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Bike Law Trends 2021

We’re more than midway through 2021 which means more than half of state legislatures have concluded their legislative sessions – and about a dozen states have had recently passed laws come into effect. It is a great time to reflect on trends in bike laws and what to look for in 2022.

In 2021, we saw four major trends in bike-related laws that might point toward future changes:

E-bikes continue to be legalized and the 3-class system continues to be the preferred framework of state legislatures.

According to People for Bikes, “Model electric bicycle legislation was passed in Alabama (HB 99), Iowa (HF 493), Minnesota (HF 10), Missouri (SB 176), Mississippi (HB 1195), Nevada (SB 369), North Dakota (HB 1148) and Vermont (SB 66) this year.”

Safe passing laws continue to be introduced and adopted.

As of 2021, only 11 states have not adopted a safe passing law with a defined distance (including Oregon and Rhode Island who do not define their distance in feet).

Many recent safe passing laws feature elements from our model safe passing law, including requirements that drivers change lanes to pass if an adjacent lane is available, and allowing drivers to cross double-yellow centerlines if safe in order to provide space to a person bicycling. Some of these features are being added through bills independently where a state already has a safe passing law. Our Safe Passing Law table has been updated to better showcase these features. 

Somewhat troubling, we are also seeing more states restrict the application of their safe passing law by exempting drivers overtaking people in a bike lane or on a shoulder.

Vulnerable Road User laws might deserve some re-examination and discussion. 

View Vulnerable Road User Laws By State

The League of American Bicyclists created a model vulnerable road user law in 2011. That model law includes 1) a definition of a vulnerable road user, 2) a triggering clause that applies the law when a vulnerable road user is seriously injured or killed in a crash, and 3) distinct penalties for a driver who seriously injures or kills a vulnerable road user.

The theory of a vulnerable road user law is that knowledge of enhanced penalties for seriously injuring or killing a vulnerable road user will encourage drivers to drive more safely around vulnerable road users. Enhanced penalties are also a form of providing justice for crash victims. If a vulnerable road user law is not regularly invoked, then victims are deprived of justice and drivers get the message that prosecutors will not punish them harshly for seriously injuring or killing vulnerable road users.

  1. 2021 saw one state, Rhode Island, enact a law similar to our model law. After nine states adopted vulnerable road user laws in the 2010-2015 period, only two have been adopted since 2015.

  2. Maine updated its vulnerable road user law in an attempt to make it more likely to be used. A vulnerable road user law is not a proactive enforcement law. It only is useful after a crash has occurred and a person has been seriously injured or killed. To facilitate the use of their vulnerable road user law, the law in Maine now requires that law enforcement officers must inform a district attorney of their belief that the law can be invoked within 5 days of investigating an accident (the law says accident not crash) and file a final report within 60 days. 

  3. Texas enacted a law that appears inspired by New York City’s right of way law, which was passed in 2014 to make it “a traffic infraction for a driver to fail to yield the right of way to a pedestrian or cyclist, and a misdemeanor when such action resulted in injury or death.” Under Texas’ new law a person who hits a person walking, biking, or using one of several listed devices in a crosswalk with a lit “walk” signal is guilty of a class A misdemeanor, and a felony if serious bodily injury results. 

So far, the National Transportation Safety Board’s call for mandatory helmet laws for all people biking have not led to restrictive laws for people biking.

In 2021, both New York and Vermont considered mandatory bicycle helmet laws. New York’s would have raised the age for requiring helmet use in their current law from 14 to 18. Vermont’s would have created a new law for people under 16 years of age.

In terms of restrictive laws, there was no trend in types of restrictive legislation, but two bills seem worth mentioning:

  1. New York state had a bill that would require “Any person using a bicycle as a primary method of transportation to and from their place of employment” to “complete and pass a bicycle safety course.” While the League supports safe bicycling education, this bill would create a difficult to enforce and costly system of education certificates. This certificate system could potentially be used for pretextual stops of anyone a law enforcement officer suspected of being a bike commuter and directly discourage bicycle commuting.

  2. Maine had a bill that would require bicyclists to operate in a single file when being overtaken by a motor vehicle. This type of law comes up now and then. When North Carolina studied passing bicyclists riding two abreast or single file under back in 2015, the North Carolina legislature decided that allowing two abreast riding was safer. 2021 saw Virginia adopt a law clarifying that bicyclists can ride two abreast while being overtaken.

Since 2012, the League has maintained resources on many bicycle-related traffic laws on our Bike Law University and State Bike Laws pages. Even though we’ve dropped the E of Enforcement from our Bicycle Friendly America program, traffic laws provide important rules of the road for bicycle safety and driver education; they are the basis for civil justice when people are injured, killed, or have their property damaged while bicycling; and they are the basis for criminal justice after a crash. Even if a safe passing law is not proactively enforced – and in practice they rarely are – it can be a crucial part of education, civil liability, and criminal punishment when someone hits a bicyclist. 

Building a Bicycle Friendly America for Everyone will require a commitment to traffic safety that goes beyond recognizing the responsibility of individual drivers for their actions and holds the elected officials, policymakers, planners, designers, and engineers of roadways responsible for creating safe bicycle networks. Bike-related laws are an important expression of the rights of people who bike, the duties owed to them, and the duties they owe to people they share the road with, but relying on perfect behavior for traffic safety is why the US currently has the worst traffic safety record among high-income countries. The League will always protect a person on a bike’s right to the road and we will continue to advocate for building safe systems that enable everyone, of all ages and abilities, to safely and easily choose to go places by bike.