CBS 5 Exacerbates Deadly Confusion About Bike Lane Right-of-Way

## Yee's report## didn't exactly help with confusion for people driving and biking. Image: CBS 5

A clear understanding of California’s right-of-way laws is crucial if drivers are to avoid colliding with people using San Francisco’s bike lanes. As we saw this week, a “right-hook,” in which a driver turns right into the path of a bike rider, can be fatal.

But when CBS 5 reporter Linda Yee sought to clarify those laws for the public, well, she failed. The news segment aimed at clarifying confusion erroneously stated that drivers can enter a bike lane, in front of bicycle traffic, as long as the driver is in front of the bike rider.

CBS showed a common scene on Howard at New Montgomery Street, in which a driver appears ready to turn into a bike rider's path in the bike lane.

Yee spent a good amount of time explaining the fact that there is much danger and confusion in SF’s bike lanes, but didn’t actually cite the California Vehicle Code (see that below), only sourcing an SFPD officer who explained that a bicycle rider can only pass a right-turning driver stopped in the bike lane when it’s safe to do so.

“I would say it is flat out wrong,” said Robert Prinz, education coordinator for the East Bay Bicycle Coalition.

In their classes, the EBBC and the SF Bicycle Coalition teach bicycle riders and motorists that when it comes to right turns, “a bike lane is a travel lane, just like any other one on the roadway,” as Prinz put it. “So if a car driver is making a right turn without merging into it then they are always in the wrong by not turning right from the rightmost lane, even if they arrived at the intersection first.”

“Would a car driver be expected to yield to another driver turning right across their path from one of the middle lanes? The same situation applies for bikes.”

A proper right-turn in a bike lane, as shown by the SFBC.

Here’s what the CVC says, via the SFBC’s page on right turns:

Motor Vehicles in Bicycle Lanes

21209. (a) No person shall drive a motor vehicle in a bicycle lane established on a roadway pursuant to Section 21207 except as follows:

(1) To park where parking is permitted.

(2) To enter or leave the roadway.

(3) To prepare for a turn within a distance of 200 feet from the intersection.

[there’s more about motorized bicycles in bicycle lanes, not prohibited so long as they’re operated reasonably and prudently]

Turning Across Bicycle Lanes

21717. Whenever it is necessary for the driver of a motor vehicle to cross a bicycle lane that is adjacent to his lane of travel to make a turn, the driver shall drive the motor vehicle into the bicycle lane prior to making the turn and shall make the turn pursuant to Section 22100 [general turning regulations].

The CBS segment showed the SFBC’s diagram explaining that drivers are expected to merge close to the curb when making turns, and not turn across the bicycle lane. But SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum, who was interviewed for the segment, said CBS left out the majority of what she said about the responsbililty of motorists to yield to bicycle traffic before merging into a bike lane.

“The number one cause of injuries for people biking in San Francisco is right turning vehicles. We were glad to see that CBS wanted to do a piece on how to avoid this all-too-common and often deadly crash,” said Shahum. “We spoke extensively with the reporter about what drivers should do in order to avoid this dangerous right hook, including the importance of ‘turning from the curb.’ It’s disappointing to see that this was not highlighted in the final piece.”

As Shahum explained in the segment, bike riders do have the responsibility of passing to the left of right-turning drivers, and squeezing by a driver’s right side is dangerous.

But Prinz said the misunderstandings about bike lane right-of-way seems common among police departments in the Bay Area.

“I’ve had this same conversation about bike lanes and right turns with other PDs in the East Bay,” said Prinz, “and it comes as a revelation almost every time once you ask them to substitute the bike for another car in the same situation.”

“It is frustrating and downright scary that even the SFPD doesn’t understand this, and it makes me wonder how this clouds their perception of fault at the site of a collision.”

  • They demonstrated a “common scene on Howard at New Montgomery Street” with a car turning the wrong way down a one-way street?

  • That’s a good observation. Actually, after watching the segment again, I noticed it looks like the driver isn’t preparing to make a right turn, but to pass the car blocking the intersection to continue straight.

  • I actually hadn’t watched the segment yet, but it stuck out as strange to someone who commutes down Howard several days a week, including through that intersection. Unfortunately, drivers encroaching into the lane in exactly that location definitely is a common (and similarly dangerous) scene.

