Can You Ride a Fixed Gear Bike With No Brakes In Wisconsin?

Wisconsin law states that: No person may operate a bicycle, motor bicycle, or electric personal assistive mobility device upon a highway, bicycle lane, or bicycle way unless it is equipped with a brake in good working condition, adequate to control the movement of and to stop the bicycle, motor bicycle, or electric personal assistive mobility device whenever necessary.

While the above law makes clear that a Wisconsin bicycle must have a brake, the law does not specify what type of brake.

Some children's bikes have a coaster brake (also known as back peddling or foot brake). The brake works by applying pressure backward on the pedals. Although a fixed gear bike may not have the same set up as a coaster brake, there is nothing in the above law that states a bike must have a hand mounted brake or that the bike brakes must have cables or other traditional pieces.

The definition of a brake is, "a device for arresting or preventing the motion of a mechanism usually by means of friction, or something used to slow down or stop movement or activity ." With a fixed gear bike, the rider can apply pressure against the pedals to cause the bike to skid. The bike chain and pedals provide the braking. Thus, it could be argued that a fixed gear bike has a brake even though there is no traditional hand brake lever. Consider a single speed without hand or coaster brakes. That bike would clearly violate the above law because unlike the fixed gear, there is no brake.

Various states have different wording in their bike brake laws.

California's bike brake law states:
No person shall operate a bicycle on a roadway unless it is equipped with a brake which will enable the operator to make one braked wheel skid on dry, level, clean pavement.

Oregon's law is simlar and states:
A bicycle must be equipped with a brake that enables the operator to make the braked wheels skid on dry, level, clean pavement. strong enough to skid tire.

A woman in Portland was cited for riding a fixed gear with no brake and went to trial. The judge found that since she did not have a "device" that she was guilty. The trial testimony is covered here.  According to the article, the Judge actually stated that if the woman had a "stick" she could rub against her tire, she would have a case. [why is a stick a device but not her foot?] 

Washington DC has a bike brake law that specificially mentions fixed gear bikes. "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."

Florida has a very specific bike brake law that includes stopping distances in feet:
Every bicycle must be equipped with a brake or brakes which allow the rider to stop within 25 feet from a speed of 10 miles per hour on dry, level, clean pavement.

What are your thoughts? Should fixed gear bikes be required to have a separate hand brake? Why? Why not?


Dave Reid said...

No. It shouldn't be if they have a 'brake' per se. But if they can reasonably stop the bike.

Unknown said...

Sounds like the woman who was missing the "stick" brake was also missing you as their lawyer

Clay said...

Thanks for the compliment Andrew. That would have been a fun case to try.

Clay said...


I agree. I don't see the difference between having a hand brake or some type of lever or piece of metal and a person being able to stop by using pressure. The focus should be on safely stopping, not what materials are or are not on the bike.