Must we always ride on the shoulder if there is one?


In this photo, the riders are in the lane instead of on the shoulder. Do you think they’re wrong for doing this? Do you think it’s actually against the law? If you came up behind them in your wide truck with opposing traffic, what would you do?

I thought I knew all the answers, but a recent case in Kentucky has me wondering. I ride in KY since it is just across the Ohio River from me, so I’m glad to learn how some cycling laws and precedent cases can make it different — and nutty — to ride there.

If you have read my previous posts, I discuss many times the lawfulness of riding in the lane since bikes are vehicles and are allowed to be there. I have also frequently mentioned the advisability of riding right in the middle of the lane (when there’s no shoulder) to prevent motorists from thinking they can squeeze past you with inches to spare when there is opposing traffic or a blind hill/curve ahead. But in KY this is, disturbingly, not the way it works.

A case has gained much publicity because a woman was ticketed for NOT riding on Hwy 27 as far to right as she could. There was a shoulder, but it was so full of debris and bad pavement, she could ride only to the right of the lane. In her trial, expert witnesses for both the prosecution and defense agreed she had the right to ride in the lane and stated it was impossible to ride on the shoulder there, but the judge ruled against her anyway. Why? The judge felt she she was endangering herself and motorists.

Hwy 27 is a four-lane highway with a 55-mph speed limit. It has much traffic. The woman, Cherokee Schill, needed to take the highway 18 miles each direction to her job – no alternate routes were possible. She is a single mom, and does not have a driver’s license. So, she felt riding a bike was her only viable choice. It’s actually an inspirational story how she was overweight when she began commuting those 36 mi/day by bike and it took her over 3 hours each way. With perseverance over time, her weight decreased, she got stronger, and now she can make it in about an hour (similar to an avid cyclist like myself). Normally she would be heralded and roundly admired by the public and media. Heck, she could have written a book about it!

Instead, Cherokee was repeatedly ticketed after motorists called the police to complain. She felt she was riding legally, as I would have, so she fought the tickets. Unbelievably, she was found guilty of careless driving because the law allows her to use the shoulder. The judge said that she disregarded the “safety and convenience” of motorists, who apparently were incapable of simply changing lanes to pass her. In all 50 states, cyclists are allowed to use the shoulder, but this judge in KY felt “allowed” meant “required”.

And then there’s the issue of how far to the right is “practical”? All states require that a bicyclist ride as far to the right as is practicable, but KY and a few other states are the only ones who consider the entire surfaced pavement to be part of the roadway. In all the other states, you must ride to the right only of the lane, even if there’s a shoulder, because you are a vehicle and have every right to do so. KY’s law sure was news to me!

Let me make sure the reader knows that I do advocate riding on a shoulder if it is ride-able. In my opinion, it is the courteous thing to do. However, only after reading a lawyer’s comments about this Schill case did I learn that from a legal-rights standpoint, if you’re on the shoulder, you have no rights! As this lawyer said, “It is an operational no man’s land (because it is not intended for vehicular operation). It is off the roadway; therefore a bicyclist using it has no right-of-way. She must yield to all traffic making conflicting movements at intersections and driveways. If someone hits her, she has no legal protection. There’s nothing practicable about operating in a space where you are both vulnerable and subservient to every vehicle on a conflicting path.” Wow!

pt-mugu(Too bad all shoulders aren’t this perfect, as here on Pacific Coast Hwy north of Santa Monica where I used to ride when I lived in California.)

Getting back to what is “practicable”, readers of my blog know that I’ve argued many times that the cyclist is the one who must determine what is safe for him. Nearly every cyclist and “reasonable person” agrees with this. If there are huge holes or gravel in the shoulder or on the right part of the lane, the cyclist can see it and must move to the left to avoid them. A motorist approaching from behind may not be able to judge the situation and should give the cyclist the benefit of doubt and assume he’s where he is because he needs to be. I’ve also explained how when there’s no shoulder on a two-lane road, the practical and safe thing to do is to ride right in the middle of the lane to prevent unsafe passings.

But in Schill’s case, the judge decided that the police should determine what is practicable. The police told the judge they thought the shoulder was “just fine”, despite testimony from four (4!) expert witnesses (including the prosecution’s own two) that the shoulder was not ride-able and was risky to Schill.

Okay, so I and all cycling safety experts think the KY police and judge got it wrong, and that KY laws are screwy. Then I got to thinking about my own highway I ride on every single day when I depart my housing complex. Ohio Hwy 63 here is also a four-lane, 50-mph busy highway. Even with a bad shoulder, would I ever consider riding out in the lane?  I, the person who advocates riding in the middle of a shoulderless country road and forcing cars to slow down behind me if there’s opposing traffic? Uhhh, no. I cannot imagine riding out in what seems like a freeway and hoping that the motorists will do what they’re supposed to do.

Since I am forced to ride on Hwy 63 if I wish to ride from home, what would I do if the shoulder were not ride-able? I suppose I could go out with a push broom and clear a path. Fill holes with personal bags of cement (would that be legal?). Have a community rally to get the city to fix the shoulder? Drive my bike every time to begin my rides beyond the bad shoulder? In Schill’s case, she had 36 miles of shoulder, so these solutions or alternatives were not practical. I’m impressed she had the guts to ride out there in the lane. Since she did, she deserves to have her true rights to the road supported and not subverted by impatient motorists who get upset because they might have to slow down for a few seconds. I’ve heard that in Europe, this kind of thing would never happen because cyclists are respected there.


One thought on “Must we always ride on the shoulder if there is one?

  1. Since it’s clear according the the KY judge that she should not be riding outside the shoulder and since it’s been confirmed that the shoulder is unsafe and the only route to her place of employment, should’t that be grounds for a lawsuit against the city for not maintaining safe roads? An individual should be responsible for sweeping debris off 36 miles of highway and for filling potholes. I’m with you on the “just because it’s legal doesn’t mean I’m going to do it.”


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