  • gneiss

    Ah – I missed that too – thank you ted. It would be nice to find a sequence which shows how prevalent the right hook situation is on city streets.

  • judy b.

    I’m missing something. I saw her explain – at :41 and at 1:30 – that cars should [enter the bike lane to] make the turn close to the curb. And the segment mentions Folsom then Polk, not Howard (I watched it twice).

    Who would want to pass a car on the right when one can see the car intends to turn right? When a car is ahead of me, I am happy to allow it into the bike lane, so I can pass on the left.

  • On the street name issue, the screenshot was taken on Howard, though they don’t name it. The intersection is just recognizable to me.

    The issue is with drivers merging from the left into the bike lane in front of immediately passing bike traffic — not with drivers making a turn from inside the bike lane next to the curb. Like Robert said, drivers would expect to yield to a passing car when preparing to merge, and it’s the same with passing bikes. Drivers should merge against the curb well before an approaching bike arrives.

  • judy b.

    Oh. I thought the issue was that they are not merging at all, just turning from the car lane, through the bike lane. Half the drivers I see don’t merge at all.

  • Anonymous

    This has been the law in California for as long as I can remember (more than a couple of decades). I am shocked and saddened that many drivers still do not understand this law and many cops make no attempt to enforce it.

  • Elizabeth

    How could a semi make a right turn from the right lane? Don’t they have to swing out to the left, then over to the right to be able to make the turn? Personally, I try to avoid streets with large trucks on them. I check google street view – and if I see a bicycle – good, a truck – bad, a cement truck – very, very bad. Of all the places I’ve bicycled, San Francisco is by far the worst.

  • 94103er

    Semis and cement trucks pretty much drive wherever they want around here. That’s why it might be time for the city to grow a pair and seriously consider banning them until we see some real improvements in safety technology (or, perish the thought, until hell freezes over).

  • marc

    I went by there today, there’s a bulb-out at the intersection. The eastbound Folsom St. bike lane pretty much ends there for a few feet as it comes to the intersection at 6th due to the bulb-out. I scanned the area for cameras but did not see any.

  • Anonymous

    That’s a good question, Elizabeth. The CVC law in right turns says that drivers have to be as far right as is practicable when preparing for a right turn. For most cars this means very close to the curb, but for semis it is not feasible so they can legally turn right from further to the left. However, the rest of the turn law still applies so if they are not signaling right well in advance and yielding to traffic already in the bike lane then they are still breaking the law.

    There are certainly lots of blind spots associated with large vehicles so other road users have to especially wary around them, but most of these spots can be eliminated via the use of convex mirrors and rear view cameras. I drove a 38 foot mobile lab on city streets for UC Berkeley for many years and found that by using mirrors and cameras and by staying alert to my surroundings I could see or at least anticipate the movements of everyone around me.

    The East Bay Bicycle Coalition covers these topics in detail in their classes and online at

  • Anonymous

    The explanation at :41 and 1:30 was correct, as you stated, but then it unraveled when both the SFPD officer and the reporter at the end of the video went in to state that whoever is at the intersection first has the right of way, regardless of their road position. The real answer should have been that if you are not in the rightmost lane, even if it’s a bike lane, you can’t turn right. If this happened then it wouldn’t matter who got there first, as there would be no right-hook conflict.

    It is indeed a bad idea to pass a driver in the right while they are signaling a right turn (rare) but really this shouldn’t be an issue at all because by the time they are signaling that turn they should have already signaled and merged into the bike lane (even rarer) within 200 feet of the intersection after yielding to bikes already in that lane.

  • Anonymous

    Another common yet illegal behavior that causes conflicts is when drivers turn right on red in front of bicyclists waiting in the bike lane at the same red light. Legally any drivers turning right should have merged into the bike lane and waited behind any cyclists going straight through before making their right turn, just like they would have for another car, but this almost never happens. Then it causes problems when the light finally turns green and the cyclists suddenly proceed straight through while still having to worry about right turning car traffic coming up from behind.

