Are Fixed Gear Bikes Legal?

Almost everybody likes to be “cool”. In the cycling culture, fixed gear bikes are especially hip and cool. They are extremely common on college campuses. They are incredibly popular in our bigger cities. What’s the allure?

Fixies originally started as standard equipment in the bike messenger community. There was almost nothing that could be stolen off the bike, while the messenger parked the bike and delivered the package. Fixed gear bikes have also been popular with bike racers during off-season training, because they are thought to improve the efficiency of the rider’s leg spin. Fixed gear bikes are also used in track racing on a velodrome. They are ridden to gold medals in every Olympics.

Many cyclists think riding a fixed gear bike is a better workout, because one cannot coast at all.  When descending on a fixed gear bike, one must dramatically increase one’s pedaling cadence, probably much higher than normal.  Many cyclists feel this trains the legs to pedal more comfortably at a higher cadence in a smaller, less tiring gear.  Bicycling expert Sheldon Brown is one person who is very positive about the benefits of fixed gear bicycling, so long as the bicycle has a front caliper brake.

Bike messengers (also called cycle couriers) are often the most reliable and speedy method to deliver documents from one location to another in the central business districts of big cities, because bike messengers, quite often on fixed gear bikes, are less constructed by vehicle traffic jams, have less difficulty finding parking, and can deliver packages at a rapid and predictable delivery time. The 2012 movie, “Premium Rush”, is just one recent movie whose action plot is set around a bicycle messenger, who can fly around the streets and alleys of NYC in chase scenes far faster than any vehicle.  During the filming of the movies, there was actually a bad bike crash. The film’s star, Jon Gordon-Levitt, was riding his fixed gear bicycle full out, when he crashed through the rear windshield of a taxi. This caused him to suffer a severe laceration to his arm and require 31 stitches.

What exactly is a fixed gear bike? There is a big difference between single speed bikes with a free wheel, and true fixed gear bikes. With a fixed gear bike, whenever the bike is in motion, the pedals are moving around.  A cyclist cannot coast with a fixed gear bike. If a bicycle rider attempts to coast, he or she risks being thrown off the bike because the pedals are still moving.  With a single speed free wheel bike, the rider has only one forward gear, but he/she can always stop pedaling and coast.  Some bikes are constructed to allow the rider the option of using the bike as a fixed gear or a single speed/free wheel, by flipping the rear wheel from one side of the hub to the other.
Some fixed gear bikes have one or more standard “caliper brakes”, and some have none.  A “caliper brake” is where a lever located on the handlebars can be squeezed to apply pressure to the sides of a bike wheel’s rim.  Some bike manufacturers only sell fixed gear bikes that have one caliper brake, usually on the front, because the front brakes is able to apply more stopping force than a back brake.  Other fixed gear bikes are sold with two brakes, or without any caliper brakes.  The bikes with no caliper brakes are sometimes designated as “track bikes” but they are often ridden on the road.

To their proponents, fixed gear bicycles have several advantages:

  1. Fixed gear bikes are low maintenance.  They have fewer working parts to wear out, break, or be stolen.
  2. Fixies are cheaper than bikes with lots of gears.
  3. Fixies look clean and simple.  This image fits nicely with riders who are trying to live a frugal, simple, environmentally-friendly lifestyle.
  4. Fixed gear bikes are easy to customize.  Each rider can own a bike that is “one-of-a-kind”.

The issue with riding a fixed gear bike is how to stop. Typically, the cyclist applies back pressure on the pedals while riding, which slows down and then stops the bicycle.  Really excellent fixed gear riders also learn to “skip-stop”.  This is where the rider lifts the rear wheel off the road, stops the movement of the rear wheel, and then place the rear wheel back down on the road to make the bike skid.  This maneuver is done repeatedly until the bike stops, as opposed to creating a single long skid until the bike stops. Other fixed gear cyclists simply skid to slow down or stop.

The big question is whether fixed gear bikes are legal? They are certainly legal in a velodrome.  But can you ride a fixed gear bike on the road?

In Florida, our laws do not reference “fixed gear” bicycles specifically. There is a general law about bikes and brakes.  Florida Statute 316.2065(13), says:

Every bicycle shall be equipped with a brake or brakes which will enable its rider to stop the bicycle within 25 feet from a speed of 10 miles per hour on dry, level clean pavement.

There are currently no Florida appellate court decisions which interpret the meaning of this law. It raises questions:

  1. Is a fixed gear bike legal if it has one caliper brake?  If the bike’s caliper brake is in good working order, and the cyclist can stop within 25 feet as described, the answer appears to be an obvious “yes”.  The Florida law does not require both a front and back brake.  The law says “brake or brakes”.  For that matter, the law doesn’t say what type of brake is required.
  2. Is a fixed gear bike legal if it has no caliper brakes, or is a “track bike”?  The answer to this question is unclear.  In the courts of Florida, the decider of this question might either be a judge or a jury.  The judge or jury must decide what constitutes a brake?  It seems certain they would conclude a brake lever and caliper are a type of brake.  A disc brake on a mountain bike is a type of brake.  A coaster brake on a beach cruiser is a type of brake.  In my opinion, the drivetrain of the bicycle on a fixed gear bike is a type of brake.  Reverse pressure on the pedals by the rider’s legs effectively causes the bike to slow and stop.  This is not true of the drive trains on other bikes, such as road bikes with a free wheel, or mountain bikes with multiple gears.  However, whether a fixed gear bike can be stopped within 25 feet from 10 miles per hour may depend on the adeptness of the cyclist riding it.  But my opinion may not be shared by judges or jurors.  The average non-cyclist’s perception may be that a fixed gear bike really has no brake.  I fear that many judges and jurors believe a rider’s legs pushing backwards are not the brake contemplated by the Florida law above.  Ultimately, it is quite likely that the judge or jury may be composed of person(s) who have never seriously ridden or even understand the workings of a bike.  They may be biased to believe the riders of fixed gear bikes are reckless.  There is certainly a substantial risk that a cyclist riding a fixed gear bike with no caliper brakes may be found to have violated the Florida law.  This has negative implications for the fixed gear bicycle rider who is contesting a traffic citation or who is pursuing a claim for injuries suffered in a bicycle crash.

The District of Columbia is the one jurisdiction in the United States where the law specifically refers to fixed gear bikes. In D.C., fixed gear bikes without caliper brakes are perfectly legal. The law says:

Each bicycle shall be equipped with a brake which enables the operator to cause the braked wheels to skid on dry, level, clean pavement; provided, that a fixed gear bicycle is not required to have a separate brake, but an operator of a fixed gear bicycle shall be able to stop the bicycle using the pedals.

Other states besides Florida also allow bikes with a single brake. Numerous states including Indiana (download Indiana bicycle law PDF) , Texas, Nevada, and New York, and even several cities such as Chicago, have adopted the following language in their bicycle laws:

“Every bike must be equipped with a brake capable of making a braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement.”

In a bike crash where the cyclist is injured, it may be very important for this cyclist to compensated for medical bills or his/her lost wages.  But the decision of who caused the accident will be left to a judge or jury, none of whom are usually sophisticated cyclists.  A judge jury hearing about a fixed gear bicyclist may be prejudiced against the cyclist’s case.  No matter what the circumstances of the crash, the judge or jury may feel the bicycle rider acted recklessly by not having a brake, and contributed substantially to the wreck happening. Having at least one traditional mechanical brake on your bike will likely reduce the chance that a judge or jury will find you, the bicyclist, at fault for causing the injuries.

If you want to continue the discussion please post your comments below or, if you have a legal question, please feel free to contact me.