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Bicycle law is a specialized field of law relating to the use of bicycles. Although bicycle law is a relatively new specialty within the law, first appearing in the late 1980s, its roots date back to the 1880s and 1890s, when cyclists were using the courts to assert a legal right to use the roads. In 1895, George B. Clementson, an American attorney, wrote The Road Rights and Liabilities of Wheelmen, the first book on bicycle law, in which he discussed the seminal cases of the 1880s and 1890s, which were financed by Albert Pope of Columbia Bicycles, and through which cyclists gained the right to the road.[1]

By the mid 1980s, a substantial body of law pertaining to bicycles had developed, and a few attorneys had begun specializing in bicycle law. Today, attorneys specializing in bicycle law represent professional athletes, as well as average cyclists, on issues ranging from professional contracts, to traffic accidents, to traffic tickets. In addition, attorneys specializing in bicycle law may advise cyclists on other legal issues, such as bicycle theft, insurance, harassment of cyclists, defective products law, and non-professional contractual issues.


Prelude: The Development of the Bicycle[]

The first forerunner of the bicycle was the laufmaschine, a two-wheeled "running machine" which was invented in 1817, and enjoyed a brief surge in popularity among the fashionable elements of London society during the summer of 1819. Improvements in design were realized over the next four decades, with various two, three and four-wheeled machines being propelled by treadles, pedals, or hand cranks. However, the first major advance in bicycle design occurred in 1863 or 1864, when Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement fitted a crank and pedal combination to the front wheel hub; the machine they invented was the velocipede, nicknamed the "boneshaker" due to its rough-riding characteristics. The Velocipede enjoyed a surge of popularity from 1868-1870. In the 1870s, another major innovation in bicycle design occurred with the invention of the high-wheeled bicycle, nicknamed the penny-farthing. This style of bicycle remained the popular design throughout the 1870s. In the 1880s, the final major innovations in bicycle design were realized, with the invention of the safety bicycle in 1885, and the pneumatic tire in 1888.[2]

Thus, the development of the bicycle occurred over a period of some seventy years, during which time it enjoyed three separate booms in popularity. And yet, throughout that seventy year period, cyclists had no legal right to use the roads or walkways. With the twin developments of the safety bicycle and the pneumatic tire, bicycles enjoyed a new boom of popularity, beginning in the 1880s, and culminating in the bicycle craze of the 1890s. Until the 1890s, the bicycle had been the plaything of wealthy young men. Now, for the first time, the bicycle came within reach of the middle class, and by the end off the decade, within the reach of the working class. The resulting tidal wave of popularity meant that roads which had hitherto been the province of horses and horse-drawn carriages were now increasingly crowded with cyclists; in some large cities, recreational cyclists numbered in the hundreds of thousands on the weekends.[3] This enormous surge in new cyclists inevitably led to chaotic conditions and conflict between cyclists, horses and horse-drawn carriages, and pedestrians. This conflict was exacerbated by the fact that few traffic laws were in place to regulate traffic. Furthermore, nobody really knew if existing laws even applied to cyclists. Unused to sharing the roads, carriage-drivers challenged the right of cyclists to even be on the road, sometimes with physical force, and sometimes with the force of law.[4] Municipalities passed restrictive ordinances, and eager to collect a new source of revenue from fines, law enforcement agencies set creative traps to ensnare unwary cyclists.[5] Thus, the stage was set for a legal battle cyclists asserting their right to use the roads, and those who would ban them from the roads.

The Right to the Road[]

The Statutory Right to the Road[]

The New York State Legislature took the first step toward resolving the conflict, with the passage in 1887 of "An Act in Relation to the Use of Bicycles and Tricycles." This statute established for the first time that bicycles are "carriages," and that cyclists are "entitled to the same rights and subject to the same restrictions" as drivers of carriages.[6] This basic statement of cyclists' rights and responsibilities has been adopted in the vehicle codes of most American states, as well as in the Uniform Vehicle Code.

The Constitutional Right to the Road[]

The Right to the Road by Treaty[]

Cyclists' right to the road has also been enshrined in international law since 1968, with the accession of the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. Under that treaty, bicycles have the legal status of vehicles, and cyclists enjoy the legal status of vehicle operators. [7] There are over 150 contracting parties to the treaty, including the United States, Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Ireland, almost all of Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and China. In countries that are contracting parties, the treaty has the force of law, and its provisions have been incorporated into national law.

Issues and Controversies[]

Bicycle Registration[]

In most cases, it is legal for cyclists to ride on roads in the United States. However, only vehicles that meet certain specifications are required to bear a license plate. This can make it very difficult to report violations of state vehicle codes to police.

Traffic Signs and Signals[]

In December 2007, Australia began cracking down on bicycle crimes due to deaths and injuries being caused by bicycle negligence. This is based on an incident which occurred in August 2007 when a 77 year-old man was killed by an oncoming bicyclist ignoring a red light.[8]


  1. Mionske, Bob, Bicycling & the Law 345 (VeloPress 2007)
  2. History of the bicycle
  3. Mionske, Bob, Bicycling & the Law 3 (VeloPress 2007)
  4. Mionske, Bob, Bicycling & the Law 6-7 (VeloPress 2007)
  5. Smith, Robert A., A Social History of the Bicycle 188 (American Heritage Press, 1972)
  6. New York Law 1887, Chapter 704, An Act in Relation to the Use of Bicycles and Tricycles
  7. Vienna Convention on Road Traffic
  8. Sikora, Natalie Tkaczuk (December 11, 2007) Bid to reign in rebel bike riders, Herald Sun


  • The Road Rights and Liabilities of Wheelmen, by George B. Clementson (Chicago: Callaghan & Co., 1895)
  • Bicycle Law and Practice, by Paul F. Hill (1985, 1986)
  • Bicycle Accident Reconstruction and Litigation, by James M. Green, Paul F. Hill, and Douglas Hayduk (Tucson, Arizona: Lawyers & Judges Publishing Co., 1996)
  • Bicycle Accident Reconstruction for the Forensic Engineer, by James M. Green and Bob Mionske (2001)
  • Bicycle Accidents: Biomechanical, Engineering, and Legal Aspects, by Jeffrey P. Broker and Paul F. Hill (Tucson, Arizona: Lawyers & Judges Publishing Co., 2006)
  • Bicycling & The Law: Your Rights As a Cyclist, by Bob Mionske (Boulder, Colorado: VeloPress, 2007)
  • Pedal Power

External links[]


ru:Правила дорожного движения для велосипедов uk:Правила дорожнього руху для велосипедів