Friday, January 15, 2010

Marriage Counseling for Cyclists and Drivers

It is no secret that I have occasionaly been irritated by the conduct of a cyclist. From time to time. I have no particular vendetta against cyclists as a class of people. I actually own a pretty damn nice bike which I love to ride. I'm not going to say I'm a hardcore cyclist or anything, but I have plenty of personal experience as a city roadway user from the perspective of a cyclist as well as a driver. I have yelled at jerkwad drivers from my bike before.

So occasionally, I get into a debate over the conduct of cyclists on the road. The crux of the matter is that bicycles are smaller and more nimble than cars. As a result, they are capable of going places cars cannot. At the same time, they cannot go as fast as cars can. They are also more vulnerable.

So you have, on the one hand, some drivers who get very irritated when they have to drive 15 MPH until they can safely pass a cyclist ahead of them, or when a bicycle passes a line of cars at a 4-way stop sign, and/or goes out of turn. Then, on the other hand, you have cyclists who get very irritated when drivers decide to pass them without waiting until it's safe, or make a right turn without ensuring that there's not a bicycle next to them.

These are just a few of the issues that relate to the complexities of integrating two very different types of vehicle traffic into a single roadway. Obviously, some adjustment is required on the part of all parties to make this a happy, joyous union that will last a lifetime, produce many lovely children, and involve annual cookouts.

The central point of my problem with the way bicyclists use the roadways is that they run red lights. Often. Anyone who says otherwise is quite simply, living in an Egyptian river. You can try to convice yourself that it is only a handful of scofflaw cyclists who pull up to a red light and breeze through after glancing both ways, but you know you are lying to yourself.

Now, once you dismiss those stoic, deluded souls who absolutely insist that this never happens (despite my seeing ten out of ten people in a row do it on my one outing with a "video camera"), we get to the actual debate. The argument that is worth having. There are a few recurring points that cyclists make in this debate that bear discussion.

Reasons it's OK for cyclists to run red lights


  • Cars break laws all the time
  • I am only endangering myself
  • Cars run stop signs
  • Cars speed
  • Cars hate bikes
  • Cars kill
  • Cars break laws too
  • Cars suck
I think it's pretty obvious why these are bad reasons to excuse red-light running for bikes. But for others, it seems, this is not so obvious. So to help clear up the mystery surrounding why it might not be OK for cyclists to run red lights, even though cars speed, I have created a visual aid. Let's look at it without further ado!



Cars speed, run stop signs, generally break traffic laws on a regular basis.

This is true. Both cars and bicycles break traffic laws on a regular basis. However, there is one thing that cars do not do on a regular basis. And this is run red lights.

Why is this important? Because the essence of this long, happy marriage of cars and cyclists in the road is predictability. In a real marriage, if one member of a nice, suburban yuppie couple came home from their job at Ernst & Young with a purple mohawk, or became a Scientologist, or decided to start smoking crack, there would undoubtedly be a major problem. Running a red light is a violation of those wedding vows, and the basic trust that all road users put in each other. Speeding, on the other hand, is more like your husband eating too many cheeseburgers and being a few pounds overweight. Ideally nobody would do it, but it's not going to cause any fights. Or kill you as quickly as smoking crack.

So when people drive in a manner that is predictable, accidents rarely happen, and the marriage works. Accidents are a result of someone doing something that is not expected. This includes: suddenly changing lanes, stopping suddenly, cutting you off, or generally being where you are not supposed to be. And for the Ernst & Young guy, that includes tattoo parlors and whorehouses.

The difference between red-light running and speeding is that one of them results in you being where you are absolutely not supposed to be, and one of them does not.

Driving in roadways with two (or more) lanes and cars driving at varying speeds is normal. We learn to do this in driving school. We learn to look in our side and rearview mirrors before changing lanes to ensure nobody's coming up on us. It's part of life. When someone is exceeding the speed limit by 5 or 10 MPH, the dynamics of the overall situation do not change. The same techniques you use to drive safely every day still work fine, even if there are people speeding.

But this is not true of red light running. Quite simply, nobody should be crossing in front of you when you have a green light. Even if there's enough space for someone to cross, you do not expect them to be there. A driver may react suddenly because of this.

I'm only endangering myself.

Several points.

1. If you do something that causes others to react, you can easily cause collateral damage.

2. A motorcycle, scooter, segway or small car could reasonably make the same argument.

3. Suicide is illegal too.

So what?

