Using a path for pedestrians and cyclists is not mandatory, decides the Supreme Administrative Court

Publikováno: 03. ledna. 2024, 22 min. čtení
Aktualizováno: 01. ledna. 2024
Úvodní foto: Koláž MNK (Millenium187, Wikimedia)
Publikováno: 03. ledna. 2024, 22 min. čtení
Aktualizováno: 01. ledna. 2024
Úvodní foto: Koláž MNK (Millenium187, Wikimedia)

The Supreme Administrative Court in Brno has addressed a long-debated question: Does the legally prescribed obligation to use a path for cyclists also apply to paths designated for pedestrians and cyclists, or not? Let’s examine which interpretation the court leaned towards and the arguments it relied upon.

Shortly before Christmas, on December 21, 2023, the Supreme Administrative Court (hereinafter „NSS“) issued a judgment under file number 4 As 102/2023-25. This decision is temporarily available on the official bulletin board; afterward, its full text in anonymized form will be accessible in the database of administrative court decisions.

The Supreme Administrative Court (NSS) addressed a case involving a cyclist who committed several traffic offenses. One of them was not using the designated path for pedestrians and cyclists and instead riding on the parallel road. The municipal authority imposed a fine for all offenses. The cyclist appealed the decision, but the regional authority upheld the municipal decision. The cyclist then challenged the regional court’s decision through a lawsuit. The Ostrava regional court considered it and concluded that while the administrative authorities‘ findings were in line with the law, the fine imposed was disproportionate. Therefore, the court exercised its so-called moderating power and reduced the imposed fine. The cyclist-appellant then contested the judgment through a cassation complaint. The case reached the NSS, where the fourth senate presided, and Judge Aleš Roztočil acted as the rapporteur. He annulled both the regional court’s judgment and the regional authority’s decision due to various errors committed by both.

NSS: A cyclist is not obligated to use the pedestrian and cyclist path

However, the crucial legal conclusion, especially significant for the cycling community (including our website „Městem na kole“), revolves around whether a cyclist is obliged to use a path for pedestrians and cyclists or if such an obligation is not mandated by law. According to the NSS, if there is a designated path for pedestrians and cyclists, the cyclist is not obligated to use it; on the contrary, they have the option and can ride on the road.

Below are the key parts of the rationale, illustrating how the NSS considered the legal question at hand and why it decided as it did.

The NSS first cited the relevant legal regulations impacting the case.

Examined paragraphs

According to § 57, paragraph 1 of the Road Traffic Act in the effective version at the time of committing the offenses: „If a lane is designated for cyclists, a reserved lane for cyclists, a cycle path, or if at a traffic-controlled intersection, a lane for cyclists and a designated space for cyclists are established, the cyclist is obliged to use them.“

According to § 57, paragraph 6 of the same law: „If a path for pedestrians and cyclists marked with the traffic sign ‚Path for pedestrians and cyclists‘ is established, with a separate lane for pedestrians and a lane for cyclists, the cyclist is obligated to use only the lane designated for cyclists. The lane designated for pedestrians may be used by the cyclist only when overtaking, passing, turning, changing lanes, and entering the path for pedestrians and cyclists, provided that they do not endanger pedestrians in the lane designated for pedestrians.“

The enumeration of cases in which a cyclist is obliged to use, instead of the „common“ road, a special road or its part designated specifically for cyclists, as stated in § 57, paragraph 1 of the Road Traffic Act, is an exhaustive list. The decisive question for assessing the matter is whether, for the purposes of this provision, a path for cyclists can also be considered a ground road or its part marked with traffic signs C 9a „Shared Path for Pedestrians and Cyclists“ and C 10a „Divided Path for Pedestrians and Cyclists.“

No one may be compelled to do what the law does not require

Furthermore, the NSS examined the opinion of the expert community on the legal question under consideration. It cited essential parts of the commentary on the Road Traffic Act and an expert article.

