Is a bicycle a toy or a vehicle?

Talk about bifurcation. The US law can’t agree on anything.

Many people think that a bicycle is a children’s toy. As such, it should be riden on a sidewalk or somewhere else and that it should never, ever,  come in contact with a car or traffic.

There is precedent for that idea. Unusual laws took effect in the 1960’s where the Federal Government took charge of certain vehicles and began mandating something new to the industry — safety. Crazy things began to be required, like safety belts in cars. But the law was fuzzy when it came to bicycles.

Imagine walking into a car dealership and wanting to buy a new car. After you pick out the one you want, you tell the salesman “Never mind the headlights, I don’t need them, I don’t drive at night.” and see how far you would get. Same with the horn, “Why do I need to pay for  a horn? I never honk at anybody.” That’s the way it is in the US when you buy a bicycle.

Other countries see things differently and they have  international laws to support their position.  Germany has regulations for bicycles, the same sort of regulations that they have for cars.  They rely on the Vienna Convention of 1968 which states that bicycles are vehicles.

The US is also a signatory to the Vienna Convention, but has relegated bicycles to the same agency that regulates toys, the CPSC. There was a big stink raised, back in 1975, by people that said that the CPSC was the wrong agency to regulate bicycles, but they (Forester) lost.

Since then, though, in all 50 states, bicycles are called vehicles. The issue has become a matter of states rights. All the states see bicycles a vehicles — the international law calls them vehicles — but the US Government does not.

Don’t you think that is odd?

34 replies
  1. Brrr
    Brrr says:

    Calling a bicycle a vehicle was a bad idea from the outset. A person on a bike has far more in common with a pedestrian than they so with someone in a car/truck/SUV/etc. Jogging, rollerblading, skateboarding and bicycling belong together categorically. A bicycle and a Hummer sure as heck do not.

  2. Eric
    Eric says:

    “Calling a bicycle a vehicle was a bad idea from the outset”

    And I think exactly the opposite. People on bicycles can’t stop or maneuver as easily as a pedestrian. Cyclists are not pedestrians on wheels, sorry.

    But I thank you for proving my point.

  3. Eric
    Eric says:

    I might also add that motorcycles are subject to the same sort of laws cars are. The USDOT requires safety equipment, such as headlights be sold when the motorcycle is sold and that the headlight meets their testing approval.

  4. ToddBS
    ToddBS says:

    Brrr’s comment obviously does not reflect the general consensus among those who frequent this site.

    Since bicycle laws are now a matter of individual states’ authority, it makes little sense to me for them to even be regulated by a federal agency, whether it be as a consumer product or a vehicle. I think state regulations do a good job of defining what is acceptable and what isn’t, eg. requiring bicycles to be equipped with lights for night riding, requiring that the rider be able to stop it within a certain distance (thereby implying a certain level of brake functionality).

    It is definitely odd in light of the talk coming from Washington these days about including bikes in all future transportation endeavors. Perhaps it’s just one of those things they have overlooked as it’s just “always been that way”.

    • SJ
      SJ says:

      Well if we consider bicycles to be Vehicles then they sould have the same things as other types of vehicles such as insurance in case of acciedents and such. But I dont think they do unless there is and no one as told me.
      IF they are considered vehicles then why dont they have laws saying that you need head lights and tail light on your bicycles. That way you can travel at night>

    • says:

      “it makes little sense to me for them to even be regulated by a federal agency” ==>


      The federal DOT and EPA regulate motor vehicle safety requirements and pollution allowances, but individual states regulate operation with motor vehicle codes.

      Bikes are vehicles regulated in the same manner. Feds regulate manufacture, and states regulate operation.

      It’s called a FEDERAL republic for a reason. Certain aspects are federated among all states, such as manufacturing requirements. Bike manufactuers would have a terrible time making 50 different versions of their product.

      Remember “49-state EPA regs”?

  5. Eric
    Eric says:

    ” laws are now a matter of individual states’ authority, it makes little sense to me for them to even be regulated by a federal agency”

    That was the way things were prior to 1965(?) for all vehicles. The states decided how many yellow lights should be on the side or front of a truck, etc.

    So then the federal government sort of standardized things. I say sort of because some states required three yellow lights over the cab of a truck and three red lights in back, while Florida did not. Since those lights were superfluous, people in Florida ordering a truck got them anyway since some states required them.

