Share & Be Aware: Smart Bicycling

You can dramatically increase your safety on the road by:

  • Making sure your bike is in good working order
  • Observing traffic laws
  • Being aware of road conditions

Under Wisconsin law, bicycles are vehicles. That means that bicyclists on the road have the same rights and responsibilities as drivers of motor vehicles. If you know the laws that apply to driving a car, you know the laws that apply to bicycling. By obeying traffic signs and signals, following all other rules of the road and bicycling in a predictable manner, you’ll find more courtesy and respect on the road.




You can find a summary of Wisconsin bicycle laws here.

Watch this 7-minute safety video from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for some great tips about cycling in traffic. Traffic tips begin about four-and-a-half minutes into the video. For more videos, visit our Bike Skills playlist on YouTube.


A note about crashes:

Bicycling has an undeserved bad rap when it comes to safety.  Riding a bicycle is incredibly safe already, and the crash rate has decreased steadily for the last 15 years or so. Yet when you ask people what their greatest fear is about riding a bike, the answer is often, “Getting hit by a car.” As long as you follow these tips below and obey the law, you can join the more than 2.5 million people who enjoy safe bicycle rides in Wisconsin every year.

Don’t weave

Bicycle in a straight line. Do not weave in and out of traffic/parking lanes/sidewalks.

Ride with traffic

Always ride in the same direction as other traffic - including on one-way streets. Some people believe that bicyclists are like pedestrians and should travel facing motor vehicle traffic. This is illegal and has been shown to dramatically increase the risk of a collision because:

Drivers don’t expect you to be there and won’t be looking for you

Bicyclists traveling in the proper direction will have difficulty avoiding a collision with you.

It forces you into oncoming traffic if you need to swerve

You can’t see road signs

You can’t make proper turns

The “closing speed” (velocity at impact) between you and another road user makes a collision more dangerous

Always ride in the same direction as traffic.


Ride as far to the right as practicable


Wisconsin law requires bicyclists to ride “as close as practicable” to the right of the road. “Practicable” generally means safe and reasonable; it does not mean hugging the curb. You should right far enough from the shoulder to be able to maneuver around debris or hazardous objects you come upon without having to swerve into traffic.


A major exception to the principle of riding on the right occurs on one-way streets with two or more lanes. In such cases, one should ride as far to the right or left as practicable. See Wisconsin state statute 346.80(2)(b).

Ride to the right, but stay about 3 feet from the curb and parked cars.




You are required by Wisconsin law to exercise due care when passing parked cars. (View this video on our YouTube channel for a more detailed illustration of what safe distance from parked cars looks like.) You must give parked or stopped buses at least three feet of space.

When passing moving vehicles, you must pass on the left and allow a safe distance between yourself and the other vehicle. If the moving vehicle you’re passing happens to be a bicycle, it’s always polite to give a friendly audible warning, such as a bell ring or a “Hello - passing on your left.”

Avoid the door zone when riding next to parked cars.


Know when to ‘take the lane’


According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, you should ‘take the lane’ if you are traveling at or close to the speed of motor vehicle traffic.

You should also take the lane if it is too narrow for a bicycle and a motor vehicle to travel safely side by side (with three feet of clearance), you should ride in the center of the lane. If you are concerned that this will impede motor vehicle traffic, you can pull off the road (if it is safe to do so) to allow motor vehicles to pass, but do not hug the curb. This could tempt motorists to pass without giving you adequate clearance.

In some instances, you may be legally required to pull off the road to allow a motor vehicle to pass, but never when pulling off would be unsafe. For more information, please see Wisconsin statute 346.59, “Minimum speed regulation.”

Bicycles are allowed full use of a lane when it is too narrow to be shared.

Use hand signals


The alternate method circled in red is now a legal right turn signal.

According to Wisconsin state statute 346.34(1)(b), bicyclists must signal their intention to turn for the 50 feet prior to making their turn, as long as signaling does not interfere with operating the bicycle. Note the Bike Fed had our state law changed to now allow the use of the alternate right turn hand signal circled in the diagram.

The short video (below right) illustrates, in less than two minutes, how to signal turns and stops. Please not that, in Wisconsin, the legal standard for the right-turn signal is the left arm raised with hand and forearm pointing upward.

Signals and stop signs 

Because bicycles are vehicles, operators must obey all traffic signals and signs the same as if they were driving a car. That means coming to a complete stop at stop signs and stopping (and waiting through) red lights.

Wisconsin statute 346.37(1)(c)(4) does outline one exception to this rule for operators of bicycles, motorcycles, mopeds and motorbikes. The exception is for intersections where the lights are controlled by vehicle-actuated sensors - that is, the light will only change when it senses that a vehicle is present. Some sensors do not pick up smaller vehicles, such as bicycles and motorcycles, and therefore will not change no matter how long the operator waits at the light. If you are on a bicycle and have waited at least 45 seconds at a red light, and you believe the light only changes color when it senses the presence of a motor vehicle, you may proceed through the intersection if it is safe to do so

Here’s what the statute says:

  • “a motorcycle, moped, motor bicycle, or bicycle facing a red signal at an intersection may, after stopping as required under subd. 1. for not less than 45 seconds, proceed cautiously through the intersection before the signal turns green if no other vehicles are present at the intersection to actuate the signal and the operator of the motorcycle, moped, motor bicycle, or bicycle reasonably believes the signal is vehicle actuated. The operator of a motorcycle, moped, motor bicycle, or bicycle proceeding through a red signal under this subdivision shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicular traffic, pedestrian, bicyclist, or rider of an electric personal assistive mobility device proceeding through a green signal at the intersection or lawfully within a crosswalk or using the intersection.”