Commentary on the Road Traffic Act¹ has concluded that, given that the provision itself distinguishes between the terms „cycle path“ and „path for pedestrians and cyclists“ in paragraphs 5 and 6, it can be inferred that, for the purposes of Section 57, the law does not treat them as the same legal categories. The Road Traffic Act clearly makes distinctions between these terms in other provisions as well, such as in § 60a or similarly in related regulations, for example, § 17, paragraph 1, of the Road Act.

As pointed out in expert literature², in cases of doubt regarding the interpretation of § 57, paragraph 1 of the Road Traffic Act, it is also necessary to consider the application of the principle of in dubio pro libertate (in doubt, in favor of freedom). According to this principle, „in case of doubt about the interpretation of the law, it is necessary to lean towards an interpretation that provides greater freedom, i.e., is more favorable to the legal subject.“ Also, the principles of administrative punishment nulla poena sine lege (no punishment without law), or nulla poena sine lege certa (every offense must be sufficiently, precisely, and clearly defined) and nulla poena sine lege stricta (no analogy against the perpetrator) apply. By analogy, the conclusions of the NSS judgment of December 17, 2009, ref. no. 9 As 39/2009-60, can be applied, which, for the purposes of punishment, excluded an expansive interpretation of the statutory designation of categories of ground roads: „According to the Supreme Administrative Court, however, it is not possible to infer from the fact that according to § 42b, paragraph 1, letter g) of the Road Act, only actions aimed against ground roads of the highway, road, or local road category can be addressed, the applicability of § 42b, paragraph 1, letter a) of the cited law to actions consisting of damaging a publicly accessible utility road. If the legislator decided not to sanction such actions under the above-mentioned § 42b, paragraph 1, letter g) of the Road Act, even though there can be no doubt about its undesirable consequences, the administrative authority cannot sanction the specific actions according to the provisions that evidently do not apply to them.“

Annex No. 4 to Decree No. 294/2015 Coll., implementing the rules of road traffic, which regulates the meaning, use, implementation, and shapes of traffic signs and their symbols, describes that the traffic sign C 9a „Shared Path for Pedestrians and Cyclists“ commands pedestrians and cyclists to use the designated shared lane or path in the indicated direction. Traffic sign C 10a „Divided Path for Pedestrians and Cyclists“ commands pedestrians and cyclists to use the part designated for pedestrians or cyclists in the direction. As analyzed in detail in Art. V, point 2 of the above-mentioned article by JUDr. Kindl and JUDr. Vomáčka, this wording of descriptions is quite problematic, as the decree „imposes“ an obligation beyond the law, which is contrary to the principle of legal license stipulated in Art. 2, paragraph 3 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms („Everyone may do what is not forbidden by law, and no one may be compelled to do what the law does not require“).

The 2022 amendment

The NSS also pointed out that the legal regulation has changed as a result of an amendment, and § 57 now has a different wording than it did at the time when the cyclist-complainant committed this offense.

Even though the change occurred after the offense was committed, it can be inferred what the legislator’s intention was, which is useful in interpreting the legal provision. If the legislator refers to this amendment as a „clarification“ in the explanatory memorandum, then it can be inferred what he intended to achieve with the previous, evidently insufficient legal regulation.

