Laws of the Road for Minnesota Bicyclists
Bikes are vehicles in the eyes of the law (with a few exceptions)
on September 25, 2017
Updated on March 22, 2022
As more commuters take to their bikes to get themselves to work, school and around town, there can be increased tension between bikes and cars over rights to the road. Cyclists in Minnesota are responsible for knowing applicable traffic laws, which often—but not always—follow the rules for other vehicles.
“I think most people feel bicycles shouldn’t be on the road and should just stay on sidewalks, but in most cities it’s actually illegal for a bicycle to be on the sidewalk,” says Randy G. Knutson, an attorney with Knutson+Casey in Mankato who specializes in bicycle accidents. “They don’t understand that, really, they have the same rights as drivers with a couple of exceptions.”
Standard rights and duties applicable to all vehicles apply to bikes and cyclists, except where explicitly distinguished. Bicycles have the right to be on the road with cars and other vehicles (except on freeways where expressly prohibited), and cyclists are required to follow all traffic laws.
The “Right” Side of the Road
Minnesota follows the common “AFRAP” rule—that bikes should travel as far to the right as practicable. “Practicable” may be subject to interpretation, but is generally understood to mean reasonable and safe, such as moving further into a traffic lane to avoid debris in the street. “The right side of the road is often filled with glass, car parts, gravel—it’s never very safe, frankly,” Knutson notes. Other exceptions to remaining on the right are when making a left turn, or when passing a slower bike or car.
Also: Bikes must travel in the same direction as traffic; cyclists may not ride more than two abreast, and may not impede the regular flow of traffic; riding on the sidewalk is permitted unless banned by a local ordinance, but bikes must yield right of way to pedestrians; riding in a designated bike lane is not required.
“There’s this perception that it’s OK to cycle against traffic—and therefore you can see what the cars are doing—but that is really dangerous,” Knutson says. “If someone is turning right in front of you, they look left and don’t see anything and then they hit you. That’s a real no-no and I see tons of bikes doing it.”
Cars must leave at least three feet of clearance between their vehicle and a bike, and more space as needed for safety, such as when travelling at higher speeds.
Cyclists must obey all traffic signs and signals, including stopping for a school bus. An exception to this rule applies to traffic lights triggered by a sensor that doesn’t recognize a bike. After coming to a complete stop for a red light, waiting to determine that the light remains unchanged for an unreasonable length of time, and assuring there is no approaching traffic, a cyclist may proceed through the red light.
Bicyclists commonly also come to rolling stops, Knutson adds. “If you’ve ridden a bike when you’re clipped in, you know why that is. A lot of cars may be mad about that, but the fact is: If bikes stopped fully every time, it would slow traffic down.”
Minnesota has distracted driving laws relating to cell phone use and texting while driving. These rules, applicable to “motor vehicles,” do not apply to those on bikes. However, safety and common sense, as well as the physics of riding a bike, make it advisable to refrain while riding. Similarly, wearing earbuds or headphones while biking is not illegal.
Some states have DUI laws that apply to people on bicycles, but Minnesota’s rules apply only to those operating motor vehicles. Other Minnesota laws may pertain to intoxicated biking, however, such as disorderly conduct or public nuisance. It’s worth noting that studies show a significant percentage of bicycle-related accidents occur with intoxicated cyclists, and that injuries incurred while intoxicated tend to be more severe.
One of the most common types of accidents between bikes and cars, especially in urban areas, occurs when someone in a car opens their door into an oncoming cyclist. Minnesota law places responsibility for preventing such an event on those in the car, prohibiting opening “any door on a motor vehicle unless and until it is reasonably safe to do so.”
All bikes must have functioning brakes capable of skidding on dry, clean, level pavement. Where it’s too dark for clear visibility at 500 feet, a cyclist must have both a white light in the front and a red reflector or light visible behind them.
Though strongly recommended for safety, a helmet is not legally required in Minnesota. Helmet requirement laws are somewhat tricky, in that they can have unintended consequences, like being used against cyclists not wearing helmets who suffer injuries in accidents, to negate liability. In addition, there can be impact disparities in low-income communities where obtaining a helmet may be a hardship.