On Following Traffic Controls

Disclaimer: I am critical of our current system of traffic controls. The U.S. could be doing better. But we have a system. We know what it is. And until we come up with something better, all road users are obligated to follow the system we have.

How hard is it for a bicyclist to stop at a stop sign or red light?

Really. How hard?

Answer: Not hard at all. I know this because I 1) Ride a bicycle everyday in traffic, and 2) I stop at all stop signs and red lights.

Now I acknowledge that there may be a few, limited circumstances in which stopping is not appropriate or  not safe. I can’t think of any examples at the moment, but I’ll bet a few Carbon Trace readers can.

That said, for the most part (and with the acknowledgement above), I believe failure to yield to proper traffic controls — e.g. stop signs and traffic lights — is a failure of morals. It is a declaration that the person failing to stop is simply too damned important to be inconvenienced by such trifles. (Note: I do not accept the typical excuse that it is somehow difficult to stop in terms of cycling efficiency. That’s just a silly excuse to run stop signs springing from the hegemony of sport cycling in our culture.)

Do you protest?

Let’s just ask Dionette Cherney what she thinks about the need for bicyclists to follow traffic laws.

Oh, wait. We can’t ask her because she just died because a bicyclist ran a red light and hit her causing a head injury.

Even if there were no laws governing traffic, even if there were no orders of right-of-way, bulling ahead without regard for the safety of others would still be wrong.

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Comments 13

  1. Keith R. wrote:

    I was a crossing guard in the 3rd and 4th grades. While that was a long time ago, I learned to respect why certain laws and rules are in place: safety. When I started riding on the road, everyone I rode with blew through stoplights and stopsigns like they weren’t even there. The little crossing guard in me was appalled! (I once almost caused a pile-up of cyclists on the TDB cause I stopped at a stop sign!). I learned through riding with others that these things were optional. I can’t say I’m proud of this fact, but I feel I can unlearn it if those I ride with follow the same rules I do. That being said, I have noticed how many of those I ride with have started being more mindful of the law and that has made me re-evaluate my own attitude toward following the law. If I can change back, anyone can! Where do I sign the pledge? :-)

    Posted 15 Aug 2011 at 4:36 pm
  2. Andy Cline wrote:

    Keith… Yep, riding with people who don’t follow traffic controls is annoying as hell. And, also yeah, I did the crossing guard / safety patrol thing too in the 5th grade :-)

    Posted 15 Aug 2011 at 6:06 pm
  3. Michael wrote:

    I do Idaho Stops at intersections where there are no people or cars around, which is the case in a lot of my riding. It’s not about efficiency, it’s about me be being lazy.

    If there’re cars or people around I stop. In urban areas where there might be people or cars I can’t see unless I stop, I stop.

    http://vimeo.com/4140910

    Posted 16 Aug 2011 at 9:36 am
  4. Andy Cline wrote:

    Michael… While I’ve taken a hard line here, I have done the same. Although, my discomfort with Idaho stopping has caused me to learn effective track-standing :-) So now I do that when I’m the only thing on the road. It’s actually kinda fun.

    Posted 16 Aug 2011 at 11:14 am
  5. Khal Spencer wrote:

    If there is no traffic coming, I use a stop sign for a second of track stand practice.

    All these convoluted arguments on why cyclists should not have to stop sound like elitist whining to me. Just swallow that CO2-free pride and do it. Or, learn track stands and impress that person you want to date ;-)

    Posted 16 Aug 2011 at 12:23 pm
  6. Jason wrote:

    To answer your question, in most cases it is not difficult for a cyclist to obey a red light or stop sign. I know because I too do a lot of riding and frequently stop for them.

    Another question worth asking is whether it is always necessary for a cyclist to do so. I contend that it is not.

    Traffic controls clearly are designed to regulate automobiles. Cars and trucks are typically driven at such rates of speed that it becomes necessary for (at least some of) them to come to complete stops at intersections in order to avoid collisions. Given the reaction time and stopping distance associated with a car traveling at, say, 30 mph there’s not much of an alternative (except where ample space allows for a roundabout).

