Bicycle Accident Attorney Amy Benner explains the rights and duties of Tennessee cyclists.
This article serves as an overview of some of the laws which apply to cyclists while riding in Tennessee. Bicycles are defined as vehicles, and are lawfully allowed on many roadways in Tennessee, subject to certain provisions which are designed with cyclist safety in mind.
Determining fault is a requirement in any lawsuit, and an award of damages to a cyclist in a collision case hinges on whether or not a plaintiff can prove this key element. Tennessee law requires a plaintiff to prove that a defendant was negligent (had a duty to exercise reasonable care (or more) in a given situation, breached that duty, causing damages to the plaintiff as a natural foreseeable result of the breach of duty), and that the combined negligence of all persons responsible for the plaintiff’s injuries, other than the plaintiff themselves, amounts to 51% or greater. In a Tennessee Supreme Court opinion issued in 1992, Tennessee adopted modified comparative fault to be used in assessing damages in personal injury cases. Defendants can raise the issue of contributory negligence of a plaintiff, but so long as a plaintiff remains less at fault than the defendant, and the plaintiff’s fault is less than half the total fault, a plaintiff will recover. So long as a plaintiff is determined to be 49% at fault or less, they can recover for their damages, with the amount of recovery reduced proportionately by the amount which they are determined to be at fault. It is important to remember that the persons whose job it is to determine fault in a bicycle collision case, are the jury; not the judge, not the attorneys, and not the insurance adjustors. A jury has the job of determining the fault, if any, of each person against whom fault is asserted. The fault of multiple defendants, including those unnamed or immune from suit, may be combined to reach the 51% threshold.
Passing and Turning
T.C.A. Title 55, Chapter 8, addresses the rules of the road. Bicycles are considered vehicles, and thus are subject to the applicable rules of the road, and are afforded all the rights of roadway users. Cyclists must pass other vehicles on the left, unless the vehicle being overtaken is about to make a left-hand turn. When being overtaken, or when the lane is too narrow to safely share side by side with a motorist, cyclists are required to move to the right when it is safe to do so. T.C.A. §55-8-143 explains the options available for signaling turns. After making sure it is safe to do so, cyclists may indicate they are going to make a turn by using their arms. The left arm stuck straight out indicates a left hand turn. The right arm stuck straight out indicates a right hand turn. Additionally, the left hand extended upwards indicates a right hand turn, or that the cyclist is pulling over to the right. Extending the arm downwards indicates slowing or coming to a stop.
Cyclists are permitted to ride two abreast, but, “shall not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.”
Substandard Lane Width
T.C.A. §55-8-175, permits a cyclist to take the entire right-hand lane when a lane is substandard width. National standards state that a lane must be fourteen feet wide to allow a motorist and a bicycle to travel safely side by side within the lane. The majority of roads in Tennessee have substandard width lanes, thus a cyclist may lawfully take the entire lane, rather than being restricted by the provision that cyclists must “ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.”
Riding on Sidewalks
Bicycles are not prohibited from being ridden on sidewalks under Tennessee state law. Certain districts restrict bikes on sidewalks. Nashville prohibits riding bicycles on sidewalks within business districts. Memphis and Knoxville Ordinances allow for bicycles on sidewalks, but it may be prohibited in some areas, and cyclists must give audible signals before passing any pedestrians. Any area with a ban on bicycles on sidewalks should have visible signage which makes it clear that bikes must be dismounted in these areas. Chattanooga does not address bikes on sidewalks in their city code.
Helmets are not required for cyclists in Tennessee, except where the cyclist is under the age of sixteen. T.C.A §55-52-105 requires persons under sixteen to wear a helmet, and prohibits parents from knowingly allowing children under the age of twelve to ride without a helmet. Helmet laws are similar to sidewalk laws, in that you should always check local ordinances to determine whether a municipality has a helmet law in effect. Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville all incorporate the helmet requirement for cyclists under sixteen into local ordinances.
T.C.A. §55-52-106(c) states that, “in no event shall failure to wear a protective bicycle helmet or to secure a passenger to a restraining seat be admissible as evidence in a trial of any civil action.”
Biking under the influence
The Tennessee DUI Statute, T.C.A. §55-10-401 specifically excludes bicycles, by defining driving under the influence as, “to drive or to be in in physical control of any automobile or other motor driven vehicle.” This means that cyclists can avoid the costly and damaging penalties associated with a DUI, however this does not mean that a cyclist can lawfully operate a bicycle under the influence of alcohol or any other substance, legal or illegal, should it impair their ability to operate the bicycle and obey the rules of the road. Cyclists operating a bicycle under the influence of alcohol in Tennessee expose themselves to the risk of criminal charges, including but not limited to, public intoxication and reckless endangerment. If you are a cyclist who has been criminally charged in relation to allegedly being under the influence, you will need to hire counsel to represent you.
Tennessee has a very broad distracted driving statute, T.C.A. §55-8-136, otherwise known as the Due Care Law. It requires drivers to maintain a safe speed, lookout, and to devote full time and attention to operating the vehicle. Drivers with learner’s permits or intermediate driver’s licenses shall not operate a motor vehicle while using a cellular telephone.
Representative John D. Ragan sponsored House Bill 1470 in the 2014 legislative session. The bill as proposed, was a version of the Idaho Stop Law, tailored to fit the needs of Tennessee’s cyclists, in Representative Ragan’s opinion. The bill would authorize individuals riding bicycles to pass through a stop sign or red light without stopping, so long as the cyclist slows to a reasonable speed, or stops if necessary to assess safety, and so long as the cyclist yields to all other traffic and pedestrians who are legally in the intersection.
The bill found a senate sponsor, but did not go anywhere in 2014, however it is important to note that it is an area of law which may be presented to the Tennessee legislature soon. As it stands, cyclists are required to obey red lights and stop signs.
Dooring Laws exist in some states, and usually at a minimum, require that motorists opening doors on the side available to moving traffic, not do so unless it is possible to open the door safely without interfering with other traffic. Tennessee does not have a dooring law, however, the Due Care statute appears to encompass this behavior. Memphis Ordinance 11-24-9 states that motor vehicles shall not be parked or stopped in a bicycle lane, unless signs are posted granting motor vehicles permission to do so. Nashville Ordinance 12.60.135 states the same, and additionally states that a bicycle lane shall not be used as a turning or passing lane by motor vehicles.
Mandatory Use of Designated Facilities
Tennessee law does not require that bicyclists use any lane or path other than a normal vehicular traffic lane. Memphis Ordinance 11-24-9 explicitly states that the creation of a bike lane doesn’t inhibit a cyclist’s ability to operate a bike on a roadway. Otherwise, Tennessee law is silent on this issue.
If you have any questions about these laws or how they may apply, please feel free to contact us via email ([email protected]) or phone (1-844-531-7530) to discuss this topic further.