On the Subject of Bikes, Cars, Pedestrians, and The Law

In my experience, cyclists have three approaches to the rules of the road:

  • Fully obey all laws all the time. These people are very rare.
  • Cautious rule breakers: They may not follow the exact letter of the law, but still remain considerate and aware. This is where things like the Idaho Stop comes in: They may not come to a complete stop at every stop sign, but they’ll approach the intersection with caution, yield to any traffic or pedestrian with the right of way, and then proceed. This group represents the overwhelming majority of cyclists, as well as the majority of drivers, pedestrians, and human beings in general.
  • Don’t give a fuck: These cyclists ignore signs and lights, have no understanding of the rules of the road, and are most likely to be perceived as jackasses by everyone around them.

The Toronto Star ran an expose that found most cyclists didn’t stop for a red light. While it seems quite shocking and appalling, they did it at what was effectively a three-way intersection, meaning cyclists weren’t recklessly blowing through traffic. There’s also an advance green for streetcars travelling east/west that would have no interaction whatsoever with bicycles proceeding straight.

It was a stupid location for a test, because it failed to distinguish between the different sorts of lawbreakers. Some cyclists likely ran the light because they just didn’t care, while others did so because they observed the situation and decided it was safe to proceed. If the “study” were conducted at College and Spadina, you’d get far more law-abiding behaviour from cyclists; some morons will doubtless run the light, but most will quite sensibly wait until it turns green.

It doesn’t even have to be a busy intersection. If they’d merely set up their camera on the north side of the intersection, where errant cyclists would have to cross an actual road instead of a driveway, they’d have recorded dramatically different results.

The Star rebutted: According to the law, a red light is a red light is a red light, no matter where. Which is true, but not terribly useful. The speed limit is the speed limit, no matter where, but drivers and police officers respond to it differently when it’s on the 401 than they do in a residential area. “Everyone should obey all of the laws all of the time” is probably a good idea, but it’s a distinctly minority opinion.

(Far more common, I suspect, is “Everyone else should obey all the laws all the time, but I had a good reason for breaking this law or that one, so it’s okay.”)

But what does any of this mean? (I don’t k now. I’m making this up as I go.)

There’s a perception that all cyclists are irresponsible rule breakers. (or, at least, 99% of cyclists are irresponsible rule breakers, a conclusion that surely has a solid mathematical grounding) It’s a stupid, incorrect assumption, based on the fact that everyone remembers bad experiences more clearly than benign ones. When I ride my bike, I interact with hundreds, if not thousands, of automobiles, but at the end of the ride I’ll remember the three cars parked in a bike lane and that one guy who cut me off without signalling.

(I’ll also remember the stupid cyclists who blocked two thirds of the Martin Goodman Trail when they decided to stop and chat, and that other dick on a bike who rode past me when I stopped at a light, then made me pass him because I’m easily faster than him, then repeated the same thing three or four times.)

(And while I’m ranting about annoying cyclists: What is the deal with riding into the crosswalk when running a red light? Do people think this detour of three feet makes everything okay?It’s probably more illegal: You’re still running the red light, but now you’re also breaking s. 144(29) of the Highway Traffic Act, which says “No person shall ride a bicycle across a roadway within or along a crosswalk.” And if you’re on the sidewalk, you’ll run afoul of municipal bylaws. This makes you look like a lawbreaker and a moron.)

Most drivers are responsible and safe, even if they aren’t 100% compliant with the law. But on any given day, you might have a bad experience that convinces you that 99% of drivers are inconsiderate, reckless jackasses who carve a notch into their steering wheel every time they screw over a cyclist.

Perhaps when you observe the other, a strange person who travels on a two-wheeled, human-powered, precariously balanced contraption, you don’t understand why they do the things the do. I’ve been honked at for straying outside a bicycle lane that was full of potholes, debris, or car doors; it may look like I’m a jerk, but I’m (legally) just doing what I need to do to keep myself safe.

Drivers do what they do, and they understand why other drivers do the things they do. They forgive certain legal indiscretions, if they notice them at all, because everyone does it. But they don’t always understand why a cyclist chooses to break a certain law, and what the impact of that act might be. From behind the wheel of a car, is there a difference between a cyclist who slows, but doesn’t stop, at an intersection, and one who just rides through? Is the difference of 5-10 km/hr even perceptible when you’re used to travelling at 50-100 km/hr?

(On the other hand, I know that some of my fellow cyclists’ excuses are bullshit. It’s too hard to start again after coming to a stop? No, it’s not. Learn to shift your damn gears.)

Next week, Toronto City Council will vote on a new bike plan for the city, including a plan to remove the bike lanes on Jarvis Street. This week, a cyclist carelessly ran into a pedestrian while running a red light and travelling the wrong way. These two issues aren’t related; one is about transportation planning while the other is a stupid, tragic, collision caused by one individual asshole. No one considers drunk driving when discussing road repairs, so the behaviour of one, or a few, cyclists shouldn’t impact the creation – or, in this case, destruction – of a safe cycling network.

But it’ll come up. Someone – I’m looking at you, Giorgio Mammoliti – will ask why we should build infrastructure for cyclists when they’re so reckless and irresponsible. Cyclists still ride on the sidewalk when a street has bike lanes, so why should we give them more bike lanes? (Now I’m looking at you, Utter Dick who rides on the sidewalk on Beverley Street.) If cyclists want rights (which we already have, thanks so much), they should also have responsibilities (which we also have; see the Highway Traffic Act for one or two examples).

(Why – if you’ll excuse yet another tangent – do people often seem to think the answer to an unenforced law is to create more laws, which are equally likely to go unenforced? Police don’t have the resources to enforce all the traffic infractions as it is, but now we’re going to ask them start doing spot-checks for bicycle licenses?)

There is a tendency among some to perceive any negative coverage of cyclists as an unfair attack on the cycling community. But while some coverage is deliberately inciteful (like the Star’s ridiculous stop light count), some is perfectly legitimate (a careless cyclist ignored the rules and seriously injured someone).

If we, as cyclists, want people to distinguish between reasonable law-bending and reckless jackassery, we must accept the difference between the reporting of ignorant stereotypes and the coverage of legitimately dangerous behaviour. Questioning the significance of bad cyclist behaviour is one thing, but responding to every criticism with “But cars do it, too” is juvenile and pointless.

Certain people will always blow poor cyclist behaviour out of proportion, but cyclists have an almost equal tendencey to try to sweep it under the rug. Reckless cycling can have serious consequences, and may have even greater impact as the number of cyclists increases. More people on bikes is a good thing, but if they don’t understand the rules of the road they’re a danger to themselves and others.

Drivers and pedestrians need to understand the rights, responsibilities, and needs of cyclists, but cyclists need to be aware of the laws and conscious of how they’ll appear when they break them. Digging into ideological trenches isn’t going to make the roads any safer for anyone.

Posted: July 8th, 2011
Categories: Cycling
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