Wednesday, May 20, 2009


One of the lines you hear the foes of cycling use all the time is "Cyclists are all law breakers, they run stop signs, ride on sidewalks and through crosswalks and are criminals". The unstated or sometimes explicitly stated subtext is that they deserve to die and a motorist that kills a cyclist eliminated a threat to society. This ignores that fact that bicycle crashes are rare enough that they get extensive coverage in the local and regional press. A car crash is so common that it only gets remarked upon by those who saw the accident or the immediate aftermath.

Additionally motorist law violations are accepted. Everyone breaks traffic laws and empathize with those who get caught violating the law. The thought is "there but for the grace of God go I". Only the luck of the draw prevents the common motorist from getting a ticket on any given day. Many laws are so commonly broken they aren't even considered violations.
  • Speeding, especially speeding less that 10mph over the limit. Or speeding in any area where the limit is under 40mph.
  • Failing to signal, motorist at stop signs or turning right fail to signal all the time. Even though this significantly increases the risk to a passing cyclist like myself, I can't tell the difference between someone turning right at a stop sign and one preparing to run the same.
  • Rolling through Stop Signs, this is very common, most motorists only observe 4-way stop signs or 2-way stop signs with significant traffic on the cross street.
  • Stopping well past the stop sign, This is one of those things that you start to expect as a cyclist. If you see a car coming up to a stop sign on a cross street, I swing wide because I expect them to block my lane if they even bother to stop at all.
  • Failing to stay in the lines, cars drift over the lines so much that many bike lanes have completely eroded due to traffic. This is great fun for the commuting cyclist who is riding in those sections.
  • Running Red Lights, when a light turns red, it is just accepted that one or two cars will run it.
  • Crossing the double yellow while turning, it seems that most drivers are worried about repetitive stress injuries and make shallow turns crossing the double yellow instead of turning properly and more sharply.
  • Cutting turns, this is where a motorist on an S turn decides to cross into the other lane rather than stick to the lane they are in. Mostly this is due to speeding and riding at a speed greater than the road conditions call for. This is a good way to kill an oncoming cyclist since the turn reduces the sight lines.
  • Parking in a bike lane, this causes quite a bit of issues as parking in a bike lane forces the cyclist into traffic and many motorists try to resist such movement. It is very common, in my area it is often done by Police who are using the spot as a speed trap. Generally this spot has reduced sight lines if a cop is using the area as a speed trap.
  • Using the Cell-phone, this is illegal in my area and should be everywhere. It is currently classified as a secondary offense which basically means it is unenforced. This type of distracted driving is very dangerous for everyone around the motorist.

I don't ride a day without seeing two or more of the violations above. I don't think motorists should face the death penalty for their violations though. In general I think increased enforcement would make a very large difference in the safety record of a given community. With 99.6% of trips in the US taken in an automobile, I believe enforcement should be focused on the motorists. Every ticket written will have more effect on the safety when targeting motorist instead of cyclists.

Another claim is how laws should be applied equally, motorists and cyclists should have the same laws. This is often used to argue against laws for cyclists such as vulnerable users laws and the Idaho Stop law. The issue here is that cyclists already have extra responsibilities in the US and have different laws. For instance, almost all states have laws saying a cyclist must ride as far right of a roadway as possible, with a variety of exceptions. This particular law is very troubling from a safety standpoint but it is an excellent example of a law that only cyclists must obey. Additionally cyclists are not required to signal turns in most states, they are encouraged to, but not required to as it can impair safety due to removing a hand from the handlebars. These special exceptions are the case in all 50 states. There are more on a state by state basis.

Since we already have specific bike laws why can't we add more rules specifically for cyclists. The Idaho Stop law is one excellent example. Stopping at a stop sign is risky and hard for a cyclist. The average cyclist will do almost anything to avoid putting their feet down at a stop sign. This is because they are more vulnerable when stopped, most cyclists fear not being able to maneuver. Stopped with my feet down means I can't move and my reaction time is greatly reduced if I perceive a threat coming my way. I will come at a stop sign very slowly and unclipped, preparing to stop if necessary. The Idaho stop law allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and stop lights as stop signs. Bike Lanes, cycletracks, special crossings, etc, are all other variations of special laws and facilities for cyclists. The amazing thing is they work. Adding cycle facilities almost always has the effect of making riding more popular and safer for all concerned. The Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and places in the US like Portland, OR have great records of cycling safety as compared to unimproved parts of the US. Vehicular cyclists will say that bike lanes are more dangerous than riding in the road, yet there is not one case where bicycling facilities were added that caused more fatalities on a city by city basis. Instead the statistics support the fact that facilities do create a safer environment.

My personal stance is that any facilities are good, it gets the conversation started between a community and its leaders. Once a bike lane, a cycletrack or a crossing is put in, it can be evaluated and improved. And it will be, since everyone hates failure. Arguing against any improvements since they aren't perfect is futile. Try to influence the plans but don't let perfection be the enemy of good or even more to the point, let perfection be the enemy of better

This is a bit of a rambling post and I am sorry it isn't more concise but many of these issues have been bothering me as I see cyclists turn on cyclists since they didn't wear a helmet or their body position after a fatal crash seemed to be in the wrong lane. I am tired of journalists making assumptions, I am tired of attacking the victim, I am tired of being a second class user of the roads.

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