Cycling Recycled

Memorandum to the Traffic Safety Committee of the Town of Los Altos Hills

Lester Earnest <les at>



The September issue of Our Town newsletter includes an article on page 2 titled "Sheriff's Bicycle Safety Notes" that appears to me to be slightly anti-cyclist, so I offer here some comments to the Traffic Safety Committee, the author of the article and the newsletter editor. I also will brag some about my involvement in these matters beginning in the distant past.


Similar articles by deputies have appeared in earlier newsletters over the years and all had the same slant. On those occasions I was invited to write clarifications of the law even though I am not a lawyer but happen to be able to read and understand English, including the California Vehicle Code (CVC). However this time I will back off and propose a radical change in Town policies for your consideration but instead of taking that up immediately I will write it up shortly so that you will have time to think about it before the October meeting.


Bicycle bigotry is, of course, a popular viewpoint in our town with the result that most Committee members, the NIMBYs who appear before us, members of the Council and the town staff generally pay little attention to cycling safety issues, including the fifty-year-old grossly unsafe design of the I-280/Page Mill interchange that was pointed out in a 1965 Council Resolution. A later Council supported my successful efforts to get it partly fixed in the mid-1990s but the resulting improvements were destroyed by a Caltrans redesign two years later.  As Committee members have likely noticed, I gave up some time ago on trying to get this body to address cycling safety issues because the majority clearly don’t give a damn. For that reason I have pursued other channels such as commenting directly with County authorities on their redesign proposals. However my messages somehow didn’t get through with the result that their current proposal would introduce a new safety blunder that would be lethal for cyclists and, to some extent, for pedestrians. Happily I now have some potentially good news on that which I will report at the meeting on Tuesday.


Heads Up!  The cited article begins with CVC 21212(a) which requires that people younger than 18 wear a suitable helmet while cycling and specifies that the helmet must meet the standards of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) or the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. That gives me an opportunity to brag about the fact that I accidentally played a central role in bringing that law into existence, beginning with my involvement in bicycle racing when my two sons dragged me into it in 1973.


Back then I raced a bit in my age group and noticed that the officiating was rather uneven, so I began doing that, which forced me to read the racing rules. I found them to be ambiguous and generally badly written so I began submitting rule changes, all of which were accepted by the national Board of Directors of the United States Cycling Federation (USCF). Given that I had invented the Spelling Checker in 1961 and an advanced document compiler in 1971 I then offered to computerize the USCF Rulebook, started fixing it and was promptly appointed Editor of that annual publication. I then rewrote all racing rules for road and track and got them adopted in 1979, at which time I was also elected to the national Board and was put directly in charge of all bike racing in the U.S., which involved supervising fifty-some salaried District Representatives, most of who oversaw racing in a single state. All I received was a few hundred dollars each year to cover the cost of many phone calls I needed to make each day to manage them, including hiring and firing.


While personally officiating at thousands of bicycle races including local, national and international, I observed that nearly all serious injuries were the result of riders wearing inadequate head protection. In that era most racers wore so-called “leather hairnets” which consisted of several leather tubes containing padding, which provided negligible impact protection. I found a recently developed strong helmet standard and began advocating its adoption, which turned out to be a very unpopular proposal. In fact I eventually lost my seat on the Board of Directors as a result but as a parting gesture I wrote a report refuting all arguments against adopting such a rule and, when another rider died in a race held near the Los Angeles site where the Board was meeting they finally got the message and adopted that rule so that it took effect on January 1, 1986. For a more complete account of how that happened see The Brain Bucket Bash.


A short time after the strong helmet rule came into effect, the riders came to understand that it was a really good idea and other bike racing organizations around the world began picking it up. When recreational cyclists saw that the racers were wearing strong helmets they too adopted them (more in the U.S. than in Europe) and subsequently legislators started adopting strong helmet regulations for juveniles such as the California Law cited above. The net result has been thousands of lives saved and hundreds of thousands of serious head injuries prevented. I’m proud of that.


After getting that bicycle racing rule adopted I joined the committees developing helmet standards and helped write both of the standards cited in the current California law. I am still serving on ASTM International Committee F08.53, which develops helmet standards of all kinds including for football, motorcycling, ice hockey, equestrian competition, etc. I persuaded them to add helmet standards for downhill mountain bike racing and for trick bicycle riding but when some roller skating racers approached me with a request for a helmet standard for their sport I reviewed the speeds and drop heights involved and concluded that the existing bicycle helmet standard would work well. However when I submitted that proposal to the Committee I ran into a brick wall. It turned out that the helmet manufacturers, whose representatives hold a dominant position on the Committee, wanted to pretend that different helmets were required for these two sports, which would allow them to sell more helmets. There were and are very few helmet users like me on the Committee but I then threatened to write a public article exposing their misconduct and they eventually capitulated.


