recent AP story, but of course the story wasn’t about a cyclist running a red light--it was about the mayhem caused by a car
and its driver.
Cyclists run red lights and stop signs too, but the outcome is almost never fatal for any motorists they happen to meet. As
cyclists, we know how vulnerable we are. If a careless cyclist hits a car, the cyclist loses. If a careless driver hits a
bicycle, the cyclist still loses.
When a motorist disobeys a traffic law, mayhem may follow. When an errant cyclist disobeys a traffic law, his own life
may be forfeit, but not usually the life of any motorist he encounters; there is no “moral equivalency.”
Sadly, some cyclists are their own worst enemy. I often see experienced riders darting out into traffic, risking their lives
and provoking the ire of passing motorists. Sometimes these actions are encouraged by the dynamics of a group ride. A
rider in a paceline tends to follow those in front regardless of what the pace leader is doing. No one wants to get
“dropped,” or worse, squeeze their brakes and cause the rider behind them to collide with their rear wheel.
But there is another factor to consider: Traffic laws are written chiefly to keep motorists safe from each other. Despite the
laws, more than 30,000 deaths are attributable to traffic collisions in the United States annually. Countless more non-fatal,
yet serious injuries occur each year-I see many of these victims in my office with neck and back injuries, their lives
disrupted and sometimes changed forever.
Over the years, lawmakers have diligently worked to produce a set of rules that reduces the chance of multi-ton vehicles
colliding with other road users. These rules are necessary because the kinetic energy released in such a collision is
enormous and potentially disastrous for everyone involved.
It is a different story when the vehicles only weigh 20 p0unds and have only the muscles of the rider to drive them. Little
thought has gone into the regulatory needs of slow-moving, non-motorized vehicles. Despite a real attempt to improve
vehicle sensors at red lights, bicycles often go undetected and leave the cyclist waiting for a car to trip the sensor before the
light changes to green.
Stop signs are another matter; the energy expenditure and delay caused by a cyclist coming to a complete stop is
considerable. It may take nearly a minute for a cyclist to accelerate back to his cruising speed after waiting at a stop.
Repeated stops can be exhausting; as a result, many cyclists slow, look both ways, and then proceed if traffic is not a factor,
essentially treating the stop sign as if it were a yield sign-clearly illegal under the current law. Further, if a motorist
witnesses the transgression, the cyclist risks an encounter with road rage. At the very least, he reinforces the common notion
that “cyclists are all scofflaws.”
It is an imperfect system that leaves riders with some tough choices. John Forrester, the author of Effective Cycling wrote,
“Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” I believe this to be true, but is there anything that
could be done to improve the law for cyclists?
Idaho has taken a bold step, enacting rules that legalize what many cyclists would like to do if given the chance. The law
allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, and treat red lights as stop signs. Here is how it is written:
For stop signs, a cyclist must “slow down” and “if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection.”
“After slowing to a reasonable speed or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in
the intersection or approaching on another highway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during
the time the person is moving across or within the intersection or junction of highways, except that a person
after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a turn or
proceed through the intersection without stopping.”
“A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a steady red traffic control light shall
stop before entering the intersection and shall yield to all other traffic. Once the person has yielded, he may
proceed through the steady red light with caution.”
According to Mark McNeese, the Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator for the Idaho Transportation Department, the Idaho law
has resulted in no discernible increase in injuries or fatalities to cyclists since going into effect in 2006. Similar legislation
is being pursued in California, Montana, Minneapolis, and Oregon.
To motorists, such a law is a tough sell. Many drivers unfairly see cyclists as second-class road users. Some feel that
bicycles have no place on the road, and should be banned, yet cycling is growing as mode of transportation. As riders, we
all know the health benefits accrued by regular exercise on the bike. As commuters, we know the gas we save when cycling
to work. As environmentalists, we know the contribution we make for clean air and to slow climate change when we use
our automobiles less often.
Cycling is here to stay, but can we improve our coexistence with motorized traffic? It is unclear whether Idaho-style
legislation would reduce the public perception of cyclists as scofflaws, or whether it would simply make cycling safer and
easier. One thing is clear--some cyclists will continue to ride in their own private Idaho until the law is changed.