Your Rights as a Cyclist

Copied from Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition - Massbike


  • You may ride your bicycle on any public road, street, or bikeway in the Commonwealth, except limited access or express state highways where signs specifically prohibiting bikes have been posted.
  • You may ride on sidewalks outside business districts, unless local laws prohibit sidewalk riding.
  • You may use either hand to signal stops and turns.
  • You may pass cars on the right.
  • If you carry children or other passengers inside an enclosed trailer or other device that will adequately restrain them and protect their heads in a crash, they need not wear helmets.
  • You may hold a bicycle race on any public road or street in the Commonwealth if you do so in cooperation with a recognized bicycle organization and if you get approval from the appropriate police department before the race is held.
  • You may establish special bike regulations for races by agreement between your bicycle organization and the police.
  • You may have as many lights and reflectors on your bike as you wish.

Your Responsibilities: You Must Do These Things

  • You must obey all traffic laws and regulations of the Commonwealth.
  • You must use hand signals to let people know you plan to stop or turn.
  • You must give pedestrians the right of way.
  • You must give pedestrians an audible signal before overtaking or passing them.
  • You may ride two abreast but must facilitate passing traffic. This means riding single file when faster traffic wants to pass or staying in the right-most lane on a multi-lane road.
  • You must ride astride a regular, permanent seat that is attached to your bicycle.
  • You must keep one hand on your handlebars at all times.
  • If you are 16 years old or younger, you must wear a helmet that meets U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission requirements on any bike, anywhere, at all times. The helmet must fit your head and the chin strap must be fastened.
  • You must use a white headlight and red taillight or rear reflector if you are riding anytime from 1/2 hour after sunset until 1/2 hour before sunrise.
  • At night, you must wear ankle reflectors if there are no reflectors on your pedals.
  • You must notify the police of any accident involving personal injury or property damage over $100.

Your Responsibilities: You May Not Do These Things

  • You may not carry a passenger anywhere on your bike except on a regular seat permanently attached to the bike, or to a trailer towed by the bike.
  • You may not carry any child between the ages of 1 to 4, or weighing 40 pounds or less, anywhere on a single-passenger bike except in a baby seat attached to the bike. The child must be able to sit upright in the seat and must be held in the seat by a harness or seat belt. Their hands and feet must be out of reach of the wheel spokes.
  • You may not carry any child under the age of 1 on your bike, even in a baby seat; this does not preclude carrying them in a trailer.
  • You may not use a siren or whistle on your bike to warn pedestrians.
  • You may not park your bike on a street, road, bikeway or sidewalk where it will be in other people's way.
  • You may not carry anything on your bike unless it is in a basket, rack, bag, or trailer designed for the purpose.
  • You may not modify your bike so that your hands are higher than your shoulders when gripping the handlebars.
  • You may not alter the fork of your bike to extend it.

Your Responsibilities: Equipping Your Bike

  • Your bike must have a permanent, regular seat attached to it.
  • Your brakes must be good enough to bring you to a stop, from a speed of 15 miles an hour, within 30 feet of braking. This distance assumes a dry, clean, hard, level surface.
  • At night, your headlight must emit a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet. A generator-powered lamp that shines only when the bike is moving is okay.
  • At night, your taillight must be red and must be visible from a distance of at least 600 feet.
  • At night, your reflectors must be visible in the low beams of a car's headlights from a distance of at least 600 feet. Reflectors and reflective material on your bike must be visible from the back and sides.


Violations of any of these laws can be punished by a fine of up to $20. Parents and guardians are responsible for cyclists under the age of 18. The bicycle of anyone under 18 who violates the law can be impounded by the police or town selectmen for up to 15 days.

Motorist Responsibilities (see MGL Chapter 89, Section 2 and Chapter 90, Section 14)

  • Motorists and their passengers must check for passing bicyclists before opening their door. Motorists and their passengers can be ticketed and fined up to $100 for opening car or truck doors into the path of any other traffic, including bicycles and pedestrians.
  • Motorists must stay a safe distance to the left of a bicyclist (or any other vehicle) when passing. Motorists are also prohibited from returning to the right until safety clear of the bicyclist.
  • Motorists must pass at a safe distance. If the lane is too narrow to pass safely, the motorist must use another lane to pass, or, if that is also unsafe, the motorist must wait until it is safe to pass.
  • Motorists are prohibited from making abrupt right turns ("right hooks") at intersections and driveways after passing a cyclist.
  • Motorists must yield to oncoming bicyclists when making left turns. The law expressly includes yielding to bicyclists riding to the right of other traffic (e.g., on the shoulder), where they are legally permitted but may be more difficult for motorists to see.
  • Motorists may not use the fact that bicyclists were riding to the right of traffic as a legal defense for causing a crash with a bicyclist.

