MA state law for cyclists requires that "every bicycle operated upon a way shall be equipped with a braking system to enable the operator to bring the bicycle traveling at a speed of fifteen miles per hour to a smooth, safe stop within thirty feet on a dry, clean, hard, level surface." In the case of a fixed gear bicycle with no lever-operated brakes installed, do the cyclist's legs/direct connection qualify? The lack of definition of brake system makes this a very gray area, no?

Asked by

Actually, I don’t think that the wording of this law causes a problem for brakeless fixie riders.  In fact, when compared to similar statutes in other states, the Massachusetts version law is far more accommodating of bikes without lever brakes.
For example, in Oregon, ORS §815.280 requires all bicycles to be “equipped with a brake that enables the operator of the bicycle to stop the bicycle within 15 feet from a speed of 10 miles per hour on dry, level, clean pavement.” [emphasis mine]  I would argue that it’s much easier to interpret this as requiring a mechanical lever brake than the MA version, which requires the slightly more broad “braking system.”
In fact, a judge in Portland interpreted it that way a few years ago.  While I believe his reasoning was flawed, I can see where he’s coming from.  However, I think it would be more difficult for a MA judge to reach the same conclusion—a brake is a well defined and commonly accepted term, but a “braking system” has a bit more room, and can conceivably include a fixed gear and a pair of legs.
Don’t get me wrong, I think riding fixed without a front brake is stupid and unsafe, and I’ve made no secret of it.  That being said, legally speaking, I still don’t think that brakeless fixies should be outlawed.  Though it is quite severe, the main risk that they present (i.e., a broken chain on the way into an intersection) is not that much more likely than the other types of catastrophic equipment failures that can befall any other cyclist.  Also, the risk to the public is relatively low, as the fixie rider will probably only end up hurting himself.  I would much rather see the police pulling over bikers who ignore traffic signals, or ride without lights after dark than have them going after the poor dummies who think they are allergic to brake levers.

Do you know if a driver's license would be required to use something like the upcoming FlyKly Smart Wheel in MA?

Asked by

Yup.  According to Massachusetts General Law Ch. 90 §1, that thing makes your bike into a “motorized bicycle.” That means that under Ch. 90 §1B, you need a valid driver’s license (or learner’s permit) to operate one.  Other regulations:

  • You have to be 16 or older
  • You can’t go faster than 25MPH
  • You have to wear a helmet
  • You can’t ride on the sidewalk or on bike paths
  • Hand signals are mandatory

The same rules apply to all ebikes, not just smart wheels.  Bummer, I know.  Still, that thing seems like a cool idea, especially for the weak and/or lazy. (jk)


The Right Hook


(Note: An edited version of this post was originally published in last month’s issue of Momentum Magazine, where I am currently writing their “Legal Brief” column. Below, for your enjoyment, is the original manuscript, uncut and completely uncensored.)

                                                               ⬣ ⬣ ⬣

One of the scariest types of crashes, the right hook can happen with almost no warning.  It occurs when a car is traveling in the same direction as a bicyclist, and then suddenly turns right into a driveway, private road, or parking space. The biker is either struck from the side as the car turns, or gets cut off and collides head on with the side of the car.

Read More

Lately I've seen these neato graphics that say: "3 FEET, ITS THE LAW" with regard to a motorist passing a cyclist. Is that true here in Massachusetts?

Asked by

Hi Jon,

Nope!  Contrary to popular belief, Massachusetts does not have a 3-foot passing law.  Instead, our law says the following on the subject:

In approaching or passing a person on a bicycle the operator of a motor vehicle shall slow down and pass at a safe distance and at a reasonable and proper speed.

I know it sounds like weak sauce, but in my opinion our law is actually preferable to one with a fixed passing distance, such as three feet.  That’s because “a safe distance” allows for some all-important variability. 

For example, three feet may be a healthy margin when a car is passing you at 25 MPH, but what about when they pass you doing 50?  Though technically “legal,” that can be terrifying, and more than enough to cause a crash.

One interesting solution to this problem comes from New Hampshire.  Their safe passing law is a lot like ours, except it goes on to specify the following:

The distance shall be presumed to be reasonable and prudent if it is at least 3 feet when the vehicle is traveling at 30 miles per hour or less, with one additional foot of clearance required for every 10 miles per hour above 30 miles per hour.

Of course, safe passing laws are not actually about enforcement.  You won’t see state troopers out with yard sticks, ticketing drivers for passing bikers too closely. 

As with so much of bike law, this law is really about determining who was at fault after a crash.  If a driver is passing a biker and hits them, he surely wasn’t passing at a “safe distance”—boom, negligence proven.  So from my perspective, the MA law works just fine.

Still, there’s an added benefit to fixed distance passing laws that ours doesn’t have: mindshare.  A road sign that says “must give 3’ when passing” is much easier for drivers to understand than one saying “must pass at a safe distance and reasonable speed.”

I don’t think we need to change our law (we have more important changes to make first), but I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing signs like this posted around these parts.


The Invisible Zebra

imageImage via flickr

Imagine a world where crosswalks don’t exist.  Every crosswalk you know and love has been erased from the pavement.

That’s what it’s like for bicyclists in Massachusetts.

Although we have some of the nation’s best bike laws here in the Bay State, there are still a couple of major holes in our legislative structure.  The crosswalk is one of them.

Read More

A reply to a comment on my response to a question

imageThis picture is hanging in a lawyer’s waiting room in my building, and I’m kind of obsessed with it.

Someone just commented on a post I wrote a few months back in response to someone’s question, and I’ve decided to reply with a proper post instead of just as a comment. Hopefully this will help to clarify things for the commenter, and perhaps a few others.

Read More

Midnight Marathon Ride


The 5th annual Midnight Marathon Ride is coming up, and I’m super excited about it.  This will be my first time participating in the ride, and it looks like there’s gonna be a record turnout.  Tickets for the special “bikes only” commuter rail train to the start of the ride sold out in less than 8 hours!

In preparing for this epic event, I wanted to remind everyone about a crucial bit of safety info that may come in handy.

Read More

The Straight and Narrow


The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  However, when riding in traffic, many bikers are tempted to stray from this most efficient route.  A bent path can be helpful in a number of situations (to avoid an open door, turning car, or pothole), but there’s one situation where a momentary deviation is not recommended: intersections.

Read More

It's school season again which, of course, means big, slow yellow busses. Are cyclists required, like cars, to stop in both directions? What about passing when there is no stop sign deployed? I don't think I would bomb around a school bus out of reasonable fear of hitting a child, but what's the law got to say about this?

Asked by


Check out the following passage from Massachusetts General Law Chapter 90 § 14:

When approaching a vehicle which displays a sign bearing the words “SCHOOL BUS” and which is equipped with front and rear alternating flashing red signal lamps which are flashing, as provided in section seven B, and which has been stopped to allow pupils to alight from or board the same, a person operating a motor vehicle or trackless trolley shall, except when approaching from the opposite direction on a divided highway, bring his vehicle or trackless trolley to a full stop before reaching said school bus and shall not thereafter proceed until the warning signals are deactivated, unless directed to the contrary by a police officer duly authorized to control the movement of traffic.

As you can see from the above statute, motor vehicles (as defined in § 1) have to stop for busses with the stop sign out, but bicycles do not.  

So, unless you’re operating a trackless trolly, feel free to ride through those with impunity, knowing in your heart that the law is on your side.  Just keep an eye out for pupils.