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Don’t be left confused

19 July, 2011

“The rider of a bicycle must not ride past, or overtake, to the left of a vehicle that is turning left and is giving a left change of direction signal.” Sound simple enough? As Emma Clark finds out, it’s not that straightforward.

Image from Shutterstock

Bike riders have a unique right to overtake on the left of cars in most situations, but there is an important exception that all riders should be aware of. According to national road safety rules, if a car is indicating and turning left, a bike rider cannot overtake on their left, and must let the car turn first, even though it may be cutting across a bike lane.

The rule is particularly relevant to city riding, as long lines of cars indicating that they will be turning left can form at busy intersections. The question then arises: is a bike rider legally able to pass all these indicating cars, and if so, who should they give way to?

According to the legal advice we have received, the key here is in the two conditions required of the car; not only must it be indicating, it must also be in the act of turning; merely an indication they will be turning left further up the road does not prevent you overtaking them. But once they start to move, there may be complications.

Arty Lavos, Victorian Police State Bicycle Co-ordinator, told Ride On that once the leading vehicle in the line begins to turn left, you cannot pass it, even if it subsequently stops the turn because a line of pedestrians are preventing it going any further. Because it has begun turning left, and is indicating it is turning left, you cannot overtake on its left.

And as it finally turns left and the other cars in the stream follow on, you must give way to all those cars that are turning also.

Moving into bike box

Moving into a bike box. Illustration by Zink Designs. Image from Little Bike Bible

So what is a bike rider who wants to go through the intersection to do? If you can, try to get ahead of the traffic while the lights are red, so you don’t have to overtake any cars once the lights change to green. If there is a bike box, occupy it.

But there may not always be time to get to the front of the line of traffic. If you can’t get through, you can join the line of traffic, occupy the middle of the lane, and move off when the way ahead is clear.

And what if a bike and car are travelling side by side and the driver then indicates a left turn? Our interpretation of the regulations is that the left turning vehicle must clearly pass the bike before it begins its turn. This leads to what is a fairly common situation; a bike approaches an intersection and a car suddenly accelerates past and cuts in front of the bike to turn left.

If the car’s manoeuvre can be deemed dangerous driving because it hasn’t given the rider reasonable time to react and give way, then the driver has breached the road rules. Wise practice is to be suspicious of a car that suddenly powers ahead towards an intersection. If you have time to react, pull back until you are sure of its intentions.

What’s your experience of this situation? Please share it by leaving a comment below or emailing Ride On.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 July, 2011 11:56 am

    Great write-up on the rule but unfortunately those national rules referred to are not so national. WA’s version of this regulation is different it from that quoted above. The relevant regulation is 122 of the Western Australian Road Traffic Code 2000 and it states in sub-regulation (4):

    The rider of a bicycle shall not ride past, or overtake, to the left of a vehicle that is making, or apparently about to make, a left turn, or is signalling a left turn.

    The key term here is “apparently about to make,”.

    I have discussed this a bit more here.

    I would aslo suggest that before writing these sorts of posts, that verification is made of the regulations to pick-up on any variations. Those so-called “Australian Road Rules” have no legal status and are varied by the States as they deem fit to do so.

    • 19 July, 2011 12:54 pm

      Our verification found negligible variation in any state road regulations from the national guidelines in this case. With the aim of the article being to clarify the issue, we have used plain language to explain the situation and address the questions that arise. Although quite simply expressed, however, we’re confident after thorough fact-checking that the article is accurate and easily comprehensible.

  2. 19 July, 2011 12:43 pm

    This must be the most mis-understood rule both for motorists and bicycle riders. One is that many bicycle riders are unaware, thinking that just being on the bike lane means that left turning cars have to give way to them, so they ride through. And drivers also are unaware and often stop and wait for bikes to go through before turning left (which of course adds to the confusion).

    Many times I stopped behind a left turning car and the car stopped as well waiting for me to go through which causes a mexican stand-off. I wonder that because many bike riders are unaware of this road rule and just cycle through, car drivers understandingly wanting to avoid a collision ‘play safe’ and stop.

    • 19 July, 2011 1:24 pm

      Excellent point Guido. Riders shouldn’t play on their vulnerability and oblige drivers to give way. Common courtesy and a bit of reasonable turn-taking is required. Having said that, I wish communication with car drivers wasn’t so difficult in that situation. Drivers are severely hampered by having to look over their shoulder and by not being able to hear or make themselves heard ver y well. Better understanding of the road regulations by both riders and drivers should minimise stand-offs because both parties are clearer who has right of way.

  3. 19 July, 2011 5:48 pm

    So, when a driver races past a bunch of riders occupying an entire lane and then proceeds to cut in front, brake hard and turn left causing the bunch to have to emergency stop, that’s dangerous driving? This situation happens repeatedly in Sydney. We’ve even had cars turn into the bunch itself as they couldn’t make it past before the street they wanted to turn into. Sydney drivers suck.

    I understand that cars have right of way when they’re turning left I would agree with you that the cyclist should pull out into the lane as the cars start to move forward and ride through as the front car turns left.

  4. jthooker permalink
    27 September, 2012 1:36 pm

    I ride a motorbike when I’m not riding my pushy and have nearly collected a number of cyclists when i have taken off after giving way to pedestrians. Cyclists need to be more aware of this rule and of the general principle that they don’t always have the right of way in every single situation (which seems to be the common perspective…).

  5. crunchysteve permalink
    4 February, 2014 9:28 am

    Nitpick with the wording. Nobody has a “right” to overtake, be it a cyclist’s “unique right to overtake on the left” or a motorist’s “right” to overtake a slower vehicle. Overtaking is NOT a right, it may only be done when it is safe _FOR_ALL_ to do so. So lets stop talking about “right”s on the road, because motoring is licenced, a grant of conditional privilege which can be revoked, is not a right. The only rights on the road are freedom of movement in public space and only walking, and to some extent, cycling are guaranteed under that.

  6. J Cooper permalink
    11 June, 2014 10:52 pm

    As a motorist who has been overtaken on the left when signalling a left turn on numerous occasions I wish more cyclists understood these rules. The motorist is in a difficult situation where he or she is required to watch in front to guide the vehicle around the corner, avoid pedestrians (many of whom also fail to stop when the flashing red starts) and simultaneously watch the left mirror (or over the left shoulder) to spot cyclists coming up from behind on the inside. We simply can’t watch out the front and behind at the same time! Some cyclists also show minimal caution in these situations, coming up quite quickly on the inside as if they were in the Tour de France, giving the motorist minimal warning of their approach. I haven’t worn one on my passenger side door yet, but I’ve had to brake fairly sharply to stop my turn for a few individuals to avoid putting my front mudguard in their way. Please, folks, have a little care, this really is a difficult situation. I’m not in the habit of overtaking cyclists and jamming on the brakes (having been nearly cleaned up myself on a bicycle in just such a situation many years ago) but with the intorduction of these bike lanes I am seeing more and more cyclists acting as if that white line was somehow going to protect them from injury….


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