Law Enforcement Dimensions

From the Boston Website and Attorney John Sofis Scheft of Law Enforcement Dimensions:

Boston Website

Marked bicycle lanes visually remind motorists to leave a safe distance between their vehicles and cyclists. They can also serve as a refuge for cyclists on roads with faster-moving drivers.

But as far as state law is concerned, marked bicycle lanes are still part of the road, which means that motorists can drive in them too, Scheft said.

"It's assumed that motorists will operate in them, but that they won't obstruct bicyclists," he said. It's fine to wait in a bicycle lane to back up, to drive in a bike lane when passing a car that is waiting to go left, or to cross a bike lane when turning, Scheft said. Cyclists, in fact, often want motorists to move into a bike lane in advance of making a right turn. The maneuver reduces the chance of a cyclist getting cut off by a motorist who turns in front of them at the last minute without signaling, a "right hook" in bicycling parlance. "That's important because people using their signals is pretty uncommon in Boston," said Pete Stidman, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union, one of Greater Boston's fastest growing cycling advocacy groups.

Still, you shouldn't drive in a bicycle lane longer than is necessary. Since your car is wider than a bike lane, you'd be straddling lanes.

"If a vehicle was driving in a bike lane and unfairly blocking bicyclists, an officer could charge them with a marked lanes violation, a $100 fine," Scheft said. If you were endangering a cyclist by driving in the bicycle lane, you could also be cited with illegally overtaking a vehicle.

A total of 616 bicyclists were killed in crashes with motor vehicles nationwide in 2010, the most recent year available, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which advocates for helmet use (Massachusetts law requires only riders 16 and under to wear them).

One last point: Even when a marked bike lane exists on a roadway, a cyclist can choose to ride in a travel lane, like any other vehicle on the road.

Shared Road Markings (Sharrows)

Bike lanes aren't the only pavement markings for cyclists. Some communities also are painting shared-road symbols on streets, typically the outline of a bicycle under two forward-pointing arrows. But unlike marked bike lanes, such symbols don't tell motorists how much clearance they're supposed to leave for cyclists.

"The nice thing to do, and the safe thing to do, is to give bicyclists at least a 3- to 4-foot clearance from the edge of their handlebars to the car, whether they're in a bike lane or not," Stidman said.

Massachusetts state law, again, doesn't specifically say how much room you need to leave when passing, requiring only a "safe distance" between your vehicle and the cyclist. (Other states are more specific: In Oregon, a motorist must pass at a distance "that is sufficient to prevent contact with the person operating the bicycle if the person were to fall into the driver's lane of traffic.")

What if you have to cross over a double-yellow center line to give a cyclist enough space. Is that legal?

Our state statutes don't specifically answer that question, either. But Scheft said they "clearly imply" that you can cross, so long as the opposite road is clear.

"The goal of the law is not to have you stuck behind a bicycle at 20 miles per hour," he said. "But the law also says to bicyclists, 'You have to allow a vehicle to overtake you by moving over.' ''

In other words, everyone has to compromise.

Ticketing Cyclists

Bicyclists are supposed to obey nearly all the rules motorists do, and they can be ticketed for breaking them, though the maximum fine is $20. Just how often are cyclists ticketed, though? Well, pretty infrequently. Statewide, just 23 bicyclists have received tickets since January 1, 2011, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. (That number excludes Cambridge, which routinely writes tickets that are based on a city ordinance and aren't reported to the state.)

Bike citations are rare, in part, because of two flaws in the state's ticketing system, though one will soon be corrected.

Currently, for an officer to ticket a cyclist, a standard motor vehicle citation has to be used with the handwritten words "bicycle infraction," or something to that effect. But by August, police departments will be able to order citation books that have specific bicycle notations on them, said Sara Lavoie, spokeswoman for the Registry.

The second problem, which I wrote about last August, still remains: The way state law is worded, bicyclists can't be forced to pay the tickets they receive. But with clearer tickets, it will at least be easier for police to hand them out.