In a recent court decision in Portland, Oregon, a cyclist was given a $242.00 citation for riding a bicycle that was not equipped with a “hand brake.” The cyclist was riding a fixed gear bike and the officer ticketed the cyclist, because the bicycle did not comply with Oregon law that requires bicycles to be “equipped with a brake that enables the operator to make the braked wheels skid on dry, level, clean pavement.” The cyclist attempted to fight the ticket in court, arguing that her legs, chain and cog were an adequate braking device, but the court disagreed and upheld the ticket.
Jack VanDyke of RockDove Couriers, a downtown Detroit bicycle courier service, read about this Oregon decision and sought our advice. Jack was concerned that he might be breaking the law by cycling on his fixed gear bicycle that was not equipped with a breaking mechanism. Michigan law requires bicycles to be equipped with a brake. Specifically, Michigan law states that bicycles must be equipped with “a brake which will enable the operator to make the braked wheels skid on dry, level, clean pavement,” the exact same language used in Oregon. We haven’t heard of any Michigan cyclists being ticketed for cycling on a bike without a braking mechanism, but if you cycle with a bike that is not equipped with some sort of brake you risk being cited with a civil infraction.
If we were defending the cyclist in Oregon, or Jack here in Michigan, we would argue that the law does NOT require a “hand brake.” The law requires “a brake which will enable the operator to make the braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement.” Fixed gear bikes are equipped with a type of cog that allows you to brake using your body weight. According to Jack, any fairly good rider can make a fixed gear bike skid when traveling 10-15 mph or less. We would ask the ticketed rider to demonstrate to the judge (and jury, if one were requested) how he or she can skid on “dry, level, clean pavement.” The cog on a fixed gear bike is clearly designed for breaking. We’d compare it to a track bike cog that is purposely designed not to break or to a road bike cog or bike with a coaster brake. Road bikes have a “free wheel” or “cassette” type of cog, probably the type that the Oregon judge thought (WRONGLY) were on the fixed gear bike. As we know, “freewheel” and “cassette” cogs are not designed for braking. That is why road bikes have hand breaks. Most cruisers, leisure or children’s bicycles have coaster brakes. As you may recall, coaster brakes engage when the cyclist pedals backwards.
Jack also asked us what other equipment he was required to install on his bike. Under Michigan law, a cyclist can be cited with a civil infraction for failing to have two items: (1) Failing to have a brake, as described above, and (2) for failing to have lights and reflectors when cycling on a roadway at night (defined as between ½ hour after sunset and ½ hour before sunrise). If you ride at night, you must have a headlamp installed on the front of your bike that emits a white light that can be visible at least 500 feet to the front. You are also required to have a red reflector on the rear of your bike that is visible from 100 to 600 feet. It is also recommended that a lamp that emits a red light be mounted on the back of your bike. While the law may only require you to have headlamps and reflectors when you operate your bike at night, we recommend that you also use these items when weather conditions, like fog or rain, dictate.
Michigan law also requires the following two pieces of equipment to be installed on a bicycle when it is sold:
• Spoke Reflectors. By law, when you purchase a bicycle it must have either tires with reflective sidewalls or spoke reflectors. The reflectors on the front wheel must be colorless or amber and the reflectors on the rear wheel must be colorless or red. Reflective sidewalls or reflectors must be visible from 100 to 600 feet.
• Reflective Pedals. It is a requirement that all bikes, when sold, be equipped with pedals that have a reflector on the front and rear surfaces of the pedal. The reflectors may either be part of the pedals or mechanically attached and must be visible from a distance of 200 feet. If you have clipless pedals, you probably don’t have reflectors on your pedals. Again, if you don’t ride at night this shouldn’t cause any problems. Just as a precaution, you may want to purchase bike shoes that have reflectors built into the design or buy reflective stickers and put them on your shoes.
Notably, the law only requires that spoke reflectors and reflective pedals be mounted on the bicycle when it is sold. A bicyclist cannot be ticketed for failing to have either of these two items mounted on their bicycle. We always recommend that you purchase some reflective items and either attach them to your bike or wear reflective clothes. The key, though, is to be aware of your responsibilities and obligations under the law and decide accordingly.
As always, should any cyclist have questions or concerns, please feel free to contact us. Have fun and ride safely!