After about 25 years I continue to review proposed changes to helmet standards to keep them up to date and do this at my own expense while choosing to focus mainly on cycling and roller skating standards. New helmet padding material has recently been developed that looks likely to reduce the frequency of concussions in helmets of all types but it must be rigorously tested before being incorporated.


Full Stop!  The third paragraph of the article discusses “CVC 22450 (a) that requires all motor vehicles to come to a full and complete stop at all posted stop signs.” That wording puzzles me a bit because I don’t how to make a full stop that is incomplete. Incidentally the cited law actually says that vehicles “shall stop” but does not say a “full stop.” Thus law enforcers have some discretion.


The article goes on to say  It is our experience that many cyclists feel they do not have to obey stop signs because they claim they can see that an intersection is clear, or say that it is inconvenient to unclip their shoes.” The reason that cyclists say that they can see when an intersection is clear is that it is true. They are generally moving much slower than motorists and their field of view is not encumbered by window posts and other paraphernalia found in cars and trucks. This observation will have a bearing on one of the policy changes that I will suggest in a later article.


The remark about cyclists having to unclip their shoes is typical of legal nonsense invented by cops and motorists. There is no legal requirement that either motorists or cyclists put a foot down while stopping. Those who think that a cyclist can’t stop without putting a foot down should consider the fact that the record for balancing a bike while stopped is over ten hours.


Far Right!  The article surrounding that of the Sheriff has a section titled “Sharing the Road” in which cyclists are told to:

Š      Stay as far to the right on the road as you safely can.

Š      Cyclists should ride single file on a busy or narrow road.

Those statements are inaccurate interpretations of CVC 21202, which reads as follows. It clearly makes cyclists second-class road users but not to the extent claimed in that article. Incidentally Section 21656 mentioned in paragraph (3) is the requirement that any slow moving vehicle that gets five or more vehicles backed up behind it must move off the road at the earliest opportunity.


21202 (a) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway except under any of the following situations:


(1) When overtaking and passing another bicycle or vehicle proceeding in the same direction.

(2) When preparing for a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.

(3) When reasonably necessary to avoid conditions (including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, surface hazards, or substandard width lanes) that make it unsafe to continue along the right-hand curb or edge, subject to the provisions of Section 21656. For purposes of this section, a "substandard width lane" is a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.

(4) When approaching a place where a right turn is authorized.

(b) Any person operating a bicycle upon a roadway of a highway, which highway carries traffic in one direction only and has two or more marked traffic lanes, may ride as near the left-hand curb or edge of that roadway as practicable.

Note that the requirement that cyclists stay to the right has a number of exceptions in paragraph (3), one of which is substandard lane width. Police generally avoid talking about this important exception to the “stay right” rule because it means that a cyclist in a substandard lane, like many in Los Altos Hills, has the right to move into the center of the lane so as to block overtaking traffic. I do that when it appears to be the safest choice though this often results in motorists becoming irate, especially when I respond to horn blowing with a one-finger salute.


The statement that cyclists should ride single file on a busy or narrow street is okay as an opinion but it is not a legal requirement, both for the reason given just above and because if one cyclist needs to pass another they have a legal right to do so. Nevertheless many people, including some police, erroneously claim that “single file” is a legal requirement.


Incidentally the “stay right” rule helps make the proposed new traffic circle design for the I-280/Page Mill interchange ridiculously dangerous for cyclists, who are required to ride on the outer rim of the circle when there is faster traffic coming by. Given that there are two-lane exits from the circle, a cyclist trying to ride through during rush hour would be likely to die in the attempt. There is a fairly simple way to fix this that I hope will be adopted.


Cyclists Passing Motorists.  Motorists are sometimes obligated to stay out of the way of cyclists but generally don't. On a steep and twisting downhill route, such as the mountainous part of Page Mill Road, cyclists can often safely go faster than motorists because they can lean into the curves. Note that in accordance with CVC 21202 (a) (quoted just above) a cyclist who is traveling faster than nearby motorists can use the entire lane and when they come to a place where there is room to pass, the motorist is obligation to stay to the right and allow that. In practice I have seen a number of motorists deliberately block cyclists but I have never heard of one being ticketed for that.

Incidentally I started reading the California Vehicle Code carefully in 1982 after encountering a California Highway Patrolman who was known to be a bicycle bigot but the CHP never did anything about it -- see Officer Rupp, Living Legend.


Looking Ahead.  In my next note I will advocate choosing between one of two alternative radical changes in traffic safety policies that will fix some of the problems cited above and will make traffic flow smoother, faster and safer.


[To see that proposal go to Travel Faster by Yielding]