The new sign. Image from the MUTCD.

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) yesterday posted nine rectangular signs stating “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” along MD-953 in Glenn Dale, a narrow 2-lane road that crosses the Washington, Baltimore, and Annapolis Trail.  SHA plans to post similar signs on 18 state highways in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

The signs will “warn motorists that bicycles may be operating anywhere within a traffic lane,” according to SHA Administrator Melinda Peters, marking a step forward for driver education and cyclist safety in Maryland.

Within the Capital Beltway, SHA operates most of the direct bike routes into the District of Columbia from Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, as well as key cross-county routes such as University Boulevard and East-West Highway. Decades ago, SHA converted most shoulders on these roads into general travel lanes, forcing cyclists and drivers to share the road.

The meaning of “share the road” has evolved. For decades, the law required cyclists to keep as far to the right as practicable. This made sense when most cyclists were children proceeding slowly. But at higher speeds, riding too far to the right is hazardous. Drivers and pedestrians are not looking for fast vehicles close to the curb, and cyclists can’t see them emerging from driveways, cross streets, or parked cars.

When lanes are too narrow for a car to pass a bike safely, too many drivers try to pass bikes within the lane anyway. So on those roads, it is safer for a cyclist to ride near the center of the lane, according to Maryland’s Driver Manual.

Section 21-1205(a)(6) of the Maryland Transportation Code says that a cyclist may ride in the center of a narrow lane. But many drivers learned to drive (and bike) back when cyclists were supposed to simply keep to the right. And on any given road, drivers and cyclists may have different perceptions about whether the lane is too narrow to share. So “drivers and cyclists often must guess what the other is going to do,” says Shane Farthing, Executive Director of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association.

Signs will educate, warn drivers

The Federal Highway Administration’s official handbook of highway signs, The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), included a new sign in its most recent update to ensure that drivers and cyclists have the same expectations.  This sign, called the R4-11, says “Bicycles May Use Full Lane.” Because it has the shape of a white rectangle, R4-11 is technically a “regulatory sign,” giving it the force of law.  Wherever it’s posted, cyclists may ride in the center of the lane, even in states that have not legalized this practice, such as New Jersey.

Sign SHA will use in some places. Image from SHA.

In Maryland, which allows cyclists to take the lane, the shape and color of the sign does not change the driving rules.  But there are certain requirements for the placement of all regulatory signs, according to Tom Hicks, who recently retired as SHA’s Director of Traffic and Safety. Those requirements can be administratively burdensome, so SHA will also use a yellow diamond “warning” sign with the same words.

"The signs will increase safety by providing drivers with a warning about where bikes may be,” says Dustin Kuzan, SHA’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. A study in Austin, Texas found that placement of similar signs has little impact on where cyclists ride.  But drivers moved to the left as they passed bikes enough to increase the median passing clearance by 3 feet.

John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic agrees: “These signs are a really good idea. Bicyclists have the right to use the full lane on narrow roads. As drivers, we are operating the heavier vehicle which can seriously injure a cyclist. So it is up to drivers to avoid a collision. But drivers need information about where the bicyclist might be riding, and these signs will help.”

"The signs may also decrease hostility between drivers and cyclists by informing all road users that cyclists have the right to be in the center of the lane,” Kuzan adds.

SHA plans to post the signs on state roads through Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties this summer. Additional details on SHA’s plans and policies are available on Washcycle.

Highways Designated for “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” signs

Prince George’s County

Montgomery County

US-1 Baltimore Ave., Rhode Island Ave. US-29 Colesville Rd.
US-1 Alt Baltimore Ave., Bladensburg Rd. MD-384 Colesville Rd.
MD-193 Greenbelt Rd., Unversity Blvd. MD-193 University Blvd.
MD-212 Riggs Rd. MD-97 Georgia Ave.
MD-500 Queens Chapel Rd. MD-390 16th St.
MD-953 Glenn Dale Rd. MD-650 New Hampshire Ave.
MD-450 Annapolis Rd., Bladensburg Rd. MD-320 Piney Branch
MD-704 Martin Luther King, Jr. Hwy. MD-355 Wisconsin Ave.
MD-202 Landover Rd. MD-190 River Rd.
MD-414 Oxon Hill/St. Barnabas
Source: Office of Traffic and Safety, Maryland State Highway Administration. The plan also includes very short sections of MD-5 and MD-458. MD-214 is under consideration.

The new signs aren’t for every road

The “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” signs are a step toward implementing the general bicycle policy established by the previous SHA administrator, Neil Pederson, shortly before he retired last summer. Under that policy, every state highway where bicycles are not prohibited should have one of five bicycle configurations:

  • Wide shoulder
  • Bike lane
  • Wide lane (and possibly sharrows) for side-by-side lane sharing
  • Narrow lane with “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” signs (and possibly sharrows)
  • Sidepath

The new signs will not be used on all roads with narrow lanes. Some rural highways have little or no shoulder, but SHA is unlikely to post the “Use Full Lane” signs in areas where there are few if any cyclists.

Additionally, some highways have wide shoulders that could technically become bike lanes, but poor pavement or right-side hazards like driveways and vegetation make them unsafe for cycling. Neither cyclists nor SHA want additional substandard bike lanes.

SHA is reluctant to post “Use Full Lane” signs where there is a real shoulder. “SHA is still discussing the use of the R4-11 in these situations,” says Kuzan. “The challenge is determining which shoulders are so unsuitable that a cyclist should not even straddle the fog line,” which might leave enough room for a car to pass within lane.

Signs by themselves will make only a small difference during rush hour. On any weekday morning, the state highways leading into Washington are full of cars traveling 40-50 mph. These speeds are intimidating to cyclists, whether the cars are passing with one foot or four feet of clearance.

SHA plans to widen parts of US-1 near College Park to add bike lanes, according to Gregory Slater, SHA’s planning director   Along MD-450 and MD-704, Prince Georges County has asked SHA to implement a “road diet” and reduce the number of general travel lanes to create space for bike lanes and better sidewalks.  SHA officials are discouraged from using the term “road diet”, but Mr. Slater says that SHA is looking at “redistributing roadway capacity.”  “Things have to slow down a bit,” he says.

Realistically, bike lanes along most state highways inside the Beltway are still decades away. The “Use Full Lane” signs are something we can afford now. They are likely to make these highways safer during off-peak times, and they may help to educate drivers about how to share the road.

Will that education carry over to local roads? Or will drivers assume that bicycles may not use full lane if these signs are not posted? We don’t know yet.

Jim Titus lived aboard a 75-foot coast guard cutter at Buzzards Point boatyard in southwest Washington until he was 2. Since then he has lived in Prince George’s County, going to school in Ft. Washington, Accokeek, and College Park before moving to Glenn Dale. He represents Prince George’s on the state of Maryland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and is on the board of directors of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Professionally, he works for a federal agency, which asks not to be identified.