    Bicycles usually are ridden at much lower rates of speed. It is easier as a cyclist to scan an upcoming intersection and determine with certainty whether there will be any cars or pedestrians to avoid. If none are present there’s really no need to stop. No need at all.

    It can easily be argued that it’s immoral to ignore traffic controls when doing so may endanger oneself or others. Such was the case in SF. The cyclist could not be sure of what he would encounter at the intersection and thus should have stopped until it was safe to proceed. Common sense should dictate caution during rush hour conditions.

    On the other hand, I don’t see any problem with a cyclist ignoring traffic controls when (s)he can determine without a doubt that there are no hazards to avoid in a given intersection.

    We may not see eye to eye on this particular issue but with school about to start up and all the students coming back for the fall I DO look forward to your upcoming efforts to curb riding on the sidewalk against the flow of traffic.

    Posted 16 Aug 2011 at 12:28 pm
  7. Andy Cline wrote:

    Jason… Returning students on bicycles makes interesting video. Also planning to film at National and Grand to check up on how well our car-driving brethren obey the rules. That should be entertaining :-)

    I get the differences between cars and bicycles re: traffic controls. And I further agree that the current controls were designed for cars. My point is that we have a system, as imperfect as it is, that is designed to keep people somewhat safe if they follow it. That I think we share with car drivers.

    My remarks should also be understood to be aimed at bicyclists who are so cavalier that they don’t even bother slowing down. I would include a wide range of careful activity, short of a full stop, as well within my concept of a moral approach to safety.

    Posted 16 Aug 2011 at 1:04 pm
  8. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Andy’s point is more than about mechanics or the risks imposed by cyclists who run lights (although that risk is not insignificant insofar as accidents are often chains of events). Andy wants to take the moral high ground. That effort is highly worthwhile in the political climate cyclists find themselves in today.

    Posted 16 Aug 2011 at 1:24 pm
  9. Michael wrote:

    Andy, I need to learn how to do track stands. It would be worth stopping just to look bad ass!

    I was in a really bad car wreck when I was in my early 20’s (I’m 42) and busted up my left leg pretty bad. Now my left leg’s a couple centimeters shorter than my right. Because of this I’ve never been able to ride hands free or do track stands. My tires even wear out unevenly, always a little faster on the left.

    But, I started taking yoga classes 3 times a week about 4 months ago and since then I’ve had to readjust my bike fit and now I can ride hands free. The yoga classes have me riding my bike without the lean. I’ll have to give track stands another shot.

    Since we all seem to be rejecting the efficiency argument, we’re talking about a cultural problem, not an engineering one. Showing up the stop sign runners with bad ass track stands might be a good cultural solution.

    Posted 16 Aug 2011 at 1:39 pm
  10. Andy Cline wrote:

    Michael… Track standing is easier on a fixie :-) I don’t have one. I can do it easier on my Kona than on my Redline, leading me to believe that it is possibly easier on a bicycle with a more aggressive posture than a town bike. But that just might be me.

    Posted 16 Aug 2011 at 3:51 pm
  11. Jason wrote:

    Andy…I agree that our system is set up to protect those who follow it, drivers and cyclists alike. And I do get that it is easier to argue for cyclists’ use of roadways if cyclists follow the “rules of the road”.

    Khal…I appreciate the point you make of accidents often being chains of events (eg, car hits brakes to avoid bike in intersection and is rear-ended as a result). I’m pretty sure I hadn’t seen the subject from that angle before.

    Posted 16 Aug 2011 at 11:21 pm
  12. Steve A wrote:

    I am commonly passed by motorists AT stop signs.

    Posted 17 Aug 2011 at 5:06 am
  13. Andy Cline wrote:

    Steve… Yes! And often they make stunningly dangerous moves to make those passes.

    Posted 17 Aug 2011 at 8:28 am