What does “Impeding Traffic” mean?

Earlier this year Salem cyclist David Fox had an encounter with an irate motorist on State Street, a three lane one way street that runs by Oregon’s State Capitol. Despite riding to the right on the street, the motorist became angry at him and told David “if I was impeding traffic, then I had to pull to the side. But I told him he had plenty of room to go around. The last thing he said was: ‘I hope you are killed by a car.’” David’s encounter led him to erect his own signs along State Street to educate road users about the law. He removed the signs shortly after putting them up.

Two of Oregon’s Rules of the Road that bicyclists are frequently cited for violating, ORS 814.430 Improper use of lanes and ORS 811.130 Impeding traffic, include references to “impeding traffic.” The term “impeding traffic” is not defined anywhere in the statutory vehicle code, and the definition of the term is not as simple as a lot of motor vehicle driver’s believe it is, including the driver that threatened David.

In 2005 the Oregon Court of Appeals defined what impeding traffic meant in State v. Tiffin, 202 Or App 199 (2005). In the case the defendant, Jacob Tiffin, was followed by two police officers on a two lane road in Josephine County with a posted speed limit of 40MPH. Tiffin was driving between 28 and 30 miles per hour. Despite there being several turnouts on the road, Tiffin continued driving with the police officers following him until he was eventually pulled over for violating ORS 811.130 Impeding traffic for driving under the speed limit. Tiffin was charged and convicted of driving under the influence of intoxicants. Tiffin appealed his conviction on the grounds that the police officers lacked probable cause to believe he had violated ORS 811.130 Impeding traffic because the officers could have safely and reasonably passed him but chose not to.

The court agreed with Tiffin and in doing so defined what it means to impede (or, rather, not impede) traffic: “here the officers were forced to slow down for only a fraction of a mile before they had the opportunity to pass defendant… [and] where the speed (of Tiffin) was not significantly below the speed limit, there were no other cars on the road, and if the officer’s vehicle was blocked at all, it was for a very short distance, if cannot be said that [Tiffin] violated ORS 811.130 by blocking or impeding the normal and reasonable flow of traffic.” The officers in Tiffin “were therefore not impeded or blocked – they could have safely and lawfully passed him but chose not to…there is no evidence that, before the officers decided to remain behind his vehicle and follow him, that he impeded ‘reasonable and normal’ traffic movement.”

How this case translates into Oregon bicycle law is that if a car driver behind a cyclist has the ability to safely and reasonably pass the bicyclist moving more slowly, the car driver is not “impeded”, even if they have to wait a fraction of a mile to do so. The driver who threatened David had ample ability to pass him by moving over into any of the other unoccupied lanes of State Street, but chose not to do so.

Do bicyclists have the right of way on narrow streets?

Narrow residential streets with parking often present scenarios like the one in the photo below and have prompted residents to try novel solutions in an effort to make traffic flow safe and efficient.

Narrow Street

At the bicycle legal clinics I present, I have been asked about how the right of way works on streets that are too narrow to allow two vehicles to proceed at the same time, even if one is a bicycle. There is a mistaken presumption by some roadway users that a vehicle traveling uphill has the right of way, or that a bicycle has a universal right of way over other vehicles.

ORS 811.295 Failure to drive on right requires all vehicles to travel on the right half of the roadway so long as it is sufficiently wide enough to do so. If an obstruction or condition, like parked cars, makes it necessary for a vehicle to drive to the left of the center of the roadway (see the taxi in the photo above) the operator of the vehicle driving to the left must yield the right of way to all vehicles traveling in the proper direction upon the unobstructed portion of the roadway within a distance that would constitute an immediate hazard.

ORS 811.300 Failure to drive on right of approaching vehicle requires that each vehicle operator driving on a roadway give approaching vehicles at least one-half of the main traveled portion of the roadway as nearly as possible.

In the photo above, the taxi immediately moved to the right after going between the parked cars, in compliance with the law.

So, if two vehicles are approaching one another and vehicle 1 needs to move to the left of the center of the roadway or needs to deprive vehicle 2 of their half of the roadway, it is the duty of the vehicle 1 to yield to vehicle 2. If vehicle 1 and vehicle 2 are approaching a narrow section where both will need to move to the left of the center of the roadway or deprive an oncoming vehicle of their half of the roadway the law is silent and no right of way for one vehicle exists over the other.

Do bicyclists have to yield to buses in Oregon?

In some circumstances bicyclists, and all other vehicle operators, are required to yield the right of way to transit buses in Oregon.

ORS 811.167 Failure to yield right of way to transit bus requires that vehicle operators approaching a transit bus from the rear are required to yield the right of way to the bus if the bus is trying to re-enter traffic after stopping to drop off or pick up passengers AND the bus has a illuminated, flashing yield sign displayed.

Here, a Trimet bus has its yield sign illuminated but motor vehicle traffic is failing to yield, causing the bus to block the bicycle lane.

