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Barrister Bits - Cell Phone Bicyclist- October 2015


Barrister Bits -  Cell Phone Bicyclist - October 2015

by Debra A. Newby

by Debra A. Newby, Attorney at Law

DEAR READERS: Do you have a legal question on your mind? If so, please email me. Your name will remain confidential. This Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship. 

Dear Debra: As I was driving through Graton the other day, a bicyclist was using his cell phone while peddling. He also made a “California stop” at one of the few stop signs in town…slowing but not stopping. Is this legal? 

    —Signed: Dismayed Driver

Dear Dismayed:

Good question. Allow me first to address your inquiry regarding whether the bicyclist broke the law when he failed to come to a complete stop at the stop sign. The short answer is…Yes. Basically, once the wheels on the bike begin to turn, that bicycle legally morphs into a motor vehicle. Rephrased, a bicyclist, once peddling, meets the definition of a motor vehicle, and thus must follow the “rules of the road”, unless specifically exempted. (See CA Vehicle Code 21200.) 

Bicyclists must obey all traffic signals (stop signs, traffic lights, etc.). They must signal when they turn, and give advance notice, just like a car. Indeed, if a bicyclist is peddling after consuming too many beers at the local pub, he or she can even be cited for a “BUI” (biking under the influence – see CA Vehicle Code 21200.5). A bicyclist should also always ride in the same direction as traffic. (CA Vehicle Code 21650.1)

Not a day goes by without me seeing a bicyclist, either riding solo or in a group, traveling down Bohemian Highway, or Graton Road, or Coleman Valley Road---all popular biking routes. Are some west county roads too narrow for all the traffic to share the space? Yes, but that was their original design, as most visitors to our lovely Russian River area rode the train as our serene playground as it was first developing. Do most bicyclists honor the rules of the road? Yes, in my opinion. Those who do violate the rules of the road while on a bike, probably adopt the same bad and discourteous habits while driving a car, in my view. Just my two-cents worth.

Now, as to your question about cellphone usage while biking. That is a little trickier. We all know that the use of cell phones is prohibited while driving, unless you are using a “hands-free” device (or making an emergency medical call). California’s cell phone law was first proposed some eight years ago by Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto). Oddly, enough, my research indicates that the original version of the bill also included language that prohibited texting while biking. This provision was omitted before the language became the law, though. Then, in 2010 or 2011, Senator Simitian introduced another bill that specifically applied to bicyclists and prohibited texting while biking. Violators were subject to civil penalties. I believe that bill passed, but Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it. About the same time a few years ago, other jurisdictions, like New York and Chicago, were passing laws that prohibited texting while biking. It was a “hot topic”. 

Surprisingly, I could not find a specific law in California that prohibits use of a cellphone while biking. If I am mistaken, I am sure my readers will enlighten me. However, common sense dictates that bicycling requires steady attention, and that the use of a cell phone would add an unnecessary distraction. If a bicyclist was operating a cellphone, and as a direct result, caused injuries to another, I would argue that the bicyclist is still liable, even absent a specific law prohibiting cellphone usage, as he or she failed to use due care in the safe operation of the “motor vehicle”.  

Bottom line: If we pay attention and be courteous to all the users of the road, odds are, our intertwined driving and biking experiences will be smooth and carefree. Samuel Johnson, 18th Century poet, perhaps had a similar viewpoint when he penned, “What we hope to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence”.

Barrister Bits by Debra A. Newby, Attorney at Law

Debra A. Newby is a resident of Monte Rio and has practiced law for 33 years. She is a member of the California, Texas and Sonoma County Bar Associations and currently maintains an active law office in Santa Rosa which emphasizes personal injury law (bicycle/motorcycle/motor vehicle accidents, dog bites, trip and falls, etc.) and expungements (clearing criminal records). Debra can be reached via email(, phone (707-526-7200), or fax (526-7202). 


Within the body of Debra Newby’s recent “Barrister Bits” column, she responded to a readers question about the legality of using a cell phone while riding a bicycle. While framing her response in the context of bicycles subject to the same laws as motor vehicles, she commented, “Do most bicyclists honor the rules of the road? Yes, in my opinion.”

I assume her opinion is based on her experiences with bicyclists on the road, but that opinion is absolutely the opposite I have formed from my encounters. From my direct and consistent experience, most bicyclists either don’t know that they are subject to motor vehicle laws, or simply do not care. When I encounter bicyclists, either solo or in groups, I am extra cautious, as it has been my experience that one or more of them will blithely do as they please in most traffic situations. I rarely find a cyclist who actually stops at a stop sign, turns from the proper lane, or for that matter, bothers to signal when they intend to turn.

Here are just a few of my more amazing encounters over the last few months. I have had cyclists (1) stop abreast of me on the right, at the stop light at Mueller & 116, and then, when the light first turned green, dash ahead and turn left directly in front of me, and another (2) race through a right turn –against the light at Occidental & 116 - merge on my right as I traveled south on 116,  then sprint ahead, swerve in front of me completely across the highway to gain access to the bike path on the opposite side of 116, and yet another (3) while riding north on 116, approach a red light at Occidental & 116, slow but not stop, make a right turn, travel thirty feet, turn left across traffic, head back to the intersection, turn right and continue to travel north.

Of course there a cyclists who obey the law, I do see them every now and then, but very rarely. I’m happy to share the road, but both cyclists and drivers would be a great deal safer if the cyclists acknowledged the motor vehicle laws by following them, not by ignoring them. 

On the bright side, I have seen an increase in the number of cyclists who are wearing bright fluorescent clothes and using flashing lights, even in daylight. I applaud those choices; they help me share the road with them more safely.

Steve Tierra, Graton