Failing to yield to bicyclists can have serious consequences. According to the latest statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 857 bicyclists killed in traffic crashes in the U.S. in 2018, with 79 percent of those accidents occurring in urban areas. Motor vehicle drivers who are found responsible for failing to yield to cyclists can face a variety of fines and penalties. In New York City, those penalties can actually include jail time.
Six years ago, Manhattan lawmakers passed administrative code section 19-190, aka the “Right of Way Law,” which makes “failure to yield” to bicycles—and pedestrians—a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of 30 days in jail. While the constitutionality of the law is being challenged in the New York State Court of Appeals, all motorists who drive in New York City should be aware of the law as is now stands.
In addition, ALL drivers need to be mindful of the need for extra vigilance WHENEVER and WHEREVER bicyclists or pedestrians are present, even if it’s not in the Big Apple. Here are some reminders that can help:
Start safely. Be well rested, and familiarize yourself with the local laws concerning bicyclists and pedestrians in the areas where you will be driving before getting behind the wheel. Know your route and directions, and identify spots that may be problematic. Perform a pre-trip inspection, as prescribed by law, check your mirror settings, and clean your windshield for maximum visibility. Use your headlights, even in daylight, to make it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to see you.
Consider road and weather conditions, and adjust your speed accordingly. When weather is bad, your stopping distance grows exponentially, meaning it will take more time and distance to stop should a bicyclist unexpectedly swerve or pedestrian suddenly step out into the street.
Keep your eyes moving and check mirrors as you drive to help spot bicyclists and pedestrians. Obstructions, such as trees, signs, poles, buildings, and parked vehicles may hide them from view, and poor weather conditions, lighting and blind spots can diminish your ability to see. The lack of lights on most bicycles makes them difficult to recognize, and their small profile also makes it hard to judge their distance and speed. Remember too that a bicycle’s maneuverability allows riders to cut between other vehicles.
Exercise extreme care at intersections. Scan both sides of the street for bicyclists and pedestrians as you approach intersections, and be prepared to come to a full stop. When turning, signal well in advance, and take an extra look to check any blind spots. Before turning right, check for bicyclists that may have encroached in the space between your vehicle and the curb.
Don’t block a crosswalk when stopped at a red light or waiting to make a turn. Forcing bicyclists or pedestrians to go around your vehicle puts them in danger. Yield the right of way, and wait until bicyclists and pedestrians have crossed and are clear of your vehicle before you proceed. Avoid honking the horn or revving your engine when bicyclists and pedestrians are in front of your vehicle in a crosswalk; you can startle them and cause an accident.
Allow plenty of room between your vehicle and bicyclists as they may swerve, brake suddenly, or even fall. While some roads have bike lanes, riders may enter into a motor vehicle lane to execute a left turn or to avoid hazards, such as debris or potholes. Keep your distance and stay alert.
Only pass a bicyclist when it is safe to do so. Proceed slowly and smoothly, and allow an extra wide berth, while keeping aware of traffic approaching from the other direction. If you don’t have sufficient room, DO NOT attempt to pass. Be patient and understand that riders are in a much more vulnerable position than you are.
Be especially attentive to headphone or earbud-wearing pedalers and pedestrians. The use of these devices can mask some outside noises, such as traffic, sirens and horns, and may cause the wearer to become distracted.
Of course, sharing the road safely is not limited to bicyclists and pedestrians. The tips above apply to those riding other vehicles, such as mopeds, e-scooters and skateboards, as well. By following these suggestions, you can safely identify and help avoid potentially risky scenarios.
As for New York City’s Right of Way Law, we will keep an eye on any pending cases, and communicate any changes in legislation should the need arise.