[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: How Should Cyclists Obey Traffic Laws?
Running stop signs, the spirit of the law, the foolishness of saving time by breaking laws, the danger to cyclists of motorists doing the same, assertiveness in cycling.

Are rules written on paper more important than good judgment? Is the reason behind the traffic code more important than the code? How should children be instructed about right and wrong? Why is it important for them to understand why? What is the problem with coming to a full stop at a stop sign? How can a flexible interpretation lead to a slippery slope? How can we short-cut safety for speed while cycling? Why is worrying about speed on a bike rather silly? How do motorists put speed above safety when driving? Why does speeding result in little time saved? Why do we prefer speed to safety? How does breaking safety rules have a reverse pay-off? Why is just obeying the law not good enough? How does assertiveness work while cycling? Why should we stay alert for motorists' errors? How can we predict motorists' behavior?


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Comments on This Page

How Should Cyclists Obey Traffic Laws?

David Casseres wrote:
I quote: "...obey the traffic laws. That is the most important way to improve the safety of cyclists..." The words "most important" seem to mean more important than anything else, and the phrase "traffic laws," as I understand it refers to a set of set of regulations written on paper -- not to alertness, judgment, and skills.  So it looks to me like you're saying that obeying a set of rules written on paper is actually more important to safety than being alert, using good judgment, and learning and using good skills.  
Avery Burdett replied:
Using good judgment includes obeying rules based on their fundamental  purpose, I agree, not what's written on paper. For example, I think it's better to teach kids the reasons for not riding out of the end of driveways -- to yield right of way to other vehicles which may already be there,  rather than just imposing a rule that they shouldn't.  Another is the lack of need to come to a full stop at "Stop" signs unless it's required to yield right of way to other vehicles (or unless there's a police cruiser parked nearby!) Slowing down and checking for other vehicles should be sufficient, similar to the way a "Yield" sign is treated. 

I think Avery has made an excellent statement, and I would like to expand on it. At first I'm going to get away from cycling to make a point about teaching children, and then I'm going look at the traffic laws.

How to Instruct Children

As someone who has owned cats, I know that when one gets up on the dinner table, that the best thing to do is to make a big fuss, yell, scream, clap my hands, whack the cat, whatever, until the cat learns to associate being on the table with getting in trouble. And I have to do all this with a cat because the cat can't understand an explanation.

Unfortunately, a lot of people, maybe most, raise their kids as they would cats. They yell and scream, but they do not explain. I made it my rule to never yell or scream at my son (with the exception that I give below) but to always provide a reason. When my son was not old enough to understand, I did not expect him to obey, but waited until he was older to explain, because I didn't want my son to be like our one cat, who was afraid to get on any furniture, even when it was OK, but didn't know why. In other words, I did not want my son to become psychotic.

I'm very proud of the results. My son solves his problems by thinking them though; he does not get upset. If all parents raised their children this way, we could have a rational world in one generation.

However, there is one time when you have to yell and scream, and that is when the kid is about to get hurt. Whatever damage you do psychologically can be explained and soothed later, after the danger is over.

Now, we're ready to get back to cycling and Avery's instructions. He is giving his children logical instructions about riding a bicycle, so they not only know what to do but why to do. This is very valuable; understanding the principle, they will be able to adapt to new positions and situations, and someday they will be able to write to this NG, putting in their 2¢.

The Spirit, Not the Letter

He gives a good example of a law that ought to be obeyed logically rather than to the letter, too. If when reaching a stop sign, the cyclist stops, puts one foot on the ground, looks around, and then starts up, the cyclist is likely to be passed at the stop sign because motorists just want to stop very briefly and go. In fact, an inattentive motorist who doesn't intend to stop at all might even run into the cyclist. In addition, a sitting start is faster (funny, I started to say a "standing start"). With both feet firmly clipped in, the bike moving just fast enough to not require special attention, the rider can first focus on the traffic, and then on rapid acceleration to get across the intersection in less time. In other words, this method is safer.

The Slippery Slope

However, it does put one at the brink of a very slippery slope. We see this in the right turn on red. A good sensible improvement in the traffic laws, except, people forget that they are supposed to stop and look both ways before proceeding. Instead they often blast through the intersection, ignoring oncoming traffic.

On a bike, it's very easy to move from barely stopping to barely slowing. We can say the cyclist has carried it too far 1) when he is unable to stop when he suddenly discovers that he must or 2) when he's going through so fast that he doesn't have time to look properly or 3) when the motorists watching him don't recognize that he stopped at all.

