An upcoming study of bicycling laws requested by the state legislature has resulted in a flurry of discussion and recommendations by non-bicyclist stakeholders, many of whom are unfamiliar with existing state laws. A common point of confusion is the legal distinction between bicycles and motor vehicles. We hope this post can clarify this issue.
Existing state law clearly defines bicycles as vehicles, and defines bicyclists as having the responsibilities of drivers of vehicles. State law separately defines a motor vehicle as being self-propelled, i.e. motorized. “Motor vehicles” are by definition a subset of “vehicles.”
§ 20-4.01(49) Vehicle. – Every device in, upon, or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway, excepting devices moved by human power or used exclusively upon fixed rails or tracks; provided, that for the purposes of this Chapter bicycles shall be deemed vehicles and every rider of a bicycle upon a highway shall be subject to the provisions of this Chapter applicable to the driver of a vehicle except those which by their nature can have no application….
§ 20-4.01(23) Motor Vehicle. – Every vehicle which is self-propelled and every vehicle designed to run upon the highways which is pulled by a self-propelled vehicle.
Here is a Venn diagram, which might help:
Determination of whether or not a state law applies to bicyclists is straightforward. If the law says “motor vehicle” then it does not apply to bicyclists or bicycles. If the law only says “vehicle” then it applies to all vehicles including bicycles and animal-drawn vehicles. The basic rules of movement aka “rules of the road” for drivers generally apply to all vehicles including bicycles. Some special laws are written to apply only to motor vehicles, typically due to their greater inherent danger to the public. Examples of these special motor vehicle laws are requirements for an operator license and insurance.
For more information, see our paper on best bicycling practices and state law.