It’s important to know your legal rights (and duties) when bicycling in Tennessee. It is especially important after a bicycle accident (we call them bicycle “crashes” and explain why here).
For any questions about the State’s bike laws, or about your rights to the road, contact attorney Amy Johnson directly.
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.
Right to the Road
- Tennessee bicyclists generally have the same rights, and same duties, as drivers of motor vehicles.
- 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.
- Clinging to motor vehicles while biking is not permitted.
- Bicycles may only carry the number of persons for which it is designed, except an adult may carry a child in a backpack or sling.
- Sirens are not permitted on bicycles except for use by a police or fire department.
- There is no statewide requirement for helmets for adults, however, children under 16 years of age in Tennessee must legally wear a helmet while riding in public.
- 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.”
- Tennessee’s DUI statute does NOT apply to bicyclists and the state’s DUII (driving under the influence of intoxicants) does not apply to people on bikes, however other criminal statutes would be applicable, such as reckless endangerment, and all applicable traffic laws requiring due care.
- 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 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.
Where to Ride
- Bicycles are to ride as close as practicable and safe to the right side of the roadway except when overtaking or passing another vehicle when preparing to make a left turn, when necessary to avoid a fixed or slow-moving object or vehicle or when riding in a substandard width lane.
- 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.”
- Sidewalk riding is generally permitted but bicyclists except where prohibited by local ordinance. Cyclists riding on a sidewalk must yield the right of way to pedestrians and must give an audible signal before passing.
- 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.
Bike Lanes, Bike Paths, and Multi-Use Paths
- Tennessee bicyclists are NOT required to ride in or upon bike lanes or paths when it is adjacent to the roadway with exceptions for right and left turns and to avoid hazards.
- 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.
- To turn left bicyclists may perform a “box turn” or use the left turn lane.
- A left-turning bicyclist has the right of way over a driver intending to proceed straight at an intersection.
Stop Signs and Traffic Control Devices
- Bicyclists are required to come to a full and complete stop at all stop signs and traffic lights displaying a red signal.
- Bicyclists must use hand/arm signals when turning and stopping.
- 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.
Drivers Overtaking Bicyclists
- If a vehicle is passing a cyclist, they must maintain a safe distance of no less than 3 feet until safely past the bicycle
Drivers using bike lanes
- Motor vehicles may not travel or park in bike lanes
Bicycles Passing on the Right
- Bicyclists may pass motor vehicles on the right if it is reasonably safe to do so.
- Bicyclists may not ride more than 2 abreast and cyclists riding 2 abreast may not impede motor vehicle traffic. Bicyclists riding two abreast must be in the same lane. Cyclists are permitted to ride two abreast, but, “shall not impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.”
- 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.
- Every bicycle must be equipped with a white front-facing headlight, and a red rear reflector or light, visible from at least 500 feet when used at nighttime.
- Every bicycle must have a red reflector or lighting device or material of such size or characteristics and so mounted as to be visible from all distances up to 600 feet to the rear when directly in front of lawful lower beams of headlights on a motor vehicle.
- Every bicycle shall be equipped with a brake that will adequately control the movement of and stop and hold such bicycle within 15 from 10 mph on level dry clean pavement.
Police Inspection of Bicycles
- A uniformed police officer may stop and inspect a bicycle at any time upon the reasonable cause that a bicycle is unsafe or not equipped as required by law.
- 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.
- 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, and 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 that may be presented to the Tennessee legislature soon. As it stands, cyclists are required to obey red lights and stop signs.
Tennessee E-Bike Laws
- Tennessee law defines an electric-assisted bicycle as a device upon which any person may ride that is equipped with two (2) or three (3) wheels, any of which is twenty inches (20″) or more in diameter, fully operable pedals for human propulsion, and an electric motor of less than seven hundred fifty (750) watts
- electric bikes are divided into three classes based upon pedal-assisted bikes (class 1 and 3) bicycles which are capable of being exclusively motor propelled (class 2), and max speeds at which the motor ceases to provide assistance, (20mph for class 1 and 2, 28mph for class 3).
- Bicyclists may use class 1 and 2 e-bikes in the same matter as traditional bicycles except sidewalk riding is prohibited except where authorized by local ordinance
- class 3 e-bikes are not allowed on paths or trails where bicycles are allowed to travel, except where the bike path is adjacent to or part of the street or highway, or allowed by local ordinance.
- riders using class 3 e-bikes must legally use a helmet, and children under 14 are prohibited from operating class 3 e-bikes.
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 (1-866-204-9172) to discuss this topic further.