Effective from January 1, 2022, Section 57(1) of the Road Act was amended by Act No. 365/2021 Coll., adding the clause „at the specific location and direction unless it could endanger the safety or smooth flow of traffic on the roads.“ Although the administrative authorities decided in this matter based on the wording of the provision before the amendment, one can observe the legislator’s intention, which was already known at the time of the defendant’s decision, from the parliamentary amendment proposal No. 6148 to the cited amendment. The justification for the amendment proposal states: „it is logical that a cyclist cannot fulfill the obligation to use the designated space for cyclists (so-called advanced stop line) if the cyclist cannot safely reach this space around standing motor vehicles. Safety must take precedence. In several specific situations, it is appropriate for a cyclist to use the road instead of the cycle path. Using the road may be safer for the cyclist, for example, if using the path would require multiple turns and crossings of an otherwise straight section of the road, which increases the likelihood of collision situations. According to the recognized theory of traffic flows, elements moving at a similar speed in the flow have a lower probability of collision. The speed of some cyclists, especially in urban areas, but also depending on the elevation profile, often closely matches the speed of motor vehicles on the road rather than the speed of road users on the path. An exception to the obligation to use the path will strengthen the homogeneity of traffic flows, thereby increasing traffic safety. Mandatory use of the path often precludes local technical solutions. For example, the entrance to the path and the designation of the path may not be directly on the road the cyclist is riding on, and therefore, a cyclist unfamiliar with local conditions may not be aware of the path at all. The same problem arises when a cyclist enters the road along which the path runs only after the start of the path. Therefore, it is proposed to specify that the obligation to use cycling measures applies only to the „given location.“ Mandatory use of the path also does not take into consideration the inappropriate or poorly maintained surface of some paths, which is not safely passable for all types of bicycles. A gravel forest path, for example, may be marked as a path, which is not safely passable, especially for road bikes.“ The complainant referred to this reasoning of the amendment in his cassation complaint. It can also be inferred from this justification for the amendment applied to Section 57(1) of the Road Traffic Act that it is not in line with the legislator’s intention to interpret the cyclist’s obligation to use the listed communication or their parts designated for cyclists in an extensive manner.

In addition, it is worth mentioning the government’s opinion contained in its resolution No. 715 of July 13, 2020, regarding the aforementioned bill amending the Road Traffic Act. This government opinion clearly states that „from the current legal regulation, it clearly follows that the obligation in question [according to Section 57(1) of the Road Traffic Act] does not apply to shared paths for pedestrians and cyclists.“

The first time a case of this nature has been decided by the Courts

A customary component of administrative court decisions is the citation of legal precedents. It is the duty of administrative courts to ascertain whether courts have ever decided on the legal question under consideration in the past—and if so, they must respond to the existing case law. However, such case law is not binding for them without exception. In most cases, they adhere to it (refer to it and decide in accordance with it), contributing to the predictability of judicial decisions. In justified cases, courts may deviate from precedent, but that does not mean they can completely ignore it. They must justify why previous conclusions cannot be applied to the matter under consideration. Therefore, if the Supreme Administrative Court (NSS) did not refer to any precedent in this judgment, it means that it was the first time that administrative courts addressed this question (with the exception of the historical anecdote below).

After this introduction, the NSS arrived at its own considerations and explained what it inferred from the law and literature.

The Supreme Administrative Court is aware, on the one hand, of the need to protect cyclists as vulnerable participants in road traffic from possible collisions, especially with motor vehicles, that may occur when using regular roads. However, the protection of vulnerable road users must primarily be achieved through mutual consideration between drivers and cyclists, where drivers of motor vehicles, in particular, must exercise due caution when overtaking cyclists. This is facilitated by the mandatory distance stipulated in § 17(6) of the Road Traffic Act, as amended by the aforementioned amendment introduced by Act No. 365/2001 Coll. Cyclists are full-fledged participants in road traffic, not merely tolerated participants who should be removed from roads if possible. On the other hand, it is worth mentioning that using a path for pedestrians and cyclists is also associated with certain risks. In many cases, these are paths heavily used by pedestrians, where there is an increased risk of collisions between pedestrians and cyclists, even in the case of shared paths. For this reason, it is reasonable for cyclists to have the option to choose based on specific local conditions, road conditions, traffic frequency, speed, etc., whether to use the path for pedestrians and cyclists or the road along with other drivers.

