Five cycling-related rules all road users should understand

Somebody once complained to me about a cyclist behaviour that was illegal but "the police never enforce it" – and this annoyed a lot of drivers, they said.

Only one problem, however – as I pointed out, what the cyclists were doing wasn't a breach of the road rules.

The exchange was an example of an issue I have long pondered: how much annoyance, even anger, towards bike riders is as a result of some people simply not knowing or understanding the rules of the road for cyclists?

I thought of this when reading reports of a recent survey in the UK that found a significant percentage of drivers were ignorant about cyclists' rights, with the suggestion that this could be fuelling animosity on the road.

The UK's rules aren't quite the same as Australia's, and I don't know the methodology of the survey, but many of the contentious issues were similar to the ones I've encountered while writing this blog, discussing education with bicycle advocacy groups, and trawling through the hurly burly of social media commentary.

Of course, people who take to the road on two wheels should be aware of the relevant rules for cyclists. But it can be pretty frustrating to be abused for doing the wrong thing, or being "inconsiderate", when you know you're not.

So here are my suggestions for five cycling-related road rules all road users should understand.

Riding two abreast

As VicRoads noted in a recent Facebook post: "Yep, it's 100 per cent legal, and can be safer to do so."

Many people are unaware of the rule, the roads authority says in an article linked to the post, while noting that riding in pairs can "boost cyclists' visibility and reduce their risk of being involved in a crash".


Riders need to be within 1.5 metres of each other, and there are times when cyclists should move into single file when it's safe and practicable, to allow any following vehicles to pass.

On the other hand, a bunch of riders is more compact and therefore often easier to overtake. You can read more about the benefits of riding two abreast here.

A cyclist passing cars on the left.

Traffic beater: A cyclist passing cars on the left. Photo: Nick Moir

Passing on the left

Bicycles can pass to the left of a vehicle, unless it is "turning left and is giving a left change of direction signal", according to the Australian road rules. (WA has different wording.)

This can be a boon for cyclists in traffic that's backed up - I once wrote about a bloke who counted 589 cars he passed on his way to work. 

Getting to the front of an intersection also means "there's less chance of getting 'left hooked' by a car," says Bicycle Network's Garry Brennan.

Keeping to the left

Bike riders "on a road (except a multi-lane road) must drive as near as practicable to the far left side of the road" – but this road rule applies to motor vehicles, too.

A key word is "practicable". As a rider, I keep to the left so that faster vehicles can get past me – but I'm not going to put myself at risk to do so.

The edge of a road can contain uneven surfaces and drain grates, there is the risk of being "doored" if you pass too close to parked cars, and pinch points have to be carefully anticipated.  It can be a complex issue, which I previously discussed in more detail here.

It's worth noting that the VicRoads advice on sharing the road says that it may be necessary for bike riders to occupy a whole traffic lane "in narrow traffic lanes where there is not enough space for another vehicle to overtake a bicycle safely within the lane".

Crossing a line

Minimum distance passing laws are in place or being trialled in NSW, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT, where motorists must leave at least a metre when passing a cyclist in a speed zone of 60km/h or less, and at least 1.5 metres in higher speed zones.

In those jurisdictions, and Tasmania, the law also allows a driver to cross a road's centre line to overtake a bike rider, if it is safe and they have a clear view of approaching traffic.

Bicycle NSW has been taking an interactive "Give a Metre" education program to businesses in order to explain the new rules, and have discovered that "most people don't know you are allowed to cross lines," a spokesperson said.

It's not a rule for cyclist as such, but it's a measure that helps drivers obey the safe passing laws, which are more fully explained here.  

Compulsory bike lanes

In most Australian jurisdictions, a rider must use a bike lane where provided, "unless it is impracticable". (Queensland scrapped the rule a few years ago.)

But the definition of an official bike lane is specific, and there are fewer of them than people might think. Paths shared with pedestrians and many of those painted white lines next to parked cars don't fit the criteria – and cyclists might avoid both for various reasons, such as if they are travelling too fast to share space with walkers, or want to reduce the risk of being "doored".

Even the cycleways in the Sydney CBD aren't official "bike lanes", as I reported earlier this year – and riders booked for not using them have succeeded in having their fines cancelled.

Care and consideration

Ultimately, however, safer roads can rely on the care and consideration people give each other. People can do things for reasons that aren't obvious, they can make mistakes and get things wrong, they can also be inconsiderate or aggressive. It may be easier said than done, but it's just not worth getting angry about any of it. 

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

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