Posted by Elly Blue (Columnist) on October 2nd, 2006 at 9:51 am
“Ride predictably!” is a common mantra from both motorists and bike safety advocates.
There’s a perception among non-cyclists that our behavior is at best terrifyingly confusing and at worst suicidal and malicious. Cyclists themselves even complain about near-misses with other bikers, particularly at intersections with stop signs.
Motorists, often enraged by road behavior that they perceive to be random and dangerous, respond with fear and sometimes violence.
Maybe the problem is not so much that bicyclists ride unpredictably as that when it comes to bicycles, people don’t know what to predict.
Predictable cycling is often confused with rigid adherence to traffic laws. But literal interpretation of the law is not what actually rules the roads. Most motorists don’t drive in strict accordance with the law at all times, but an experienced person can still predict the vast majority of mistakes, fudges, and intentional violations. Whether driving, cycling, or crossing the street, knowledge of the law counts for very little, whereas ability to predict the behavior of drivers around you means survival.
But it’s hard to predict the behavior of cyclists, even if you are one yourself. In part this is because we’re used to observing cars. Bicycles in mass numbers are a relatively new element on the road, and the new bridge counts showed that our presence continues to grow by leaps and bounds. This changes the road dynamic and creates the need for a new discourse on rules.
“Theoretically, the rules that work for cars ought to work for bikes as well. But once you get out onto the street on your bike, you find that bicyclists have few real, workable, safe rules to go by.”
Theoretically, the rules that work for cars ought to work for bikes as well. But once you get out onto the street on your bike, you find that bicyclists have few real, workable, safe rules to go by. The closest thing we have are the largely irrelevant set of rules for motor vehicles, with a smattering of pedestrian conventions thrown in.
Often it’s our instinct to follow these rules — whether by merging with too-fast traffic or riding on the sidewalk — that gets us hurt. Throw in a large dose of practical response, expedience, and a certain messenger flair, and you get an emerging informal code of bicyclist road behavior.
It’s pretty much a consensus among seasoned urban cyclists that it’s safest when cycling in traffic to take the whole lane. But this produces confusion and rage among motorists who have long been used to greater speeds on similar roads, and who cannot comprehend bicycles as real vehicles. Legally, we are allowed to take the lane, but this fact is widely unknown.
Stop signs are probably the most glaring example of a misapplied and misunderstood rule that leads to unsafe conditions and a bad reputation for cyclists.
The law is very clear that all cars and bikes must come to a full stop. This makes sense when it comes to cars, with their high speed, dangerous weight, and limited visibility. But for cyclists, who are lighter, slower, and have far greater visibility than car drivers, it’s often sufficient to slow to a jogging speed while checking to see if an intersection is clear. And, as Susan Otcenas pointed out when she laid out the idea for the Super Legal Ride, traffic congestion is eased for everyone when cyclists can move more efficiently through intersections.
All this aside, it seems like intersection design and use are insufficient for public safety. If everyone just slowed down at intersections, regardless of signal type, it would matter less whether we rolled through or stopped completely. Such a guideline only makes sense, and ought to be designed for, legislated, and enforced.
Like women in a male-dominated workforce, bicyclists in our car-dominated culture are held to a far higher standard of road behavior than any motorists. This is how we really need to shift our thinking.
When something goes awry, we and we alone are expected to shape up our behavior, to “be predictable,” and to somehow fit in. As we’ve seen with the SE 23rd and Salmon traffic sting, Critical Mass, and the recent spate of fixed-gear brake citations, the combination of being misunderstood and slow-moving targets can make us tempting as scapegoats for traffic problems.
Yes, most cyclists would benefit from more education about how to ride safely in traffic, but we do not need to learn how to ride like good car drivers ought to drive. We need to learn to ride like good bicyclists. But what does that mean? How should we bike? And is it even possible to bike well on roads as they are currently designed? Is it possible to come up with reasonable rules for bicyclists without changing rules for drivers as well?
Bicyclists don’t need anything nearly like the comprehensive set of laws and rules required to control the use of heavier, faster, more dangerous motor vehicles. But we could sure use some more sensible basic guidelines, and a friendlier, less treacherous climate on the road.