DRBC Legal Notes: Rules of the Path
By Ross Seymour
Wisconsin has a short statute on how people are to use bike/ped paths. Those rules are found at Sec. 346.803 of the Wisconsin statutes. The rules apply to “Bicycle Ways.” Bicycle ways are defined as any path or sidewalk designated for the use of bicycles by the relevant governmental body. (Sec. 340.01(5s)) Bicycle ways are distinguished from bicycle lanes. Lanes are for the exclusive use of bicycles while ways are not exclusively for bicycles (presumably to include pedestrians).
First, the bicyclist must exercise due care and give an audible signal when passing another bicyclist or a pedestrian. Due care would mean giving a wide enough berth while passing or taking care to pass on a section where it would be safe. While most bicycle ways around here have good sight lines there are a few places where you can’t see far ahead enough to pass safely. On a regular road these sections would have “no passing” signs or markings.
The audible signal requirement actually comes out of the Rule of the Road for motor vehicles. A little known requirement is that when passing another automobile, the passing car is required to give an audible signal while passing (presumable a toot of the horn). (Sec. 346.07(3)) An “audible signal” is left undefined by the statutes.
Also, this audible signal requirement is one that I’ve spent a bit of time and thought on. Originally, I would just yell out with a “Hey!” or “Passing on the left!” I found that confuses many pedestrians and may even make matters worse. One time I yelled out “on your left” only to have the pedestrian then step left and directly into my path. Cyclists know what “on your left” means but not all pedestrians do. Also, I think pedestrians react to a yell or shout by trying to figure out what they are hearing, “what did that person say?” rather than reacting. Finally, I went back to basics: a bicycle bell. I asked an older gentleman who frequently used the path what he thought would be the best way of letting him know a bicycle was on his path and he said “Whatever happened to bicycle bells?” The bell is an unambiguous sound associated with bikes (and maybe some ring tones). The sound is high and clear, so people can hear it easily. I’m amazed how many times pedestrians or roller bladers listening to ear buds will hear the bell and get out of the way. Try the neat bells at Mirrcycle, including the one I use, which fits into the bar end.
Second, the rules on bicycle ways also required bicyclists to obey each traffic signal or sign facing a roadway that runs parallel and adjacent to the bike way. For example, if the signal at Hwy B and 16 is red and a bike is riding on the path, it is supposed to stop. Don’t see many people doing that but the reason behind the rule is rooted in safety. Traffic will be moving across the biker’s path and should be heeded.
Third, if the bike way has 2-way traffic (which I believe all do in this area) then the biker must ride on the right side of the path. This one is commonly unobserved, especially by pedestrians. There’s a tendency to treat bike paths as roads. Pedestrians often “walk against the traffic,” as they would on a road, but pedestrians (and bikers) are the “traffic.”
Fourth, bikers, when entering a bike way, are to yield to other bikers and pedestrians in the bike way. This means that users already present in the bike way have the right of way, so the entering biker has to wait for the ped or biker to get out of the way before entering.
One final non-legal observation about bike/ped paths involves dogs on leashes. Many pedestrians seem to still believe that bikers fear dogs. I personally haven’t been seriously threatened by a dog since 1987. If bikers get a chance, tell the dog owners that it isn’t the dog that we fear but the leash. A proper combination of large dog and owner, with the leash across the path of the bicyclist, could lead to disaster.
Since this is the inaugural Legal Notes column for DRBC I wanted to introduce myself before getting into this month’s topic.
I’m an attorney in La Crosse and have been since 1987. I’m also an avid bicyclist that loves to bike the back roads of the Driftless area. [editor's note: Ross is also a member of the DRBC!]
My practice is a general one, with a focus on all aspects of employment and labor law. I don’t pretend to have any special expertise in cycling law but I may be able to combine my legal and bicycling experience to provide some insights to readers.
I want to focus on various statutes and cases that guide how cyclists interact with each other, pedestrians, and, most important, vehicles. The laws on bicycles are numerous. A quick check on my legal research service brings up 120 hits for statutes and over 370 cases. Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions for topics. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org