Tuesday, August 7, 2012

On Running Red Lights

There is an article in the New York Times where the author admits to running red lights on his bicycle. He also explains something the biking world has known for some time. It is what I call the Cyclist's Dictum. That is, a cyclist may treat a traffic signal one level lower than that for a car. So a red light becomes a yellow light. A stop sign becomes a yield sign. The article in question mentions some quasi-philosophy to justify it. I have my own ideas on the matter. These ideas aren't based on philosophy, but more on practical thinking.

First off, let me say that I run red lights every day. I also go through stop signs without stopping completely. In fact, I violate the letter of the law most any time I ride. This doesn't make me unique, most cyclists I see act in a similar fashion. Nor does it make me a menace. My riding is not a danger to others. If I am doing it right, keeps me safe as well. For starters, when I go through a light, I make damn sure no one is coming. This is because my life is at stake when I make the decision. My incentive is to keep me safe above all else. Beyond that, I tend to go through red lights or stop signs slowly. Usually less than 10mph. This gives me lots of time to stop in case of something unexpected. In other words, violating the law doesn't make you or me less safe.

Second, everybody who drives breaks the law. Cars run red lights. They don't stop at stop signs. They speed. They change lanes without signaling. They cross the yellow lines to pass. I know this because I see it each day. You may be a great driver. You may not violate the law much, but there is no such thing as a perfect driver. The next time you drive try and count how many violations of the law you make. How often were you speeding? How often did you cross the yellow lines? How many yellow lights did you go through where you could have stopped? How many stop signs did you just slow down for? I don't want you to be arrested for these actions. I would just like you to be aware of how you drive. Having bikers and drivers each thinking the other is acting illegally is stupid. The truth is nobody gets it right. It is too easy to blame the "other" for things that everyone does.

My third point is that drivers want cyclists to go through red lights. No driver will ever say this, but nobody actually wants cyclists to follow the rules. I have never once been thanked for waiting at a red light with the other cars. On the other hand I can't count the times that I have been honked at for not getting out of the way when the light turns green. Drivers may be jealous that a bicycle is much more nimble in traffic, but trust me nobody wants the traffic mess that comes from cyclists actually obeying the letter of the law. I would wager that for any city the average amount of cyclists who commute to work in a day could grind rush hour to a halt. All while being completely "legal". That doesn't happen because the cyclists who ride every day are generally courteous to drivers. When there is enough space, I move over to let cars pass. When there isn't I generally pick a lane and ride in the middle so you can see me. I signal when changing lanes. I stay off the sidewalks. Not stopping for red lights means that I can save some speed and not keep drivers waiting. I agree, this isn't legal, but it is practical. Everybody wins.

Forth, this logic goes the other way as well. I want drivers to be illegal if it makes me safer. I watch cars every day drive over the yellow lines when passing me as I grind up Avalon. That doesn't make it any more legal than running a red light, but if it puts a few more feet between your car and me I am all for it. I would rather have a driver thinking about my safety (or their insurance rates) rather than what is strictly legal.

My fifth and final point is that if we all break the law and we all prefer doing it that way, then what is the fuss about? There is this perception of cyclists as reckless scofflaws. We are, but in no greater a degree than cars. Part of this comes from the prejudice that cyclists are something else. Again, this is true. People on bikes are not cars and not pedestrians. Cyclists are a third thing. The truth is cyclists break the law no less and no more than cars. It just happens in a different way. That doesn't make bikes more or less safe than cars. It is just what makes our type of transportation practical and efficient. These violations are just as integral to bike riding as passing slower vehicles is to driving. Without it, the system stops working. So until drivers stop passing cyclists illegally, I will continue to run red lights.


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