[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Should Cyclists Obey the Traffic Laws?
More cyclists now disobey the law: why they are disobedient, examples of civil disobedience, why breaking traffic laws injures cyclists' rights, and the problem faced by Critical Mass.

The Main Question: if a traffic maneuver is perfectly safe but against the law, should a cyclist do it? Why have attitudes towards obeying the law changed since the 60's? What are the reasons for disobeying the law? Why do moral arguments about cycling have to be tailored to their audience? How fixed are moral beliefs? How are Henry Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King misunderstood? How does Gandhi demonstrate sacrifice to achieve freedom for others? Would Thoreau, Gandhi, and King support breaking the law for our own personal convenience? What was their real purpose? How did Blacks stand up for the rights of all pedestrians? How can a group of people stand up against injustice? What kind of laws should cyclists fight against? What kind of laws should cyclists support? Why can't we ignore the law but expect the police to enforce laws against motorists? What kind of laws should be broken? What kind of laws should be protected?


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Should Cyclists Obey the Traffic Laws?

Questions about what the traffic laws are and why cyclists should obey them come up from time to time. Explaining the traffic laws is not too difficult, although the laws do vary from state to state and the interpretation of them from person to person. A strong reason for obeying them can be found by looking at accident statistics. However, there is another issue involved in obeying the law that I will discuss here: if the action is perfectly safe but is also against the law, are we still under any obligation to obey the law?

Our Change in Attitudes towards Laws

If this question had been asked during the fifties or earlier, it would have been answered with scorn. But during the sixties, large numbers of people recognized that obeying the law was sometimes harmful because sometimes the law itself was wrong. Therefore, we had a civil rights movement, an antiwar movement, and several other smaller movements in which people purposely disobeyed the law. In addition, there was a general feeling of rebellion that caused many people to quit obeying rules and regulations, and to start living quite differently from what was "expected" of them. Since then, people have become less trustful of the government, and young people have grown up believing that authority is wrong, and maybe the laws too.

Bicycling Gets Separate Treatment

I think people are also more likely to break traffic laws when riding a bike than when driving a car. There's a reason for this that predates the civil rights movement: police generally pay litttle attention to bicycle riders. If you ran a red light in front of a police officer in a car, he would almost certainly stop you. However, if you ran the same street light on your bike, he probably would not. Two reasons probably lie behind this behavior. One is that the officer recognizes that you're not liable to injure anyone except yourself. The other is that the police, like everyone else, often think in terms of motor vehicle laws rather in terms of traffic laws. Therefore, they focus their attention on motorists and ignore pedestrians and cyclists. Unfortunately, this behavior sends the message, which is not true, that cyclists and pedestrians don't have to obey the traffic laws.

Six Reasons for Moral Judgments

One of the problems then in answering the question "Should we obey the law?" is who am I talking to, and why does this person wish to disobey the law?

In 1971, I read an article by Lawrence Kohlberg which defined six type of people according to their reasons for making moral judgments. He established these six types through asking people questions about a situation in which any reasonable person would feel obligated to break the law and then asking for their justification. I have extended his definitions to motorists and cyclists.

Type I people are are primarily worried about getting punished. These people do not analyze or reason, and their moral development is very limited. As motorists, they are very law-abiding, but they are likely to react poorly in an emergency and to explode with anger easily. As bike riders, they stick to the sidewalk, coasting at walking speed.

Type II people are very selfish, and will modify their behavior only if they get rewarded as a result. As motorists, they are worried only with themselves, and they don't care about others. As bike riders, they will ride on the sidewalk and will run anyone down; they will not ride a bike for altruistic reasons, such as to benefit the environment.

Type III people are governed by how everyone else is acting. They follow fashions and trends and shape their judgment to fit the community around them. As motorists, they are going to drive as they see others in their community driving, whether fast or slow, carefully or recklessly. As cyclists, they will ride on the sidewalk or the street according to other's behavior.

Type IV people believe in law and order. They have great respect for the law, and they will inconvenience themselves and go against the majority to obey it. As motorists, they strictly obey the traffic handbook. As cyclists, they obey the cycling laws if they know them.

Type V people are more governed by the spirit and the intent of the law. These people recognize that the law does not have to be obeyed literally; it's the purpose and the result that are important. As motorists, they would be more concerned with safety that with the traffic code. As cyclists, they would be more flexible in their interfacing with traffic.

Type VI people are governed by a sense of justice. They recognize that the law is a set of rules only, and that those rules can be changed at any time, and they look beyond the intent of the law and the immediate result to see what the final result will be. These people are very likely to deliberately break the law in order to get it changed. They are very likely to not drive cars at all, even if riding a bicycle means great personal inconvenience. They would normally cooperate in traffic, but if they felt that blocking traffic would make a significant difference, they would be willing to do so. In addition, they would be willing to go to jail, in fact, would ask to be taken to jail, in order to stand up for their beliefs.