    This type of traffic pattern would not be allowed if we substituted a bike lane for another straight-through car lane, but somehow traffic engineers think that putting more vulnerable road users in a less safe position is acceptable. Just another example of how bike infrastructure is shoehorned badly into car-centric streets, solutions for which are readily available in the NACTO design guide but not yet allowed by our backwards state and federal standards.

  • As a bicyclist, I don’t always stop at red lights


    I position myself sufficiently to the left so that any right-turning cars can pass me on the right, thus avoiding the situation you describe.

  • Anonymous

    Same here, and I consider in a part of my personal bike karma courtesy campaign to win over random drivers by not unnecessarily slowing the flow of traffic. Also, some actuated traffic signals only have detectors in the middle of the lane, so bicyclists hanging out at the curb will never get a green light.

    However, I’m also of the mind that our streets should work just as well and be just as safe for bicyclists who aren’t willing to merge over into car traffic at stop lights. This means encouraging all drivers to understand and abide by the law, while also designing streets without these built-in conflict areas.

  • justin

    None of this really matters since San Francisco drivers have little regard for the law, and San Francisco police officers make little attempt to enforce the law. See: speeding, running red lights, blocking intersections and crosswalks, driving in and blocking transit and bike lanes, violating pedestrian right-of-way, double parking, parking on sidewalks, etc. This behavior is everywhere you look, and laws are only words unless there is visible enforcement.

  • Anonymous

    These are professional truck drivers and it is their job to understand and obey the law. Other road users expect them to obey the law and violating it causes huge safety problems. If they are unable to obey the law because of the design of a particular road, then they should use a different road instead.

    Bicycles are banned from all kinds of roads (freeways, bridges, tunnels, etc). No reason that trucks should not be banned from certain roads for safety reasons.

  • Bob Shanteau

    I helped write CVC 21209 and 21717 (the laws regulating right turns on streets with bike lanes) in 1974-75 when I attended meetings of the California Statewide Bicycle Committee along with hearings for SB 939, which was the bill that implemented the changes in the Vehicle Code recommended by the Statewide Bicycle Committee. You can read the report of the Statewide Bicycle Committee here:

    Those laws reflect my experience on my first organized ride in 1972 when I heard an experienced rider shout to another rider who was about to ride to the right of cars that had their right turn signals on as we approached a signalized intersection: “NEVER PASS A RIGHT TURNING CAR ON THE RIGHT!!!!!”

    Later, when I saw that some edge lines in the Central Valley were broken at driveways at intersections, I got the idea that bike lane stripes should be broken for some distance before intersections to indicate to motorists that they should merge into the bike lane before turning right and to bicyclists that they can merge into the adjacent general purpose travel lane to go straight (although if they wanted to wait behind right turning cars, that’s OK too). That idea made it into what is now the California Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices and eventually the Federal MUTCD, so that is what you see on all roads today.

    The problem is that the education that was supposed to go along with those law changes never happened. The bill to allocate money for bicycle safety education died in the Legislature. The Office of Traffic Safety then organized the Department of Education Traffic Safety Task Force, but that effort fizzled when the CHP insisted that the curriculum consist of only a short film to show to elementary school students about staying out of the way of cars. As a result, bicycle safety education never happened and now almost nobody knows how motorists and bicyclists are supposed to interact on the streets.

    It’s no wonder we have such a problem with bicyclists getting killed in right hook crashes when we have bicyclists who have never learned the simple lesson, “NEVER PASS A RIGHT TURNING CAR ON THE RIGHT!!!!!” and motorists who never learned to merge into a bike lane before turning right. In fact, I understand that when a motorist does merge into a bike lane before turning right, some misinformed militant bicyclists will pound on their cars yelling at them, “YOU’RE BLOCKING THE BIKE LANE!”

    On top of that, we have misinformed police officers who think that bicyclists must ride in bike lanes, no matter what. In 1975, the Statewide Bicycle Committee recommended and the Legislature passed a law (CVC 21208) requiring bicyclists to ride in bike lane unless one of several exceptions was met (passing other traffic, making a left turn, avoid hazards, and approaching a place where a right turn is authorized). But the lack of an bicycle safety education program means that most people think that bicyclists are required to use bike lanes, period. And that cars are never allowed in a bike lane. Neither is true.