Speed over Safety on Bicycles

Some cyclists feel we need to forget about stopping at all because that rule is only for cars anyway. They are very happy with the idea that there should be one set of rules for cars and another for bikes, and therefore, they don't have to obey any traffic laws. Next they're riding on the sidewalk "because it's safer" and all sorts of foolish stuff. Basically, what they are arguing, is since a bike has a greater safety margin than a car due to greater viewing ability, maneuverability, and smaller size, they should be allowed to cut into that safety margin in order to gain a little extra speed or convenience. One cyclist has reported that he runs 26 stop signs and lights each way every day and on weekends too.  Of course, some of the lights will be green anyway, but we can estimate that he will easily run lights or signs 10,000 times in one year.

Now I think extra speed on a bike is silly. If I cross town and run every red light, I could maybe save five minutes out of a half hour trip. At the same time, I would be creating hostility and exposing myself to lots of risks. I am also teaching all the motorists along the way that since I don't obey the traffic rules, I am not a part of traffic. These are going to be the same motorists passing me every day.  In the case of our cyclist who is running 10,000 signs and lights a year, the savings must really mount up. If he's saving just ten seconds with each one, that's nearly 28 hours a year, a whole extra day's time.  Of course, the maximum saving per day (at ten seconds each) is less than nine minutes, so he will not really feel the savings very much.

Speed over Safety in Cars

One of the problems that highway and auto engineers run into is this same tendency of people in motor vehicles to swap safety for time. The engineers add safety belts and air bags to cars, and people who used to be afraid to drive at the speed limit, are now going 20 mph over the limit on the same road. So, the engineers build a new road which is over designed, so that if cars drive at the new higher speed, there will be almost no accidents. What do the drivers do? They increase their speed even more until there's just as many deaths on that road as there was on the old road when people didn't have safety belts.

While the motorists feel they are saving time, it's a pretty poor swap. It's pretty easy to demonstrate that increased speed in a car results in increased gas consumption, engine and tire wear, braking distance, and fatalities, and that the only benefit is speed. But there is no proportional swap. For instance, imagine driving 100 miles at increasing speeds. For each 10 mile an hour increase in speed the danger and expense are greater and the benefit is less. Let's make a chart of the savings for each ten mile per hour increase in speed:

Speed  10  20  30  40  50  60  70  80  90 100 mph
Time 600  300 200 150 120 100  85  75  67  60 min
Savings --- +300 +100 +50 +30 +20 +15 +10 +8 +7 min

What this chart shows is that increasing the speed has a rapidly diminishing effect the faster you go. The rule is that you have to go twice as fast to save half the time. It would be nice, if I had the figures, to plot costs against the benefits in time on the same graph, because the costs and braking distance would curve upward much faster than the saving in time. However, these figures assume maximum speed at all time, which only happens on an interstate. The real advantage of driving on an interstate, as far as time is concerned, is not the higher speed but the lack of delay at intersections and through towns. On ordinary roads, the time benefits almost disappear. People have the expectation, that with progress, they ought to be getting somewhere quicker this year than last, but the truth is that automobiles have reached their design limit, and with increased congestion, average speeds are going to drop. Yet, I don't know how often I see someone else risk my life to get to an already red light just a little quicker.

So, the engineers try to reduce the death rate, and people arrive at their destination a couple of minutes quicker instead.

But let's suppose that people didn't speed up. They would still arrive in a reasonable time, and there would be almost no fender-benders or deaths along the highway. A much more important result, don't you think? And if our cyclist didn't run all those lights and traffic signs, he would have an extra few minutes to catch his breath and might even arrive in the same time.

Why We Prefer Speed to Safety

There's a common cause behind cyclists' breaking the law to save a few minutes and motorists' speeding to do the same. We live in a high-pressure society with a lot of distractions. It's too easy to get involved on the computer and to suddenly realize that we are supposed to be somewhere in five minutes. Another cause of pressure is the highway itself, with everyone else in a panic and honking away. However, this stress is in and of itself bad for us; many people are on medication for no other reason, and if it leads to bad decisions, we end up paying heavily. In fact, one of the reasons that I recommend riding a bike is to get away from this stressful life.

The Pay-Off

To finally get back to the bike, the cost of running the stop sign or light, outside of the messages you send to others, is that one day either 1) you forget to look or 2) some motorist was also late and did not fully stop or was traveling much too fast, and you get to pay the cost for both of your mistakes.