Of course, in explaining why cyclists should obey the law, I would have to give a somewhat different explanation to each group of people. Type I and II will be the least reachable; they are governed by their self-interest alone, are likely uneducated and are more likely to be fearful of or in trouble with the law. Law enforcement is the only way to change their behavior. Type III and IV cyclists are most strongly governed by social approval. They make up the bulk of the population and of those with high-school and college educations. Type III individuals are going to be governed by what other people are doing, for the better or the worst. Type IV individuals are best governed by explaining to them the law. Type V and VI individuals are going to usually finish graduate school. They will have a sophisticated understanding and abstract ideas. They will want to argue quite a bit. Type V individuals, for all their sophistication, are going to want to go along with society, even if not completely convinced, but Type VI individuals are much more morally stubborn and are less concerned with personal well-being.

All of these people have the ability to change from one type to the other, but the change upward is gradual, as a person can relate to only the next highest level. On the other hand, they all have the ability to understand the moral positions below themselves. We are all motivated, for instance, by concern for our personal safety. People are not entirely consistent, and the person who is willing to picket against pollution may drive a car every day with a bad muffler. The cyclist who is highly indignant of a motorist running a traffic light may think nothing of running traffic lights himself. When arguing for something convenient, it's probably just as well to argue to people's base instincts (cycling is fun), but when we are trying to get them to make sacrifices, it's probably better to appeal to their higher moral instincts. Such an appeal would be best if it spoke to all levels, or at least the top five levels. (Sometimes cyclists say to me, "Why do you include arguments about the environment? No one would ride a bicycle to counter global warming. But type VI cyclists would.)

How and When to Disobey the Law

If in reading this article, you feel that you belong to the last group, I would suggest you read very carefully, if you have not already done so, Henry Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience," Martin Luther King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail," and this discussion of Mohandas Gandhi's use of civil disobedience and non-cooperation.

I have the perfect story to show how Thoreau, Gandhi, and King are misunderstood. On my New England bike trip, I stopped at Walden Pond. As I was visiting the site of Thoreau's cabin, a young man rode up on his mountain bike, enjoying a good ride. But, the whole park was posted "NO BICYCLE RIDING ON THE TRAILS." So, I asked him why he was riding there, and he said, "Well, I'm just like Thoreau; if I don't think the law is right, I just don't obey it." But he's not like Henry Thoreau; he's the exact opposite. Thoreau, Gandhi, and King all point out clearly that they are not saying, "Do whatever you want to do, if you can get away with it." They recognize the value of the law and deeply respect the law. They are saying that there are times when it is necessary to break the law for a higher purpose.

Gandhi provides the most dramatic examples.  With a large gathering of people, he walked completely across India to the sea. At the sea, he deliberately scooped up a cup of water in front of law officials and the press in order to make salt. He was immediately arrested because the British had a monopoly on making salt, charging outrageous prices. When taken to court, he did not defend himself; instead he insisted that either the law was wrong or he must be given the most severe punishment possible. He was sentenced to prison, and once inside, he began starving himself to death. The British were afraid that he would die, so they released him. As soon as possible, he returned to the sea and began making salt once again. He persisted in this fashion until the salt law was repealed.

Neither Thoreau nor Gandhi nor King ever advocated breaking laws on the sly for personal convenience; they attacked unjust laws at their own risk in order to improve society. Thoreau said, "If I have taken a plank from a drowning man, I must restore it to him although I drown myself." In Walden, Thoreau discussed Mirabeau's deliberate commission of crimes in order to prove his manhood, and Thoreau said a man "would have found himself often enough 'in formal opposition' to what are deemed 'the sacred laws of society' through obedience to yet more sacred laws, and so would have tested his resolution without going out of his way." All of us, at one time or another, must stand our ground or forever surrender to injustice. Anyone who rides a bicycle on the road knows what I am talking about. Every cyclist who has refused to get off of the road after being blasted by the horn of a rapidly approaching truck knows what it means to be willing to die for what he or she believes.