    What we need is another effort at bicycle safety education. The problem is how to get the schools to add it to their already full programs. And, if money is necessary, where it will come from.

  • Bob Sutterfield

    I don’t place myself to the right a vehicle if it physically can turn right, regardless whether its turn signal is blinking. Why make myself vulnerable to that driver not looking for me, or forgetting to use the turn signal, or a burned out bulb, or changing their mind and deciding at the last moment to turn right? Yes, in all those cases it’s that driver’s fault, but I refuse to be a victim of their mistake.

    Please study this and put it into practice. It could save your life:

  • dat

    Bravo sir. Bravo.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for all your hard work and foresight over the years, Bob. As you know, most youth-focused bike safety education these days comes in the form of Safe Routes to School programs, which keep getting whittled away at. If we want to reach each child in the state with these successful programs, however, they will need to be funded at many times the current levels. The curriculum and expertise are in place, we only need the political will on a state and federal level to invest capital in our childrens’ safety and health.

  • Anonymous

    sounds like some public servants sure are earning their six figure salaries and big pensions…

  • Caroline Nassif

    Thank you, Bob. You’re a hero. I wish our legislators valued bicycle safety education. Maybe our friend Amelie would still be here today.

  • Guest

    Exactly, Prinzrob, the requirement to merge right into the bike lane is fine for cars and small vehicles, but cannot work for long vehicles like buses and trucks that need to make wide turns.

    So there is an extra burden on a cyclist, when passing or approaching on the right, to understand that and to hold back even if no right turn is being signaled.

    With practice and experience, you can learn to anticipate which vehicles are going to turn right just from their speed and position.

  • John Pettitt

    First thanks for your work. So I’d be really interested to hear how you suggest a truck, which physically can’t turn right from the bike lane, should handle a right turn? (the CVC22100 “where practicable” rule)

  • Bob Shanteau

    Trucks often have to turn right some distance from the curb. Many have signs on the back warning other drivers not to pass a right turning truck on the right.

    The same warning applies to bicyclists, doubly. If a truck has its right turn signal on or is in a position that it might turn right, don’t pass it on the right.

  • John Pettitt

    “The real answer should have been that if you are not in the rightmost lane, even if it’s a bike lane, you can’t turn right” – not strictly true because CVC22100 has a “where practicable” clause that allows for vehicles like trucks that can’t physically turn right from the bike lane.

  • judy b.

    The problem is when trucks overtake cyclists to turn right. This happens to me about half the time a Muni bus passes me when a light goes green, and cuts me off to get to its stop on the other side of the intersection.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that this is a huge problem. Some truck drivers have a big problem estimating speed and distance to bicyclists they are passing, especially when they are chatting on their cell phones or watching for cars on their left side. The bicyclist often has no way to bail out from this situation because the truck is moving so fast.

  • Jason

    Thank you for posting this. I drive frequently on the street where this occurred and I was still not 100% sure about the correct (safe/legal/etc.) way to do this, despite being very cautious about the safety of the bikes. I think drivers and bicyclists both could use some more education like this.

  • Bob Shanteau

    That’s why the exception in 21208(a)(4) to the law requiring bicyclists to use bike lanes exists:

    It was explicitly put there to allow you to use the full right-hand lane at intersections as a way to prevent motorists from right-hooking you. Remember, the dashed bike lane line approaching intersections is both to let motorists know to merge into the bike lane AND to let bicyclists know it is OK to leave the bike lane.

    CVC 21208. (a) Whenever a bicycle lane has been established on a roadway pursuant to Section 21207, any person operating a bicycle upon the roadway at a speed less than the normal speed of traffic moving in the same direction at that time shall ride within the bicycle lane, except that the person may move out of the lane under any of the following situations:

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

  • Anonymous

    Definitely, but if we are to have a clear and understandable rule that applies to 99% of drivers on the streets it should be “turn from the curb”. Then there are additional opportunities to offer large vehicle-specific safety education to professional truck and bus drivers, as well as classes for youth and adult cyclists like the programs we already have going in SF and the East Bay.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Another common yet illegal behavior that causes conflicts is when
    drivers turn right on red in front of bicyclists waiting in the bike
    lane at the same red light.

