More “Should Bicyclists Follow the Same Laws as Motorists?”

This post continues answering the question from a previous post, Should Bicyclists Follow the Same Rules as Cars?

One argument I’ve heard to promote the idea that “bicyclists should follow the same rules as motorists” is that bicyclists need to earn the respect of motorists before bicyclists will be treated as equal partners on the street. Give me a break. First of all there is a demeaning attitude here that bicyclists are like children and motorists are like adults. Secondly, there is a hidden assumption here: motorists in general follow the rules and bicyclists have to be brought up to their level of morality. This is laughable. In our culture motorists break the rules so routinely they are no longer aware they are doing anything wrong. Ask your friends what their average speed is on the highway. Most will brag about how fast they go above the speed limit, and how fast they can get from point A to point B. They will likely continue like this until you let on that you are testing their morality. Then they will start giving you reasons why it’s okay to break the speed limit. I’d say the percentage of motorists who routinely break the speed limit is close to 100%. I know this because as an experiment I drove from Ithaca to Washington D.C. at exactly the speed limit (generally 55 or 65 mph). I did not pass anyone for the whole 350-mile trip. These are the kind of people bicyclists are supposed to emulate?

In our culture motorists routinely and blithely break another law: they don’t yield the right-of-way to pedestrians in crosswalks. (I should note that California is refreshingly different in this regard.) Motorists in my area feel their role is to “allow” pedestrians to cross if the motorist is feeling generous that day. Motorists have pedestrians trained to wait at the curb until the motorist says the pedestrian can cross. I like to disrupt this paradigm. I like to assert my right-of-way. When I step off the curb into a crosswalk motorists sometimes have to come to an abrupt stop. Sometimes they honk. Sometimes they give me a condescending wave of their hand saying they are allowing me to cross. Listen up: I don’t need your little wave. I’m going to cross whether you “allow” me to or not. I have the right-of-way.

Something about bicycling is inherently friendly. When I see another bicyclist on the road I give a friendly wave and they wave back. If we are going the same way, sometimes we chat (if we can hear ourself over the car traffic). But for some reason when people get behind the wheel of a car they become crazy mean like animals (although to be fair I should note that very few animals kill for sport). Why is that? My office overlooks a busy street in downtown Ithaca. Every few minutes someone honks and someone yells an expletive in response. The first someone then steps on the gas to make a loud automotive growling sound intended to express their displeasure and to surge past the second someone. And what sorts of offenses cause these sorts of displays? A car took more than three seconds to start after the light turned green. A pedestrian stepped into the crosswalk. A bicyclist wanted to turn. A bicyclist wanted to go straight. A bicyclist wanted to stand in one place. A bicyclist existed. Bicyclists frustrate motorists no matter what we do. So why should we follow the rules? We are cursed if we do and cursed if we don’t.

Aspiring bicyclists should know that there are deranged motorists out there who get a kick out of knowing they hold your life in their hands, and knowing there is nothing you can do about it. Some motorists will swerve at you just for fun. Once when I was on a bike tour in Alaska riding on a long stretch of lonely highway we saw an oncoming car in the distance. Curiously, the car changed lanes so that it was coming straight toward us. As the car got closer and closer our alarm grew. Some of us dove into the ditch. At the last second the car swerved away from us. Bicyclists are vulnerable to psychopaths, and following the rules won’t make you any safer. However breaking the rules might save you: I once had to ride onto the sidewalk to escape from a motorist who was trying to run me down. He followed me onto the sidewalk but I managed to stop behind a phone booth. Thankfully he wasn’t willing to smash into the phone booth to get at me. What had I done to him? He was angry because I had occupied the left lane in preparation for turning left.

I’m not saying all motorists are immoral or psychopathic. Some of them are also simply not paying attention. A couple of years ago in Ithaca a right-turning motorist ran over a pedestrian. The motorist was a small man in a big SUV. I suspect he had trouble seeing over the dash. After rolling over the pedestrian he continued on, blissfully unaware he had killed someone, until police caught up with him shopping in a grocery store miles away. How do you protect yourself from someone well-intentioned who doesn’t see you, no matter how many blinking lights and fluorescent jackets and little flapping flags you are wearing? You avoid putting yourself where the accident is about to happen. You make sure you are not next to or in front of a right-turning vehicle when that light turns green.

Motorists can afford to follow the rules. The rules keep them from running into each other and bending their fenders. For bicyclists the stakes are much higher. Bicyclists can’t afford to follow the motorist’s rules. Instead they must follow the real rules of bicycling safety: be alert, assert your right-of-way, get in front where people can see you, take short cuts to avoid dangerous intersections, keep a swerve space, keep moving, and don’t stick around in danger zones.