Civil Disobedience on the Roadway

At one time in America, back in the fifties, if you wanted to walk across a street, you did it to your own peril. No motorist was ever going to slow down, and if your skin was black, the motorist would be likely to step on the gas. Somehow, during the civil rights struggle, it occurred to Blacks that it was no longer dignified to scurry across the street to get out of the way of Whites. So, young Blacks would slow down when a car approached and slowly cakewalk their way across the road, as if in a parade. Sometimes they would even do it when they didn't even want to cross the street. One even cakewalked in front of my bicycle. The motorists thought they were crazy. I thought they were wonderful. By slowly walking across the street, they were standing up as individuals, as a race, as pedestrians, as Americans, and as human beings. Ever since then, motorists will slow down for pedestrians in the road, at least in Alabama. In the same way, the only way for the roads to be open to the cyclists is for the cyclists themselves to take back the roads. No one is every going to give us anything more than a bikepath from nowhere to nowhere unless we make them. The rule from history is that no one was ever given their freedom; everyone had to take it. Black history illustrates this better than anything else. Abraham Lincoln didn't free the slaves; Rosa Parks and many others had to free themselves.

The Power of Cooperative Disobedience

A large group of people can have a wonderful power against oppression. During World War II, Hitler found some counties much easier to occupy than others. The Danes resisted Jewish persecution and eventually smuggled their Jewish population to Sweden. Gandhi once asked the people of India to not go to work for one day. He couldn't ask for a complete strike because the people were very poor, just for one day. The British said that any worker who refused to appear would lose his or her job forever. Not one person in all of India showed up for work! After that day, the end of the British rule in India was just a matter of time.

So, I would advise all cyclists everywhere to organize and to stand up for your rights.

What Kind of Laws to Protest

In picking your battles, however, be sure to pick them carefully. Every battle that Gandhi and King fought was careful thought about ahead of time. What cyclists especially need to stand up for are those rights already found in their state laws that they have not been able to enjoy; in particular, the right to be able to travel wherever they want to go. Cyclists should not ask for special privileges or laws that other vehicle operators don't enjoy.

Which Laws Must be Obeyed

Now we come to the issue of, why not go ahead and run a red light if we can get away with it?

I cannot think of a more self-destructive position for cyclists to take. To expect the police and the law to protect us from motorists who run red lights and disobey the law, but to continue to break the law at every opportunity ourselves! This is not civil disobedience; this is truancy. If we do this, we are expecting others to obey laws that we ignore. If the motorists who see us cheating decide that it's OK for them to cheat too, what are we going to do then? Do you think any policeman is going to be on our side when we consider ourselves above the law and expect the motorist to be punished for the slightest infraction? We have to stand on a firm moral footing.

Which Laws Should be Broken and How

It's not that some laws can't be broken. Unjust laws that restrict bicycle passage or that require us to ride on sidewalks are the ones we ought to break. To me, the people who rode across the Bay Bridge were heroes; they harmed no one, endangered no one, set no bad precedents, and made a strong point.  They broke the law, not for their own personal convenience, but to get the law changed. There are many cities with bridges that are open only to motor vehicles or that require the cyclists to either ride on the sidewalk among pedestrians or to walk, sometimes up steep stairways. Those cities need cyclists willing to ride their bridges also.

Personal Disobedience for Convenience

On the other hand, other laws are for everyone's safety. They are not designed to hinder cycling; they make cycling safer. To me, the people who run red lights "because they won't get hit" are bums. They are not heroes, they are cowards. They are not standing for principles, they are taking the easy way out. They are not type VI cyclists, they are type II's.  (This is not meant to criticize those cyclists who live in cities where the traffic lights won't work for bicycles.)

Discriminatory Laws

One of my students once complained about "reverse discrimination" in her high school. The White students had to behave, turn in homework, etc., the Black students did not. I told her, "That's not reverse discrimination; that's the real thing." In Jim Crow Alabama, if a White killed a White, he went to jail. If a Black killed a Black, he went free. In the same way, when the police enforce the traffic laws against motorists and let the cyclists ride on the sidewalks, the wrong side of the road, run red lights, and ride without lights at night, they are not doing the cyclists or cycling a favor. Anyone who supports these activities wants to have Jim Crow cycling.

Protest through Obedience

Actually, a very good way to protest discrimination is by obeying the law. Rather than accept the second-rate statis forced on cyclists, protest by strictly obeying every law, just as if you were in a motor vehicle. As you do that, you are sending a message to every motorist and every police officer that you have the same rights as all other vehicle users. In 1999 for the first time, I had a police officer stop me and tell me that I should be on the sidewalk, and he said he would impound my bike if he caught me on the street again, but I stood up for my rights when talking to him, and I immediately sent his captain a copy of the state laws on cycling. The captain told me he investigated and made sure the officer was informed about the laws concerning the use of bicycles on the road.

Good Wishes towards Critical Mass

I realize that those of you involved in Critical Mass are dealing with a situation where one person does one thing and the other another, but you have a great deal of influence on each other nonetheless. Good luck on all your efforts!

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