    Unless there are a dozen cyclists, the answer is simple: don’t want in the bike lane to the right of right-turning cars. Scoot left, and — heavens above! — perhaps even break the law by scooting ahead of the stop line (without blocking pedestrians) and — sshhhhhhhhh!! here’s how it works in the real world) — safely and slowly roll through the intersection illegally in order to let the death monsters make their turn unimpeded, getting everybody where they’re going a little sooner and more safely and with no conflicts at all (except with the letter of a law.)

    If there are a good number of cyclists waiting this strategy doesn’t work and shouldn’t work: there isn’t space for all to move left, and it’s no offense against the universe for one or two cars to wait for an out-numbering human beings on bikes. (But why is everybody waiting in the bike lane anyway? Generally because everybody but the first couple riders ignored the right-turn signals of the stopped cars, passed on the right, and then make a clot on the wrong side the vehicles.)

    It’s both dangerous and inconsiderate to plant yourself in the Magic Bike Lane and expect the rest of the world to navigate around you. It pisses off motorists unnecessarily (it doesn’t matter whether their irritation is “legitimate”) and makes the world function a small amount worse, while making your own life more dangerous. Don’t do it.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Reality is that plenty of well-intentioned motorists don’t seem to feel comfortable merging into the bike lane ahead of intersections. Some of this may be down to non-education, but some of it has to be due to dickheads on bikes who get torqued about cars “blocking the bike lane” (cue tales about how awful and “harrowing” riding Valencia Street is.)

    Heads they lose, tails they lose.

    The correct thing to do on a bike is the same either way: either pass on the left or don’t pass and wait behind for the vehicle to complete its turn. Well-intentioned motorists (they exist, even if they are actively destroying the entire holocene ecosystem) appreciate this, and in fact they can and do learn that positioning their vehicles to the right helps make room for cyclists to pass on the left. I get friendly waves all the time from drivers who check in their rear view mirror and see me behind them, as opposed to cruising by on the right and making an immovable obstacle nuisance of myself.

  • To be fair, the incorrect understanding of the law goes both ways. I was harassed while driving because a cyclist incorrectly thought I wasnt supposed to be turning from the bike lane. And no, I hadnt cut him off, Id been there for maybe 45 seconds waiting for a chance to turn when he came up and shouted as he passed.

  • John Jacobs

    Discussion about the vehicle code, driver vs bike responsibilities, etc, is irrelevant and little consolation for this poor cyclist.

    This woman died because the current design of Folsom Street, like every other street in Soma, is very dangerous for cyclists. Hopefully she did not die in vain and the City will make haste to redesign the street with protected bike lanes and calmed traffic.

  • Anonymous

    I just had an aha moment!
    I commute down Market St. every morning and what I often see, particularly in areas where bikes are meant to share the lane with cars (although it happens where there is a defined bike lane as well), is when coming to a red light cyclists surround the first car in line: front, back, right and left sides, swarming the car like bees swarm a hive.
    Once the light turns green, the driver in the first car has to wait for all cyclists to clear both sides before taking their foot off the brake (for fear of squishing someone), which seems like it’d be nerve-wracking for all involved.
    This never made sense to me. But now I’m thinking, perhaps the cyclists that squeeze themselves up to the left side (and front) of the car are assuming the driver will be turning right and just forgot/failed to signal.

  • Sprague

    I certainly don’t want to defend illegal or unsafe behavior, however for the sake of the transit riding public’s timely arrival at their destination and for the sake of Muni operators being able to operate their buses as smoothly as possible it is great when bicyclists are able to not impede buses from accessing stops, when possible (ie. by slowing down to allow a bus to go in front of you to get to the curb – or by speeding up to allow the same thing to occur). The purpose of the prior (very long) sentence is to advocate for everyone to try and help Muni speed up its (sometimes very slow) service.

  • Sprague

    Like most readers of this blog, I also want Folsom Street (and many others) redesigned with traffic traffic calming and improved safety features. This recent death is tragic. In the interest of safety, the discussion about proper vehicle operation while turning right is important. Clearly (as the discussion here indicates), there has been insufficient education in California on this topic.