    Seat belts were required by USDOT in 1967 as were approved headlights. States never said a peep about that.

  6. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    Bicycles have been defined as vehicles since at least the 1880s. They move 3 to 10 times faster than pedestrians. Pedestrians have virtually instant braking, turning and backing capability. Bicyclists don’t.

    Show me data that proves bicyclists fare better when they behave as pedestrians on wheels instead of as vehicle drivers. I’ve been looking at the crash studies for 15 years, and it always points to bicyclists being safer when they behave as vehicle drivers.

    • Eric
      Eric says:

      “Bicycles have been defined as vehicles since at least the 1880s.”

      But Federal law has disagreed with that and still does today. How do you intend to resolve that?

      • Mighk
        Mighk says:

        I don’t see that it NEEDS to be resolved. The States control traffic law. The feds just control how bikes are designed and sold, and I’d rather they limit it to that. I don’t want the feds requiring lights on bikes; they’ll require some lousy minimum standard like they do with reflectors.

        • Eric
          Eric says:

          “I don’t want the feds requiring lights on bikes; they’ll require some lousy minimum standard like they do with reflectors.”

          And do you know why the CPSC did that? It was at the behest of the manufacturers. In fact, the CPSC has been “captured” by the bicycle manufacturers for too many years.

          Most bicycle crashes have nothing to do with equipment, but many night crashes do. Obviously, the reflector regulation isn’t working. Rather than equip bicycles with lights, the manufacturers have a sticker that they attach to every new bike sold warning not to ride at night.

          If the USDOT and NHTSA had been captured the way CPSC is, we still wouldn’t have seat belts. The first USDOT required seat belts were simple, non-retractable lap belts, the kind you see on 707’s, not the three point, fully retractable belts we have now because the manufacturers were met half-way for a few years. To get even those primitive belts, the manufacturers screamed bloody murder that it would kill the industry.

          Consumer’s Union advocated for air bags for 25 years before airbags were mandated. Guess who resisted?

          You can read more about the lighting issue here:

          But that’s not really my point.

          My point is that so long as there is no harmonization between the governments and their laws, there will be no harmonization among the people.

    • says:

      “Bicycles have been defined as vehicles since at least the 1880s.” ==>

      True, but incomplete.

      Bikes were redefined as “devices” to pacify bike manufacturers by allowing their sale as toys to children.

      Ever since, other cyclists have been relegated to 2nd-class citizenship.

      “Mandatory sidepath” laws are one consequence of the mentality that “bikes are toys.”

      The foolhardy instruction by many parents to “Ride facing traffic” is another consequence.

      The absurd waste of money building (unsafe!) Class I bikeways is another consequence.

  7. Keri
    Keri says:

    There are several states that classify bicycles as devices. But all give their operators the same rights and responsibilities as other vehicle drivers.

  8. Andy B from Jersey
    Andy B from Jersey says:

    In New Jersey a bicycle is not a vehicle either but is given all (most) of the rights and responsibilties of vehicles. We got called out on that in the latest Alliance for Biking and Walking Benchmarking Report so we are trying to fix that.

    I’d also argue that a bicycle is much more a vehicle than a pedestrian. I regularly attain speeds up to 25mph going down even slight hills on my 3-speed heading to work. On my road bike riding out in the hills of western NJ I regularly exceed 40mph on down hills and sometimes push 50!

    • Rachel
      Rachel says:

      What car travels 25mph anymore???? You are forgetting tonnage- and the basic principles of physics- like mass and velocity- at no point will a bicycle ever equate itself to a vehicle when it comes to the ability to achieve lethal status

        • Brrr
          Brrr says:

          Rachel actually makes a very good point. The speed, mass, maneuverability (and even the braking power) of a bike are significantly closer to a pedestrian than they are to a car. Bikes are not much of a serious threat to pedestrians, but cars are a lethal threat to cyclists. To claim otherwise is deliberately dishonest

          • Rodney
            Rodney says:

            Rachel does NOT make a good point. Her perceived definition of vehicle is irrelevant and biased.

            In the 20 plus years of personally operating a motor vehicle, I have never allowed this mode of conveyance to become “lethal” to any of my fellow road users.

  9. BB
    BB says:

    The US Government also sees hemp as a drug. Yet, several farm states don’t along with 33 industrial nations.