In the picture above you can see that that Trimet bus’s yield sign (circled in red) is illuminated but the motor vehicle traffic has failed to yield, causing the bus to block the bicycle lane and prevent the bus behind it from getting to its stop.

ORS 811.167 Failure to yield right of way to transit bus

(1)A person commits the offense of failure to yield the right of way to a transit bus entering traffic if the person does not yield the right of way to a transit bus when:

     (a) A yield sign as described in subsection (2) of this section is displayed on the back of the transit bus;

     (b)The person is operating a vehicle that is overtaking the transit bus from the rear of the transit bus; and

     (c)The transit bus, after stopping to receive or discharge passengers, is signaling an intention to enter the traffic lane occupied by the person.

(2)The yield sign referred to in subsection (1)(a) of this section shall warn a person operating a motor vehicle approaching the rear of a transit bus that the person must yield when the transit bus is entering traffic. The yield sign shall be illuminated by a flashing light when the bus is signaling an intention to enter a traffic lane after stopping to receive or discharge passengers. The Oregon Transportation Commission shall adopt by rule the message on the yield sign, specifications for the size, shape, color, lettering and illumination of the sign and specifications for the placement of the sign on a transit bus.

(3)This section does not relieve a driver of a transit bus from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons using the roadway.

(4)As used in this section, transit bus means a commercial bus operated by a city or a county, a mass transit district established under ORS 267.010 to ORS 267.390 or a transportation district established under ORS 267.510 to 267.650.

(5)The offense described in this section, failure to yield the right of way to a transit bus entering traffic, is a Class D traffic violation. [1997 c.509 §2; 2013 c.202 §1

Who has the right-of-way at a four-way stop in Oregon?

Everyone has seen the infamous Portlandia skit.

Despite what you may have learned in driver’s education about four way stops in Oregon, the person who stopped first or the person to your right does not have the legal right-of-way. Neither does the person going straight have right-of-way over the person turning left if they are not already in the intersection. The only person who has the right-of-way at a four way stop in Oregon is the vehicle operator who is already in the intersection.

ORS 811.260(15) Appropriate driver responses to traffic control devices contains the controlling law for a vehicle operator facing a stop sign.

(15) Stop signs. A driver approaching a stop sign shall stop at a clearly marked stop line, but if none, before entering the marked crosswalk on the near side of the intersection or, if there is no marked crosswalk, then at the point nearest the intersecting roadway where the driver has a view of approaching traffic on the intersecting roadway before entering it. After stopping, the driver shall yield the right of way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time when the driver is moving across or within the intersection.

There is no right-of-way for the vehicle approaching from a vehicle operator’s right at a controlled intersection like that found in ORS 811.275 Failure to yield the right of way at uncontrolled intersection for uncontrolled intersections (a topic for another day).

The Oregon Driver Manual says

At any intersection with stop signs in all four directions, it is common courtesy to allow the driver who stops first to go first. If in doubt yield to the driver on your right. To avoid the risk of a crash, never insist on the right of way.

2014-2015 Oregon Driver Manual, page 44.  Emphasis added.

So the next time someone waves you through you can proceed knowing you are not snatching the right-of-way from them. Once you cross your vehicle over that stop line and into the intersection that right-of-way is legally yours.

Does a bicyclist have to stop for railroad crossing signals in Oregon?

Yes, all vehicles have to stop and remain stopped when a railroad signal is displayed or a train is approaching and is close enough to be an immediate hazard.

In Oregon a vehicle (which includes a bicycle whether operated on the street or the sidewalk) must stop for a railroad signal or when a train is approaching and is close enough to be an immediate hazard, even if there are no railroad crossing signals.

Railroad crossing along Portland's new Orange Line

Railroad crossing along Portland’s new Orange Line

ORS 811.455 requires vehicle operators to stop at a stop line or, if there is no stop line, not less than 15 feet from a rail line when:

  • A clearly visible electric or mechanical signal is warning of the approach of a train.
  • When a crossing gate is lowered.
  • When a signal is given by a flagger or police officer that a train is approaching.
  • When an approaching train is clearly visible and is so close as to be an immediate hazard.
  • When an audible signal is given by a train because its speed or nearness to the crossing is an immediate hazard.

A vehicle operator must stop and remain stopped for a train until it is safe to proceed across the tracks.  This means that a vehicle operator is not required to wait until the signal ends, only until the train has passed and it is safe to proceed: “A driver who has stopped for the passing of a train at a railroad grade crossing in accordance with the provisions of this section shall not proceed across the railroad tracks until the driver can do so safely.”  ORS 811.455(1)(b).

Railroad crossing gate lowered.

Railroad crossing gate lowered.

When the crossing has crossing gates, though, a vehicle operator must wait until the crossing gate is fully opened before proceeding though, even is there is no train approaching or the train has already cleared the crossing: “A person shall not drive any vehicle through, around or under a crossing gate or barrier at a railroad crossing while the gate or barrier is closed or is being opened or closed.” ORS 811.455(1)(b).