Frankly, I am amazed that this bears explanation. I am amazed that cyclists would continue to assert that running red lights is just fine for them (but not for cars.)

The reality is quite simple.

Bicycles run red lights because they can get away with it. They are a tiny minority of road users. They are not licensed, and most cops wouldn't bother to stop them.

If 1 out of 100 cars runs a red light, after looking both ways, would it cause a disaster? Absolutely not. That is why, right now, cyclists running red lights is not disastrous.

But what if every other vehicle was a bicycle? Would it be OK for them to run red lights as often as they do now? What if every other car ran a red light? Would that be OK? Everyone speeds a little bit and it rarely results in accidents. But if everyone ran red lights, even a little bit, the system would crumble.

At the end of the day, cyclists break every single traffic law that they are capable of breaking. Most don't stop for red lights. They don't signal. They don't stop for stop signs. They are frequently in a place where they should not be in the roadway.

The only law they do not break on a regular basis is speeding - but that's only beacause they physically can't do it. If a typical cyclist could ride 45 MPH on 16th Street, can anyone seriously deny that they wouldn't?

So yeah, cars aren't exactly the Mother Theresas of the road as far as adhering to the lettter of the law. But the vast majority of drivers act in a reasonably predictable manner. They wait their turn at 4-way stop signs. They stay on their side of the road. They don't go the wrong way down 1-way streets. And they stop at red lights.

Pointing out that cars don't adhere to the letter of some traffic laws does not justify routinely ignoring others. The system works because most road users act in a predictable manner. A lot of cylists do not. If their numbers were as great as cars and they acted the same way, the system would not work.

3 comments:

CM said...

Last night, I was crossing a tiny section of 18th St (right after 18th has cut diagonally through Conn Ave) and it's a one way for cars. So you only have to look one way to see if you can cross the street. I watched an cyclist nearly run a girl over last night b/c he was driving the wrong way on this little street-let and he said to the girl, "You have to look both ways." I was furious. I wanted to actually crash into him so he'd be immobilized for a moment and I had visions of calling the police to ticket him for going the wrong way on a one way. B/c why? I always thought that if bikes were utilizing the road, they must OBEY THE SAME RULES AS CARS.

I thought of your posts about cyclists last night when my angry delusions of grandeur crossed my mind. In short, I agree. It's not okay for cyclists just b/c they think it's safer. Guess what? I'm an awesome driver. But that doesn't mean I get to do whatever I want. If you're in the road, obey the law. Period.

Jamie said...

@CM, I think it's important in this conversation to acknowledge that cars do, in fact, break the law a lot. To deny that gives drivers no more credibility than cyclists who claim most bikers don't run red lights.

But exceeding the speed limit a little or rolling through stop sign isn't unpredictable. And the situation you describe is all too common as well. I live on a one-way street and I'd say at least twice a week on my way home from work, I have to stop for a biker playing chicken with me. And they always give me a dirty look, like what the hell am I doing there?

I don't think that it's reasonable to expect bikes to come to a complete stop at every single stop sign any more than cars should. Rolling through a stop sign or going a few miles over the speed limit doesn't create a pervasive safety problem for the reasons I described in this post.

But the incident you experienced highlights exactly why it's important for a couple of the more fundamental rules - the ones that have to do with the direction you are going in a roadway - to be adhered to.

Interestingly, I should have noted that this is not the case in every city.

I have talked about this with a friend who's a bicycle commuter in Seattle. The attitude there is very different. He says it is very rare for cyclists to run red lights -- and in fact, cyclists will yell at other cyclists they see doing this.

To me, this speaks a lot to the local attitude, versus something fundamental about how cyclists view themselves as roadway users.

We need to change that attitude. I would love this city to be a safer place for all. But when cyclists maintain their right to act this way, it creates anger, frustration, and lack of respect.

You don't get respect by defending your right to be a jerk, and trying to change the rules of the game you want to play. When in Rome.

Jamison said...

DC driving is a dangerous thing to do anyway. The drivers are more cutthroat at unpredictable here then in other places. And this is due to a host of other issues. But cyclists add a major element unpredictability to the equation. Probably cyclists are the most unpredictable people on the road, surpassing even taxi drivers, and that is the problem. They make a dangerous situation exponentially more dangerous.