  • Anonymous

    “Heads they lose, tails they lose”

    Oh yes, those poor motorists who always “lose” on our urban streets. I’m so glad you’ve brought their plight to my attention. And to think I thought that with just about *every* road (and even roads in our parks) being entirely designed for cars at the expense of just about all other modes of transit and being protected by 4000 lbs of steel, that the poor motorists are so confused and intimated by those “torqued” cyclists. All motorists should be glad to have you looking out for their downtrodden cause.

  • Andy Chow

    Trucks are banned on many roads, especially if they are not there to access the site. Many restrictions come by the weight, height, or length limit.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with you that being in the bike lane at a red light is not always the safest and most courteous place to wait, and I as well usually move left so as to stay visible while not blocking right turners (cars and bikes). However, if one were to be involved in a collision while performing a typically safe but technically illegal maneuver like running a red light they would either be found at fault or at least negligent, receiving reduced damages in court which for many would mean incurring significant financial hardship throughout their recovery and beyond.

    The real solution is for our infrastructure to accommodate the safest behavior by providing bike boxes, two-stage left turn queue boxes, bike signals which give cyclists a head start before other traffic gets a green light or even their own signal phase, and right turn on red restrictions for cars. However, most of these treatments are still considered “experimental” and cities can not install them as needed, instead leaving cyclists to their own devices in deciding whether to protect themselves legally or physically.

    “It’s both dangerous and inconsiderate to plant yourself in the Magic Bike Lane and expect the rest of the world to navigate around you.”

    I would indeed say it is potentially dangerous if one does so while remaining oblivious to surrounding traffic, but would disagree about the necessity for any individual cyclist to worry too much about the convenience of the drivers around them. It is courteous to not hold up other traffic unnecessarily, but about the equivalent of holding a door for someone entering a building behind you. Especially in an environment where our street design caters almost exclusively to motor vehicles, we could probably do with a little more selfishness on the part of bicyclists, and a greater sense of responsibility among those behind the wheel of a car.

  • Anonymous

    It does matter when there is a collision, however, and we need an informed and knowledgeable police force to be able to interpret fault correctly based on an accurate understanding of the vehicle code.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for doing the right thing, and I as well encounter cyclists who are not familiar with this law. Some of them might actually be from Oregon, where their state law actually does ban motorists from entering a bike lane before turning right.

    Similarly, I sometimes get honked at while performing maneuvers on my bike which are completely legal and done specifically to protect my own safety. In those cases it is annoying but I feel that it is better to get honked at than run into.

  • Andy Chow

    While in certain areas a separated path may be desirable, there will be many more cyclists riding on shared streets. As bike mode share go up everywhere (even with more cycle tracks on certain streets), the interaction between cyclists and motorists will only increase. So the discussion and education to improve interaction between bikes and automobiles should take place sooner than later. A cycle track may improve safety only on Folsom, but education will help cyclists in other bikes lanes in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Bakersfield.

  • grrlyrida

    I bike in LA with the crummiest infrastructure and I’ve learned to move far to the left when approaching the intersection. I think I learned about it in a Confident Cycling Class in West Hollywood. It does force cars not to overtake me as much and to go around to my right. No, it doesn’t always work be it seems safer than staying to my right.

  • Timothy Mallon

    My experience with this topic comes from riding on Oak. In the pre green paint zone days you rode out in traffic, coming to Divisadero you stayed left and away from right turners onto Divisadero. Now that the parked cars are gone you deal with drivers merging sometimes haphazardly. After one close scape – and “scrape” is just barely metaphorical – I stopped using it and have to wonder what the GPZ has achieved.

  • Timothy Mallon

    This is an addendum to my earlier prematurely posted comment:

    Specifically, why use it (GPZ) if you may find yourself urgently needing to go back into the traffic lane in an unplanned and possibly dangerous way, if you can in fact do the manoeuvre at all?

    The discussion seems to imply that these collisions are the result of “passing on the right” or some other kind incompetent or inconvenient bicycling, and I am emphatically representing that that is incorrect and wrongheaded, even malicious.

    Finally much of this discussion seems imply, or even endorse the bike == car fiction, which is disheartening.

  • Anonymous

    We own a car, which I occasionally drive. I never seem to have these problems. Maybe I’m just lucky!



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