Are fixed gear bicycles street legal under Texas law? A fixed gear bicycle is one that has only one speed or gear and no freewheel. Without a freewheel, the cyclist cannot coast. If the rear wheel is turning, the chain and the pedals are turning, too. Typically these bikes have no hand brakes and no foot brake. Unlike the single speed bicycles that have a free wheel and a coaster brake that engages when you peddle backward, there is no friction device on these bikes to stop the wheels.
Instead, the fixed gear cyclist stops or slows down the pedals with his feet, and this action will necessarily stop or slow down the chain that is affixed to the rear wheel’s fixed gear. This, in turn, stops the rear wheel because remember, there is no freewheel or coasting mechanism. This is how the “fixies” stop their bikes and it takes some skill and strength to accomplish.
Now, here is the question. Does this constitute a brake system under Texas law?
Texas law requires that bicycles used on public roads must be equipped with a brake.
The Texas Transportation Code 551.104 (Safety Equipment) states
“(a) A person may not operate a bicycle unless the bicycle is equipped with a brake capable of making a braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement.”
Can a rider of a fixed gear bicycle meet this stopping requirement by back peddling or standing on the pedals? I don’t know. But let’s assume they can. If they can, does that qualify as having equipped the bike with a “brake”?
Notice that the law doesn’t just state that the bicyclist must be able to stop the bike. The law says the bike has to be “equipped with a brake.”
When I think of “brakes” on a wheeled vehicle, I usually think of a device that slows or stops the wheels by applying friction through calipers, discs or drums. The fixed gear bike is not equipped with any kind of friction device. It just has the ability for the cyclist to peddle backward, like on a unicycle. But unlike the unicyclist, the fixed gear bicyclist might be able to make the rear wheel skid. If so, isn’t that a brake, if it meets the performance standards?
I don’t think so. I have not found an applicable definition of the word “brake” within the Texas Transportation Code. The courts might look to the ordinary meaning of the word “brake” but that is not much help.
Most people would probably agree that these fixed gear bikes don’t have a brake in the ordinary sense of the word. There is a way to slow down these bikes, but is not really through the application of a brake.
Any vehicle is capable of stopping by being put into reverse. Boats don’t have brakes, but to stop a boat, you put the engines in reverse. Does anyone refer to that as a “brake”? No. They just refer to that as stopping the boat.
Somehow I don’t think the Texas Legislature was contemplating the fixed gear bike when it enacted this law. Until the recently fixed gear fad popularized these bikes, this kind of technology was considered obsolete and wasn’t on anyone’s mind when enacting these laws. This law was enacted in 1995 and amended in 2001 and at that time, you would have been hard pressed to find any fixed gear bikes on the roads in Texas.
I think the legislative intent was that bikes be equipped with a brake, whether by a foot activated coaster brake or a hand brake. I don’t think they were thinking of the ability to peddle backward on a fixed gear bike as a brake. But that is just my opinion. The law seems rather vague, and its vagueness is one possible ground for challenging the law. If a law is too vague, it is not enforceable. The law is pretty clear on what performance standard the brake must meet but is vague as to what type of equipment constitutes a brake.
Until there is some precedent, the fixed gear cyclist can always try defending a violation of this statute by arguing that he or she can, in fact, brake by rearward peddling. It would make a fun day in court for the defendant to demonstrate that skill to the jury out in the courthouse parking lot.
Personal note: I’ve never ridden a fixed gear bike. My commuter bike has two hand brakes.