  10. geoffrey
    geoffrey says:

    Ok. Ontario Highway Traffic act under definitions:

    “vehicle” includes a motor vehicle, trailer, traction engine, farm tractor, road-building machine, bicycle and any vehicle drawn, propelled or driven by any kind of power, including muscular power, but does not include a motorized snow vehicle or a street car; (“véhicule”)

    Ummm .. that could conceivably include a pedestrian. How about that.

  11. P.M. Summer
    P.M. Summer says:

    Alas, the real problem isn’t whether a bicycle is a vehicle, or a toy vehicle… rather, it’s what do bicyclists think it is.

    The current mood seems to be strongly pointing to “toy vehicle”.

  12. Brian DeSousa
    Brian DeSousa says:

    While in some states a bicycle is a vehicle and in others it is not, the important thing as Keri pointed out is that bicyclists have the same rights and duties as drivers of vehicles. The net result is that bicyclists follow the same rules of the road as motorists, but aren’t subject to the same equipment requirements. For example, I wouldn’t want to have to put lights on my fast road bike, even though it has 0% chance of being used during darkness.

    • Eric
      Eric says:

      “I wouldn’t want to have to put lights on my fast road bike, even though it has 0% chance of being used during darkness.”

      I have a spare light here. With batteries, it weighs 5 oz. Better skip that glass of water because it weighs more than that.

      But if you really do race, the countries that required lights and a bell have exceptions for racing bikes. But there is a catch —

      You are not allowed to use their roads for racing or training unless it is closed to traffic.

      That seems fair to me. Too many times here I see cyclists blasting through lights and stop signs while “training.” Training for what, I don’t know, but they don’t want to stop for anything ’cause it interrupts their pace.

      So how do those countries field competitive teams? They have closed courses to train on, just like automotive racers do.

      • ToddBS
        ToddBS says:

        You are not allowed to use their roads for racing or training unless it is closed to traffic.

        This is an excellent point, and I think probably the way it should be. This also addresses what PM Summer brought up as the issue of the “toy vehicle”.

        Let’s face it. Most riders today aren’t riding for utilitarian purposes. They’re riding to “train”. Heck, half the time they’re not even out for a joy ride; they’re just trying to put in their miles, getting ready for that Cat 5 crit next month. Certainly no other vehicle driver would be allowed to practice his racing skills on Main St. at 9a.m.

  13. Justin
    Justin says:

    I don’t care what you call them, just don’t pass rules about mandatory lights, bells, and helmets. It discourages a perfectly safe activity, and gives police another set of rules they can selectively enforce to harass the cycling community.

    In Dallas, helmets aren’t mandatory for motorcyclists doing 70 mph on the highway, but they are required by cyclists doing 10 mph biking neighborhood streets.

    • Eric
      Eric says:

      If you are concerned about harassment, then you want to be in or on a vehicle since you can get some 4th Amendment rights. Pedestrians are subject to “Stop and Frisk” laws.

      Being on the wrong end of unwanted attention by the police on a few occassions, I can assure you that equipment defects (unlike auto stops where they need an excuse) was never needed to stop me. All anyone has to say that he/she didn’t think you were riding close enough to the curb.

      Even if all safety laws were repealed, if they want you, they will get you.

  14. Mighk Wilson
    Mighk Wilson says:

    Sorry, but the operating characteristics of a bicycle are much closer to those of a motor vehicle than to a pedestrian. The operating speeds of motor vehicles and bicycles overlap in the zero to 25 mph range (25 mph is easy on a downhill; and one could argue that could be extended up to 30 or 35 mph), while the operating speeds of bicyclists and pedestrians only overlap from zero to about 4 mph. The perception/reaction/braking distances are therefor also more comparable between a motor vehicle and a bicycle.

    Pedestrians can turn, stop, and reverse direction almost instantaneously.

    Study bicyclist crash causation (as I have professionally for over 15 years) and you’ll see that bicyclists who behave as pedestrians-on-wheels are far more crash-prone than bicyclists who behave as vehicle drivers.

    Rachel seems to forget that cars go less than 25 mph on a very routine basis: when slowing to turn, to stop as signals or signs, in congested traffic, the list goes on. I routinely pass motorists on my bike while I’m riding at 12 – 14 mph. A motorist in San Jose some years ago put an hour meter on his car engine and ran it for a year. (Hour meters are used for aircraft to gauge usage and determine maintenance needs, since they don’t have odometers.) His _average_ speed for the entire time his engine was running was 17 mph.

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