Just to illustrate that similar issues have not only been addressed in the present time, the Supreme Administrative Court mentions a judgment of the Supreme Court dated December 17, 1942, ref. no. Rv II 32/42, Vážný No. 18416/1942. Already according to this decision, cyclists could use roads if they kept to the right side of the lane and they were not obliged to yield to cars. The plaintiff „could not be considered careless for not moving onto the sidewalk adjacent to the lane when he heard the approaching car behind him, especially outside closed settlements where he did not obstruct pedestrians (…), as long as he kept to the farthest side of a sufficiently wide lane, and observed all prescribed and substantive precautions.“

Based on the above, the Supreme Administrative Court concludes that the obligation of a cyclist to use the path for pedestrians and cyclists does not arise from § 57(1) of the Road Traffic Act. A cyclist is a participant in road traffic within the meaning of § 2 of the Road Traffic Act, and he is entitled to all rights and obligations arising from it. If the road is not marked with the traffic sign „No entry for bicycles,“ the cyclist can use it even when there is a path for pedestrians and cyclists nearby.

The Supreme Administrative Court also notes that § 57(6) of the Road Traffic Act regulates the mutual rights and obligations of cyclists and pedestrians as equal users of paths for cyclists and pedestrians and does not prevent cyclists from using the road. The mutual rights and obligations of pedestrians and cyclists in this provision apply only to the use of paths for cyclists and pedestrians. Therefore, this provision implies the obligation of cyclists to use only the lane designated for cyclists on the path for pedestrians and cyclists. It is not an addition to the obligation of cyclists under § 57(1) of the Road Traffic Act to use, in some calculated cases, the road or its part designated for cyclists. The Regional Court, therefore, erred in agreeing with the interpretation of the defendant, who found a violation of § 57(1) and 6 of the Road Traffic Act by the complainant in point 19 of the contested judgment.

Summary

The Supreme Administrative Court (NSS) based its argument on the premise that cyclists are full-fledged participants in road traffic and rejected attempts to push them off the roads, even if done with a reference to their safety. It reminded that riding on a path for pedestrians and cyclists is not inherently risk-free for cyclists either, as collisions of a different kind can still occur.

Therefore, the NSS considers it appropriate for cyclists to be able to choose, based on their skill level, whether it is safer for them to keep pace with motor vehicles on the road or to avoid pedestrians on the path for pedestrians and cyclists. This is also reflected in the legislature’s intention, as can be gleaned from the explanatory report on the amendment to § 57 of the Road Traffic Act. In the rest of the decision, the NSS aligned itself without further ado with the conclusions of professional literature, which, given that the issue is marginal within the legal system as a whole, is represented by only one article.

The judgment is significant primarily because, in the future, other individuals who might be fined for cycling on the road instead of the designated path for pedestrians and cyclists can refer to it. The NSS judgment can be used as an argument in any subsequent administrative proceedings following the imposition of a fine. While Czech law does not have binding precedent, authorities and regional courts generally respect established jurisprudence. This is partly because they do not want to risk the annulment of their decisions or judgments—any similar dispute would ultimately be decided by the NSS.

Reference

  1. NOVOPACKÝ, D.; VETEŠNÍK, P. a BEZDĚKOVSKÝ, K. Zákon o provozu na pozemních komunikacích a o změnách některých zákonů. Komentář. Praha: Wolters Kluwer, 2022, komentář k § 57 [The Road Act and Amendments to certain laws. Commentary.]
  2. KINDL, T., VOMÁČKA, V. Jsou cyklostezky povinné? Právní rozhledy, č. 4/2022, s. 133 [Are cycle paths mandatory? in Legal perspectives.]

The text was written in collaboration with a lawyer specializing in administrative law.

This is an adjusted ChatGPT translation of this article: https://mestemnakole.cz/2023/12/stezka-pro-chodce-a-cyklisty-neni-povinna-rozhodl-nejvyssi-spravni-soud/

*This article contains a lot of legalistic terminology and formulation. Even in the original language, it requires expertise to truly understand. Providing a translation in a different language is therefore an incredible challenge, both for a (non-expert) human and for AI. Thus a little caveat is in order: in case you would want to use the information and argumentation in this article for your own purposes, please refer to the text in the original Czech language!

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