DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- A lot more people are out bicycling and walking since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic -- a 72% increase statewide in Minnesota just this spring, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Carol (McCarthy) Fischer of Detroit Lakes has been biking her whole life, and said she has never seen so many bicyclists in the Detroit Lakes area.

“Bikers were few and far between 10 or 15 years ago,” she said, stopping on her way home from a bike ride on Tuesday. “This year it’s probably quadrupled. It’s families, not even racers, just regular people out riding bikes, which is good,” she said.

Those just starting out should follow the safety basics when biking on the street-- wear a helmet, use hand signals and ride with the flow of traffic, not against it, she said.

On roadways with lanes at least 14 feet wide, state law says bikes should keep to the right as much as possible, and passing motorists should give them as much room as possible, at least 3 feet, but more is better.

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On lanes 11 feet wide or narrower, it is actually safer for bicyclists to ride down the center of the lane rather than keep to the right, according to Bob Hamann of Staples, a safety instructor and member of the Lakes Area Bike Club.

Bicyclists trying to keep to the right on narrow lanes run the risk of getting clipped by passing cars that may not even see them, he said. With cellphones and other distractions, “people aren’t always paying attention as well as they should be when driving,” he said. For bikers, visibility is key, he added. “Bicycle safety is important, that’s why you need to control the lane.”

But a little consideration goes a long way in life, and that goes for bicyclists, too, he added. “Use common sense. If you’re holding up traffic, find a way to pull over,” he said. “Make it work for everybody.”

Here are some tidbits from Minnesota state law regarding bicycles:

  • Bicycles with small electric motors can follow the same rules as regular bicycles as long as they can’t go faster than 20 mph. And the driver has to be at least 15 years old.
  • It’s legal for bicyclists to ride side by side in a lane, as long as they don’t block traffic, but riding single file is usually safer.
  • It’s not legal for a bicyclist to run a red light, unless the signal fails to trigger. Then it’s defensible after waiting a reasonable amount of time, such as one signal cycle. Fact is, a bicyclist has to obey the same traffic laws as a motorist. That includes stopping and waiting for a flashing parked school bus.
  • A bike light in front and red reflective tape in back is required for riding at night, but helmets aren’t required, even though they are highly recommended by bicycle associations to prevent brain injury in an accident.
  • It’s legal to ride on the sidewalk in most cases, but use common sense with speed and good judgment with pedestrians. Go slowly and carefully on crosswalks, and don’t be afraid to walk the bike across a busy street.
  • And yes, it’s legal to text and talk on a cellphone while biking, but distracting biking is a really bad idea.
  • Biking while drunk is also a very bad idea, but a bicyclist can’t be charged with driving under the influence, since a bicycle is not a motor vehicle under state law. Other laws may apply, though, like public intoxication or reckless endangerment, according to the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota.
  • If a bicyclist is cited for a violation, it can end up on their driving record, especially if the offense happens on a roadway, not a trail, and is a moving violation.

So have fun out there and be careful. Hamann recommends spending a little more and getting a good helmet. “What’s your head worth -- $100 or $1,000? The answer is pretty obvious,” he said. “A friend of mine used to say there are two kinds of people, those who have had accidents and those who will have accidents.”

Fischer was riding a street bicycle equipped with a red safety light on the back of the seat, which helps a lot with visibility. She always uses hand signals, and has since she was a kid on a hand-me-down bike. Those hand signals are required for all bikers by state law, by the way, unless you need both hands to control the bike.

Fischer has biked all over lakes country, around bodies of water and down rural highways, but she says one of the toughest spots for bicyclists is along the city beach on West Lake Drive in Detroit Lakes.

“I used to be a lifeguard at the beach, and learning to ride along the beach was the worst, it was baptism by fire,” she said. “You never know when a car door will open up, and people are (driving) behind you. It’s kind of a stressful area,” she said. “It’s nice to see the lake, but there have been some close calls there.”

All in all, though, she says bicycling is a good way to stay in shape and a great lifelong activity. Whether as part of a bike club, alone, or with friends or family, “like Nike says, ‘just do it,’” she said.

North Dakota bicycle laws are defined in its Century Code. For Wisconsin's bicycle rules, see the Department of Transportation page. South Dakota's rules are defined on the Department of Public Safety pages.