Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Confessions Of A Traffic Tattletale

Driving home from work at lunchtime today, which has become a daily ritual because of the new puppy, I was waiting at a light on 16th Street southbound. I was stunned when a truck ahead of me proceeded right through the red light.

As much as I think that DC is full of bad drivers, this is something you rarely see from an automobile. Cyclists? They run red lights all the time. And cars certainly break all manner of other traffic laws routinely. Frankly, I am surprised when I see a turn signal. I feel like pulling over and shaking the hand of any driver who actually signals before making a turn, to thank them for the selfess, rare act of compliance with the law that they have taken upon themselves.

But I honestly can't remember the last time I saw a car just drive right through a red light in broad daylight with lots of other cars around.

The light changed shortly after he ran it, but the truck soon disappeared in the distance. I am not going to lie and say I never exceed the speed limit on 16th Street. The prevailing speed of traffic is often over 40 MPH. But this guy must have easily hit 70.

I caught up to him again as he hit some traffic and watched as he weaved around a couple cars and ran right through the next red light.

At this point, he was a menace.

I thought briefly about the move I was about to make, and did it.

I invited the vampire into my own home.

I called the police to rat out a driver.

Like most people, I speed sometimes. I don't come to a complete stop at every single stop sign. But I am always in control and I always try to drive in a manner that is reasonable given the circumstances: traffic, road conditions, weather, foot traffic.

But this guy was either loony tunes or on his way back from a bank robbery. And goddamit, your Marlyand-plated ass is not going to get away with driving like a complete jackass in my city.

I told the cops what was going on and gave them the truck's description and licence plate number. I have no idea what happened next. But on my way back to work an hour later, there was a "speed limit enforcement wall" heading south on 16th Street. That is, two cops, driving side by side, on 16th Street, which would effectively prevent anyone from driving over 30.

I have no idea if my call somehow resulted in this, or if the crazy ass truck got picked up. And despite the fact that generally, cop cars babysitting traffic like this is pretty annoying, it made me feel like I got a response from the police. I didn't stop a mugging or a house break-in, but maybe I made 16th Street safer for one day.

I was fully expecting to be pulled over for talking on my cell phone while driving.


Shannon said...

Running reds? How about today, at the intersection of Connecticut and K, I saw a woman run a red light in an intersection full of pedestrians because she was too damn busy fiddling with her phone to notice that the light had changed. I'd have called the cops, too...if I hadn't been too busy jumping out of the way.

pixability said...

I suppose this would be a bad time to post the video of you running red lights during the snow storm?

Jamie said...

I thought we agreed never to speak of that again!

Jamie said...

@Shannon... wow. That's messed up. Kind of reminds me of a beatles song.... I saw the news today, oh boy...

It doesn't end well.

Steve said...

Not to start the same old discussion here once again, but this reasoning from you about which laws you do and do not follow is more or less how I — and lots of others — operate on our bikes. I wonder if you think that selective obedience is ok for you, and not cool for me?

"Like most people, I speed sometimes. I don't come to a complete stop at every single stop sign. But I am always in control and I always try to drive in a manner that is reasonable given the circumstances: traffic, road conditions, weather, foot traffic. "

I may run red lights, but usually after at least slowing to look, and never in such a way that anyone has to hit their brakes on my behalf. I roll through stop signs, but only if the path is clear and I'm not going to cause someone who has the right of way to slam on their brakes.

I'm always in control and always ride in a manner that's reasonable given the circumstances. (Oh, and any mistakes I might make probably won't kill anyone.) That doesn't mean I follow every rule, but then again, neither do you, by your own admission, or most other drivers.

Just a thought. I'm not looking to start a huge discussion or debate on it, I just thought your paragraph there was a really good descriptor of how I ride.

Jamie said...

@Steve, I understand your point completely, and in my past arguments about cycling vs. auto lawbreaking I hope I've never suggested that cars are not frequent lawbreakers.

But the central issue, for me, is predictability and safety. Yes, I do selectively ignore some traffic laws, but the difference between driving 10 MPH over the speed limit on a road with nearly zero cycling and pedestrian traffic, and running red lights at busy intersections (such as my observation at 14th and Park), is a big one.

