newbury said when cyclists get ticketed, more times than not, they had no idea they were breaking the law.

On the flip side, motorists aren’t always on the lookout for cyclists, either. Nonetheless, they must respect their right-of-way because cyclists are entitled to share the road – even if there aren’t any bike lanes. It’s recommended that drivers keep their eyes open for riders before turning right, opening their car door or merging into bike lanes.

“The greater Fallbrook area has always been a popular cycling destination for those riders looking for quiet country roads, challenging hills, and beautiful scenery,” said Kathy Keehan, executive director of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition said. “As there are more riders in general, residents in Fallbrook will probably continue to see more riders out and about – it’s a great compliment to the area that it continues to be such a draw for cyclists.”

According to Keehan, there are 20 official cycling clubs and dozens of unofficial groups in San Diego County. She said that in 2007, the California Office of Traffic Safety reported that 11 cyclists were killed in San Diego County and 805 were injured in car/bike related crashes.

Nearly 42 percent of cyclist injuries resulted from mechanical failures, riding over debris or road hazards. Accidents between motorists and cyclists linger at 18 percent and are equally split when it comes to who was at fault in the incident.

Most of these accidents, Keehan said, happen at intersections.

The San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, a nonprofit organization, offers a host of information for cyclists. This includes an in-depth Traffic Skills 101 course. Students spend time in class and on their bikes.

“Basically, we have educational programs for cyclists to help them be more comfortable on the road; we work with law enforcement with regard to bicycling; we promote and encourage cycling through various community events, and we advise on bike facilities built by various local jurisdictions,” she said.

The tension that exists between cyclists and motorists, Keehan said, revolve around sharing a limited resource: road space. Yet, both have a legal right to be there.

“So, this sets up conflicts when relatively slow cyclists are trying to use the same space as relatively fast auto traffic,” Keehan said.

Keehan said it’s safer for cyclists to pedal in the travel lane on narrow roads. There is reasoning behind this. If a cyclist rides too close to the right, a motorist will try to squeeze by, rather than change lanes.

“Although many motorists feel that they have excellent control of their automobiles, leaving less than three feet of space when passing cyclists is a recipe for disaster; the bicyclists may need to move slightly to avoid something in the road, or the wind from the pass may move the cyclists over,” Keehan said. “So, we encourage cyclists to ride a little bit further to the left, to make it easier to be seen, and to encourage motorists to change lanes to pass.”

As far as Newbury is concerned, everyone operating a vehicle, including a bicycle, needs to make an intelligent decision regarding safety. “Sometimes common sense has to come into play when you tell yourself that maybe you should take another route for the sake of wanting to see new scenery,” he said. “Safety should be paramount with any mode of transportation.”

For more information on the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition, visit

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