Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Traffic laws? One D.C. bicyclist says she'll break them if it's safe

December 9, 2011 - 10:05 AM
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Waiting for green. (Photo: flickr/orcmid)

Bicyclists at times seem to face an impasse with the forces of traffic law, not to mention drivers and pedestrians. Do bicyclists break these accepted rules of the road? Should they receive more tickets? More education? And then naturally there are the other legal questions concerning bicyclists' vulnerability ... and whether there's legal recourse when they've been harassed. All of these issues have boiled to critical points in the last week or so in various ways. These are some questions that come up in sharing the road, yet perhaps the common narratives are mistaken.

Let's pause on the first point now. What about bicyclists following the law?

Nate Berg at Atlantic Cities wrote about this on Dec. 2 in a piece titled "The Uncomfortable Relationship Between Bikes and Red Lights," now up to 174 comments. Berg discusses a study from Portland State that examined how cars and bicyclists approach red lights. It found that "497 cars observed only 36 ran red lights, while 58 of the 99 bicycles observed blew right through. That's about 7 percent of cars compared to 58 percent of bicycles." Cue the endless outrage, discussion, disagreement, and hair-splitting that inevitably results, though I would advise taking the results with a grain of salt given we're taking about a student study looking at a few isolated intersections. The piece has touched a nerve, however, clearly visible from all the dialogue.

A D.C. bicyclist responded to the piece yesterday — and she isn't buying the argument that bicyclists should stop at red lights at all. The results of that study should shock no one, she believes, and hardly constitute any grave problem.

"Of course cyclists break laws — but that is partially born out of the fact that the majority of cycling fatalities are caused by motorists, not cyclists," writes Natalie Shure on a blog she shares with a friend called "Broads of the Beltway."  Shure contends that many of our nation's police departments and Internet commenters agreed with Berg and the assumption that bicyclists should follow traffic laws like red lights, that not doing so is a significant violation of community standards. Is running red lights "a big fat problem" among the cycling community?

Shure dismisses the notion entirely.

Shure suggests there are "many situations wherein safety and the rules of the road are antithetical to one another." In other words, it's sometimes safer to not stop than to stop. Is that true? I would believe there's many instances, yes, especially on D.C. streets, where there's always gridlock and ambulances and crowds that pop up all over.

What the Washington Area Bicyclist Association and other bicyclists have pointed is the broad confusion that exists over our traffic law, often at the expense of bicyclists. Neither bicyclists nor other people entirely clear on the rules of the road. Should cyclists be on the sidewalk or the streets? The rule differs depending on whether you're in the central business district of D.C. or not. The education of the average commuter isn't sufficient at the moment. Furthermore, bicyclists face an array of threats, like a door striking them as it opens in the middle of the road.

Then there's the issue of commuters' rising tempers, of course, which comes with its own legal questions.

Among her thoughts Shure shared the following anecdote:

Recently, I was cycling home from work. It was getting dark, and so I had my lights on. I was rolling down the stretch of my commute with no bike lane. A driver blared her horn at me from behind, even though I was on the far right side of the lane and not breaking any rules. She then sped up very quickly, swerved around, and got caught by a stoplight slightly ahead. Staying on my right, I reached the stoplight too. The driver began to yell insults I won’t print here, lest the wrong googlers stumble upon this blog. She also said I was too damn slow. Um, you better believe I blew that red light. DC legislators and advocates are currently debating how to respond to widespread harassment of cyclists. Harassment like this, and the lengths motorists will go to swerve around us, cultivate a situation much more threatening than a few gently ignored traffic rules by a 30-pound bike moving four miles per hour. It is important for cyclists themselves and their orientation toward others on the road for us to keep moving, and stay safe. Building momentum after a full stop when the light turns green can pose a very real risk.

The anecdote reinforces the notion that such rule-breaking is just another element of cyclist safety. Would you agree with Shure's assessment? Does this narrative fit into a broader and unreasonably distorted view that many people have of cyclists as darting, zooming dangers? This perception has troubled cyclists for awhile now and many drivers and pedestrians still believe it. Shure disavows the idea and says that threatening bicyclists do exist. There are "a few cyclists who endanger other," she writes, but that doesn't include "most of us."

Even Berg, in relaying the Portland State study, acknowledged one element of Shure's thinking: "For those of us who ride bikes regularly, it's pretty obvious that we're not just blindly speeding through traffic lights with no regard to oncoming traffic."

The comments on Berg's piece reveal the wide range of reactions that a person can rightfully feel about the issue, from bicyclists echoing Shure and pointing out the greater risks that bicyclists feel to people pointing out potential fallacies in the Portland study to pedestrians worried about this behavior to hardliners, among cyclists and drivers, who felt there was an obligation to follow these traffic laws.

Is our traffic system simply too complicated to expect bicyclists to follow the law and should laws and the way we enforce them be adjusted accordingly? Shure's perspective, I believe, is important to consider and a thoughtful explanation for much of the bicyclist behavior on the streets. Whether she's right or not, the perspective is worth taking into account, and it's for that reason I include it here. The perspective acknowledges the flexibility and confusion of our traffic system, which I've long pointed to, and the reality that both law and infrastructure is evolving rather than black-and-white gospel. Shure's points speak to a valid narrative that should be a part of the discussion.

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