The driver in question here was speeding insanely fast and running red lights. That is without a doubt really bad.

A cyclist isn't capable of going that fast, but can (and frequently do) run the red lights on 16th Street. Likewise, they rarely stop at 4 way stop signs in my experience, and will almost always pass a line of cars and go out of turn at 4 way stops, which means that the car who's turn it actually is suddenly has a new player in their scenario. It is unpredictable.

In the end -- cyclists violate every traffic law that they are capable of violating, and much more often than cars do at an individual level. Cars don't routinely violate the laws that most people consider the most important for safety.

I don't think that running a red light as either an automobile or a cyclist is safe, and is far worse than driving 10 MPH over the limit on a four-lane road with minimal cycling/pedestrian traffic.

The only argument to the contrary is that "bikes put only themselves at risk" by running red lights or otherwise behaving unpredictably in traffic.

But this is simply untrue. A bike puts others at risk by doing this, and an automobile red-light runner is not putting other people at particularly great risk in a 25 MPH zone . In a T-bone type collision between 2 cars, which is the kind of accident that would occur, the car running the red light will almost certainly be the victim. T-boning another car at 25 MPH is unlikely to cause serious harm to the occupants of that car.

What about motorcycles and scooters? Should they be allowed to run red lights if bikes can? I don't see them doing it like the bikes do.

But in either case, there could be serious collateral damage as a result of other cars, vehicles and pedestrians in the vicinity reacting to the situation.

I am not taking a hard line about cycling lawbreaking any more than I am about car lawbreaking. But the attitude of many cyclist seems to be that they are not subject to the laws AT ALL. If they could speed, there is no doubt in my mind they would.

At the end of the day -- I can think of a half-dozen incidents in the last year where a cyclist's actions caused me to slam on my brakes or otherwise react to avoid a potential accident. It's happened maybe once in that time because of a car.

Considering how many more cars there are, this means that regardless of which laws we each can or do break, cyclists are posing a greater threat to safety than cars are because they are frequently unpredictable.

Jamie said...

One more thing Steve... I am not suggesting that your own cycling habits make you a particular threat.

But the reality is that cyclists get away with running red lights because they can. You aren't licensed, and you are unlikely to be pulled over. This is because you are minority.

If there were an equal number of bikes on the road as cars, which is the goal of many people (and personally, I think that would be fantastic) do you really think that they would all be running red lights willy-nilly? Of course not. If half the vehicles at any given stoplight ran it, you can believe it would be enforced more often.

Right now, cyclists are a small enough minority that these incidents don't usually cause a problem.

But that justifies the behavior no more than it would for someone in a car who could say "whatever, I didn't hurt anyone." But if everyone did it there would certainly be a problem.

If you want acceptance and respect then you need to play by the same rules. That doesn't mean you have to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, but it does mean you should act in a manner that's predictable and generally accepted by all the other users of the road.

And this is why the truck running the red light pissed me off, and it's the same reason that cyclists running lights pisses me off.

Alex said...

You did the right thing... I am still mad at myself for not calling in the ***hole I saw in an SUV about a year ago, in the middle of rush hour traffic heading to VA playfully waving his freakin' gun to the music while his girlfriend playfully tried to get him to put it away.

Unknown said...

for whatever reason it drivers have decided that speed limits are almost always not legitimate speed postings, but red lights are on a totally different level. When you tell you someone you got a speeding ticket they'll almost always naturally side with you. But tell them you got a red light ticket, and they will think you're a bad driver and deserved it.

Jamie said...

@Jamison - Yes, you are right. The reason seems pretty obvious to me.

When you run a red light, you are travelling perpendicular to the allowed flow of traffic at that time. Not the case with speeding.

We all seem to agree that most everyone speeds, yet on any given day, there are very few accidents in DC that are "speed related."

If every car ran red lights as often as they sped (or as often as cyclists do) what do you think the consequences would be?

That should make it pretty clear how much more important obeying red light laws is.