In a sense, breaking traffic laws on a bike or in a car is like a reverse lottery. Each week, you go by the store to collect your two bucks, but one day, when you go in, the police are waiting for you because your number is up. You now have to pay a huge sum for your many tiny earnings. Of course, you might be lucky and never have to pay.  In the case of our cyclist, the risks of running 52 lights and signs every day must add up too.  In a sense, he's playing Russian roulette 10,000 times a year in exchange for that time he has saved.  If he becomes habituated to running the lights, one time he may not see a car, and then he loses all his winnings.

Beyond Obedience -- Active Participation

However, now that we've gotten this far, I want to point out that obeying the law is not good enough. I think this is the point that David is making. Because of this, it is especially important to explain everything to your children, as Avery does. If your children ride along, obeying every law without paying attention to other people's behavior, they will have accidents. In fact, I think some cyclists must have shifted from being law obeyers to being law breakers, not to save time, but out of fear of the traffic.

So, while my first rule (obey the law!) is easy to express and explain, my second rule which I sometimes call "Stay alert!" is difficult to express and easy to misunderstand. It's really just as complicated as the first rule, and is probably much more important to practice.

Using Assertiveness

The first part is assertiveness. As a teacher, I know that if I walk into a classroom in a certain way, that no one will notice me. If I walk into the room another way, at least half the students will make eye contact and maybe say something. If you want to walk in unnoticed, you fold your books tight in your arms, you bend forward at the waist, and you look at the floor. If you want everyone to greet you, you hold the books in one hand, you stand erect, you have a friendly look or smile on your face, and you look people directly in the eyes. Even if you say nothing, they will be forced to speak.

Let's look at assertiveness in traffic. Here comes a cyclist. He's riding near the ditch. He's got his eyes focused on the ground. When cars pass, he seems to hunch up tighter. When this happens, they quit treating him as an equal, and they either honk with their horns or steer around him as if we were some obstacle in the road. They would show greater caution around a dog. Here comes another cyclist. She's riding at the same speed as the cars as much as possible. When riding slower, she takes the whole lane when she needs it and encourages cars to pass when she feels it is safe. Even though using dropped bars, she does not look huddled over; she looks relaxed and comfortable. Her eyes are scanning the traffic with confidence. The motorists respect her (literally, "respect" means to look at someone more than once and a cyclist needs to see and be seen).

I just had an example of this. I was wanting out of a crowded parking lot onto a jammed four-lane high-speed road an hour ago. The line at the light was very long, and in a minute, a light up the road would change, making it impossible for me to get out. But motorists in Alabama are polite and often stop to let someone get out, and a Black woman stopped to let me out, just as if I had been driving a car.

Being Prepared to Act

The next part of rule two is being prepared to react. Almost all of the traffic will respect you, but some people will continue to act as if you are invisible. There are three theories for this: 1) you were hard to see, 2) their brains, on automatic, were scanning for motor vehicles only, and 3) they are jerks or bigots. To give an example, last week I was passing a car waiting at the stop sign; the fellow scanned the road without looking at me, even though I was only a couple of car lengths away, directly in the path of his vision, and looked him square in the eye. Then he started forward, but gave another glance, saw me, and jerked to a stop, with a frustrated look on his face. Did his mind tune me out, did he expect me to yield, or what? The important point is that I was watching him. If he had jumped out directly in front of me, I would have been ready to react. I watch every vehicle with people in it, whether parked or moving, whether it's actions would be legal or illegal, whether I have the right of way or not.

Predicting Motorists' Behavior

I also try to infer what people might do, so their sudden actions won't catch me. Gustav Eckstein kept birds in his lab which had free range and could make nests. One tiny bird was injured, could not fly, and therefore was on the floor. When Gustav was walking near this bird, he noticed something. Instead of watching Gustav's feet, which were big, heavy, and nearby, the bird was watching his eyes. If a tiny bird has enough sense to infer intent, we should too.

I know I've taken you everywhere from cats to birds to get you here. Maybe, I should glue everything back together at this point. What I'm trying to say is that we should teach our children the traffic laws in a logical fashion, but we should also explain the logic behind those laws. It's just not obvious that breaking a law that the police aren't going to enforce can lead to great sorrow one day. But we should go beyond that too. Being safe is not just a matter of passively following rules, instead it involves an active participation in traffic. And it involves being prepared for the actions of those who are (for some reason or another) not going to follow the rules themselves.

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