Ride defensively

Be aware of what is going on around you, both in terms of roadway conditions as well as other traffic. Watch the road for hazards like sand, broken glass, potholes and railroad tracks. Watch side streets, driveways, alleys and parked cars for traffic that may enter the street in front of you or turn across your path. Remember that trees, shrubs, fences, bright sunlight and darkness can make it difficult for you to see and for others to see you. Adapt your riding style to minimize these and other hazards.

Learn where crashes are most likely to happen

While the overwhelming majority of bike crashes do not involve cars, it’s important to learn how to avoid collisions with cars. You can do your part by following the tips above and further protect yourself by learning the most common motorist errors that lead to car-bike collisions. Once you know them, you will be better equipped to spot motorists who may be about to make a driving error.

Most crashes happen at intersections. Avoid the right hook and left cross by riding in the middle of the lane.


For more information

This list of guidelines for safe and legal riding is not comprehensive. For more information, please visit our Wisconsin bicycle laws page, review the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s Rules for Riding Bicycles on the Road or contact the Bike Fed.

© 2010 Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin   Join BFW        Donate to

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 11 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave lives with his wife Liz and daughter Frankie in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's west side.

2 thoughts on “Share & Be Aware: Smart Bicycling

  1. I live in the Blue Mounds area and we constantly have bike traffic (not on the bike trail) in our area.
    If bicyclers are supposed to follow the same rules as motor vehicle drivers, WHY ARE THEY CONSTANTLY
    RIDING 2,3, 4 ABREAST on the road? It seems like they think that because they are in the country that no one drives around on the roads or lives out there. Most of the country roads in my area are at least 40 mph, if not more, and when you come around a corner doing the posted speed limit and there are cyclist
    riding 3 abreast that is a good way to get hit. Most of the time I notice that on very main highways, where you can see for quite a distance, they cyclist blatantly ride this way and they get angry at we drivers for honking at them, yelling at them, whatever. It is ROAD, not a bike trail.

    This msg. in no way represents the thoughts or opinions of my employer.

    • Hi Molly,

      Thanks for your email. The blessing and the curse is that you have the misfortune of living in one of the more beautiful places to ride a bicycle in Wisconsin, and when you have more people doing anything, you get more people who make poor decisions. People are people, and just as most people drive over the speed limit or don’t stop for pedestrians trying to cross the street because they can get away with it, many people on bikes break the laws they can get away with.

      State law is very clear in that people are not allowed to ride bicycles more than two abreast, but just as sheriff’s can’t seem to get people to stop speeding, even with radar, lidar, signs, etc. they can’t seem to get everyone who rides a bike to obey the law. Although state law is clear, most people are never taught the laws regarding bicycles. For instance my daughter just went through drivers ed, and she never received any education about the laws regarding bicycling or walking. Her drivers test did not include any questions about bicycle laws or pedestrian laws either. No wonder so few obey the law. The Wisconsin Bike Fed does do as much education and encouragement as we can. We teach adults and children the rules of the road, and we have all the laws and riding techniques on our website, in PSAs, on yard signs (which you can purchase if you want) and on billboards. We even teach classes to law enforcement and drivers ed instructors.

      Even with all we do to encourage lawful, safe riding, we are hardly reaching everyone. And even if everyone was taught the law, my guess is many would break it, just as every driver knows the speed limit, but most drive at least 5mph over, some much higher.

      As for the difficulty of being surprised on the wonderfully hilly and curvy roads in your area of the state, those same sight line issues are true of farmers driving tractors. Since that remains a rural area, I expect that is an issue for all drivers, even if there were no people riding bicycles. Northern Racine is horse country, and many people who live there ride horses on the trails that cross the roads, so there are warning signs up on roads with hills or curves near the Caledonia trails to warn drivers. Perhaps on popular bike routes, there should be similar warning signs near curves in your area. Even people riding two up or single file 2-3 feet from the edge of the road are vulnerable in those situations.

      I certainly understand your frustration with scofflaws. I feel the same about any road user who breaks the law, whether they are in a car, on a bicycle or on foot. The only thing I can say about people on bikes who violate the law is that they pay the ultimate consequence themselves. If a person on a bike or walking violates the law and gets hit by a car, it is the more they are the ones who get hurt or killed. Unfortunately the opposite is also true, as has been the case in all the fatal bike crashes so far this year, that when the person driving the car violates the law and kills a person on a bike (or walking) who is obeying all the laws, the innocent person on the bike still pays the ultimate price and the person in the car typically gets off with a moving violation.

      The Bike Fed will continue to work to educate and encourage people on bikes, walking and in cars to obey all the laws. Until we get everyone to do so, the only other thing we can do is be the change we want to see in others and set a good example. Personally, I never speed when driving and when I am a passenger, I annoy my friends by constantly asking them to slow down or stop for pedestrians. When I ride my bike in a group, I let others know that I intend to obey the laws and stop for red lights, ride to the right, etc. This doesn’t make me popular in my car or on a bike, but it is consistent with my beliefs. I’m sure you do the same. Thanks again for your email.

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