By Art Roche
In an earlier issue of this newsletter, I wrote about what automobile student drivers are taught about bicycles. For this issue, we take a different perspective- what state laws and city ordinances should bicyclists in this part of the world know? I have been bicycling in Dubuque for about fifty years, but there are still some things I’ve wondered about. Is it okay to ride my bike on the sidewalk? Is a rear reflector enough at night, or must I have red light back there? Can I signal a right turn by sticking out my right arm? Should I ride in the middle of the street like a car, or way over on the right?
There are two main sources for information about your rights and responsibilities as a bicyclist- Iowa Code 321.234 (www.legis.iowa.gov/docs/iacode/2001/321/234.html) and the City of Dubuque’s ordinances (https://www.sterlingcodifiers.com/codebook/index.php?book_id=803) search= bicycle. The Code of Iowa regulates bicycle operations on a statewide level. The Code allows for local cities to create their own laws to regulate bicycle traffic including registration. The Iowa Code does require that any local ordinance cannot conflict with Iowa Code 321.234 that gives bicyclists the same rights and duties as the operators of motor vehicles except by nature where they don’t apply. There are 269 cities in Iowa with local bike ordinances, including Dubuque.
If you have serious legal questions, please refer to the source material. This article is intended only to pique your curiosity and open some conversations. I’ll tell you what’s in the law and elaborate a bit on things that I found unusual or unexpected.
Iowa law says that a person riding a bicycle on the street or highway has all the rights, and is required to know and obey all traffic laws and rules of the road that are applicable to the driver of a motor vehicle. Note that this applies to bicyclists of all ages who ride on streets and highways, and in fact I find no age requirement in state or city laws for riding bicycles on public roadways.
Bicyclists must ride “with the flow of traffic on the right side of the roadway.” Exceptions include passing another vehicle, preparing for a left turn, avoiding parked vehicles, drain grates, debris or other unsafe conditions. Bicyclists may also ride on the shoulder or a designated bike lane. “Bicyclists operating on a roadway at less than the normal speed of traffic shall ride as close to the right curb or edge of the roadway as is safe and practical.” The Dubuque ordinance says this means the rightmost four feet of roadway. So I guess unless I’m keeping up with traffic, I need to be on the far right side. My personal interpretation of “unsafe conditions” means I stay far enough away from parked cars to completely avoid the arc of an opening car door.
The keys to safe bicycling include being predictable, visible, and communicating your intentions to motorists. Iowa law says a right turn signal involves extending your left arm with forearm and hand upright, like an automobile driver would. The Dubuque ordinance allows a bicyclist to signal a right turn by extending the right arm.
A bicycle operated between sunset and sunrise must be equipped with a white light on the front, and red light or reflector on the rear, both visible for a distance of at least 300 feet. (Note: for reference, that’s the length of a football field.)
Bicyclists are allowed on almost all Iowa roads except interstates, certain other controlled-access highways with posted minimum speed limits, and streets where bicyclists are prohibited by local ordinance.
You can’t carry more people on your bicycle than it is designed and equipped to carry, except for adult bicyclists carrying a child securely attached to the bicycle in a seat or trailer designed to carry children.
Motorists and other cyclists aren’t looking for a bicyclist on the wrong side of the roadway. Riding on the wrong side increases the likelihood and severity of head-on collisions.
Bicyclists who violate traffic laws are subject to the same fines as motor vehicle drivers. (Note: While speeding may not be a typical bicyclist violation, running a red light or a stop sign may be.) Bicyclists must stop for school buses just like motor vehicles.
Dubuque City Code as of September 3, 2019 offers a lot more detail on bicycle laws, and covers areas not mentioned in the state laws. Some of the more interesting points:
- “Every bicycle owned or ridden within this city shall be registered pursuant to the provisions of this chapter within ten (10) days of the date the bicycle is acquired or the residency of the owner is established.” The fee is $5.00, good for as long as the bike is owned by the person registering it. (There’s much more about this topic in the code, but I’m very skeptical about whether anyone registers their bicycles.) Also, it’s unlawful to alter or counterfeit the registration sticker, in case you’re thinking of making a fast $5.
An examination of Dubuque County ordinances revealed no mentions of the word ‘bicycle”. There are some special event ordinances that would regulate events like bicycle rides of 100 participants or more.