Saturday, February 12, 2011

Is fixie/no brakes street legal under Massachusetts law?

It was a call from a newspaper reporter that originally got me thinking about whether it is legal to ride a fixie with no brakes in Massachusetts.  For some enlightenment, I went to Mass. Gen.L. c. 85, sec. 11B(7) deals with the issue of "braking systems" for bikes, and reads as follows:

"Every bicycle operated upon a way shall be equipped with a braking system to enable the operator to bring the bicycle traveling at a speed of fifteen miles per hour to a smooth, safe stop within thirty feet on a dry, clean, hard, level surface." 

So that clears that up, right? All the bike needs is a "braking system" that complies with the "15/30 rule". That would seem to rule out the operation of a fixed gear bike with no brakes on a public way in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  

Not so fast, though.  What constitutes a "braking system" under Massachusetts law?  One would think that a brake lever and caliper would meet the definition.  Similarly a disc brake would seem meet the definition as well.  But must the braking system be friction based such as in these two examples?  Could the drivetrain of the bicycle act as a braking system if enough reverse force is applied to the pedals?  Seemingly, those folks riding a fixie who can lock the rear wheel up and skid to a stop can brake just as effectively as someone using caliper brakes.  So maybe the answer to today's question depends on the rider him or herself.  Perhaps it is legal if the rider has the skills to meet the requirements of the 15/30 rule.

Now let's address a different issue--how does the general public perceive the bike rider who has no brakes?  I bet you've already got an answer for this one: who cares, right?  As long as YOU know you are safe.  However, public perceptions take on a much more important role if there's been an accident.  Let's suppose you get doored while riding your fixie and you sustain serious injuries.  In the hypothetical incident, you have no opportunity to brake (lawyers and accident reconstructionists refer to this as "perception/reaction time"), so technically the fact that you have no brake shouldn't make any difference,  right?

Fat chance.  The ultimate decider of fact is that jury of your peers.  Not just your peers from the morning ride, but your peers from the ice cream aisle at the grocery store or the express line at Dunkin' Donuts.  Chances are nobody on your jury will ride bikes, and they may even be biased against cyclists.  Fact is, no matter what the circumstances are surrounding the accident, the jury is going to have a hard time bending its collective head around the fact that a bike rider was crusising along without brakes.  The defense lawyer will know this and will do his/her best to exploit this to their advantage.  Does this mean you can't get a fair trial?  Absolutely not.  A good plaintiff's attorney who understands cycling can explain the lack of brakes and put it into context, but still, the lack of brakes is still likely to play into the jury's deliberations on some level no matter how well your lawyer handles the issue. 

Thus, even if fixie/no brake is ultimately deemed to be legal in a court of law, the rider still runs the risk of juror bias, even if the rider is not at fault. 


  1. Yes, brakeless fixed gear bikes are street legal under mass general law, at least in Boston. I was at the city council meeting a few years ago when this came under scrutiny, and we ended up taking the meeting outside to city hall plaza, where one of the councillors volunteered to test ride a "messenger bike". We rolled up his pants leg, stuck a helmet on him, and watched him Do a wobbly lap around the plaza. Upon completion, he dismounted and said, "oh, the bike stops if you stop pedalling." So the council voted to legalize our bikes, and messengers and art school kids rejoiced throughout the land.

  2. Thanks for the contribution! That is a great story and it illustrates a couple of things. First, as you point out there is a difference between state law and city ordinance. Just because something is not prohibited at the state level does not mean that a city cannot restrict or prohibit that same activity. Second, it illustrates the "juror bias" thing. In your case the City Councillor had to try out the bike before he could believe it was safe. (Good thing he did not crash!)

  3. The law needs to change in mass about dooring.

    In Pennsylvania, if you get doored, it's automatically the person who opened the door's fault. They did open their door into moving traffic without looking. Bikes also being part of that traffic. It should be like that everywhere. Especially since it's legal to pass both on the right and left as a cyclist in Boston, and not every driver sees it necessary to give you space, even if you're right next to them.

    I've had a few lengthy talks with Stuart Leon about dooring in Philly while I was living there.

  4. JP, the law in Mass says "No person shall open a door on a motor vehicle unless it is reasonably safe to do so without interfering with the movement of other traffic, including bicyclists and pedestrians. Whoever violates the preceding sentence shall be punished by a fine of not more than $100." Thus, dooring is illegal in Mass, BUT in Mass the violation of a law does not conclusively establish negligence, it is only evidence of negligence. Thus, the law makes it easier for the cyclist to prove the case but does not guarantee a victory.