Photo by Richard Masoner, www.

cycle­licio.us on Flickr.

The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) has started installing new signs informing users that “Bicycles May Use Full Lane.”  But most roads are managed by local governments, and none of them yet plan to use the sign as extensively.

The decision to place “use full lane” signs on state highways took a

sustained campaign by the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA) and an intervention by the state’s Secretary of Transportation, followed by a year-long debate among senior SHA managers, which had to be settled

by SHA Administrator Melinda Peters.

Why was there so much angst over a sign that merely states the law?

According to state employees, the sign came to symbolize a struggle between two schools of thought among traffic engineers: the traditional view that cyclists should ride as far right as practicable, and if that’s not safe, stay off the road; and the modern view that cyclists are welcome on all roads, even if that requires riding in the center of the lane.

Within SHA, skeptics became supporters

While gradual, SHA’s transformation has been remarkable. In April 2011, its Office of Traffic and Safety announced that SHA would not post any “use full lane” signs (PDF).

Tom Hicks, who was director of the office, explained in June 2011: “We assume that the bicycle requires a 4-foot operating width all the way to the right, while the automobile requires a 10-foot operating width. Drivers may have to move left into the next lane to pass. Potential conflict is increased if the cyclist moves farther to the left.”

With some encouragement from

MDOT Secretary Beverly Swaim-Staley

, a few months later, Mr. Hicks became a strong supporter of Maryland’s yellow “use full lane” warning sign. “We think that this sign will be very useful on some highways,” he told me. “I knew there was a solution in there somewhere.”  Last week, SHA posted the white rectangular version of the sign on MD-193, MD-212, MD-450, MD-500, and MD-704, which suggests that Cedric Ward, his successor, may prefer that version of the sign, which is officially known as “R4‑11”.

Once the guidance on these signs is refined and fully implemented, there will be no ambiguity on state highways about where a bicyclist is assumed to ride.

Local governments have different stances

Cities have been most eager to use the signs. Laurel has the white rectangular signs and sharrows as part of a bike route parallel to US-1, and the city engineer endorsed placement of the yellow warning sign along US-1. The City of Baltimore uses the R4-11 signs on bicycle boulevards. Across the state line, the District of Columbia and Arlington (which operates its own roads) have used the R4-11 sign for more than a year.

Montgomery County has not posted any “use full lane” signs yet, but it intends to follow the approach described in the recent SHA guidance for the sign (PDF), according to Fred Lees, the county’s chief of traffic engineering studies. Anne Arundel plans to limit the signs to a few cases where citizens report hazards caused by drivers not expecting to see cyclists using the full lane. “We already have 70,000 signs on county roads. Signs that merely tell people the law should not be needed,” says James Schroll, the chief traffic engineer for Anne Arundel County. “There are better ways to inform residents that the law allows cyclists to take the lane.”

Prince George’s County still has the ambivalence about bicycling that SHA had in the past. Haitham Hijazi, Director of the Department of Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T) says that the County will use the R4-11 signs along some roads that have at least two lanes in each direction.

But the county has rejected requests to post those signs on two-lane roads. In a meeting with WABA, DPW&T explained its reasoning:

DPW&T believes that signs and pavement markings increase its liability because doing so would imply endorsement of riding those roads. Today, cyclists ride those roads at their own risk. The County has never stated that all of its roads are part of the cycling transportation network. Installing signs and pavement markings would in effect endorse biking on those roads, making the county liable.

In rejecting a request for a sign on Church Road, where drivers regularly honk at cyclists using full lane, DPW&T traffic engineer Cipriana Thompson said that “this is a use-full-lane situation,” but disputed the research that R4-11 signs increase safety. Others at DPW&T suggest that cyclists who use the full lane do so for political reasons, rather than their own safety:

DPW&T cares about public safety and is concerned when members of the community take safety lightly or knowingly commit acts of high-risk behavior as a mechanism to achieve a public action.

Advocates and officials seek common ground

WABA and other advocates disagree with the view that cyclists should not ride on 2‑lane roads that are too narrow to share. But rather than debate the point, they plan to work with Hijazi on specific roads that he is willing to improve. Councilman Eric Olson (D&#8209College Park) supports a pragmatic approach: “I look forward to working with DPW&T and the bicycle community on the new signs.”

The American Automobile Association (AAA) is also supportive.  John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic, who lives in Prince George’s County, has seen first-hand the need for better signage. “When I drive to church on Sunday morning, I see a lot of bicyclists on Lottsford Vista Road,” he observes.

"That road has been widened in some places, but parts are still narrow, and cyclists move into the lane there. We already have deer warning signs, so surely we should have signs to warn about vulnerable people in the roadway.”

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.