The Worst Day of the Year Ride is February 11th

Ethics, exhaust, and other reasons to break traffic laws while bicycling

Posted by on August 6th, 2012 at 4:08 pm

The bike world is buzzing today after a Sunday New York Times opinion piece by Randy Cohen laid out his personal, ethical case for riding illegally. In, If Kant Were a New York Cyclist, Cohen, formerly “The Ethicist” columnist at the paper, wrote:

“I treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs. A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one. This moral reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.”

Not surprisingly, Cohen’s piece has spurred lots of reaction from both sides of the debate. Reuters’ Felix Salmon offered a thoughtful rebuttal to Cohen, writing that, “If Cohen wants to agitate for a change in the rules, I’ll join him and support him. But I’m not going to pretend that it’s OK to break the rules just because you think the rules should be changed.”

salmon street stop sign

An ethical dilemma, or
an outdated system?
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Interestingly, my mind was already on this topic (even more than usual) because of a letter to the editor published in The Oregonian on Friday. The letter, From a bicyclist: Why I still run red lights and stop signs, was written by a man who said he used to obey all traffic laws until he got tired of breathing toxic exhaust from cars and trucks while waiting at lights and stop signs:

“Time after time, sitting at a light or stop sign, the signal to go is marked by the car next to me stepping on the gas and blowing a cloud of burnt gasoline in my face. It didn’t happen once or twice, but at every intersection, in every instance. Burnt gasoline, burnt diesel oil, from big cars, little cars, from cars, trucks and buses, I was being gassed at every opportunity. After a week, I resumed my scofflaw ways.”

I can relate to both reasons for not always obeying these traffic laws; but I err on the side of advocating for the laws to change rather than to encourage others to break them.

In traffic on Grand Avenue-1.jpg

Breathe uneasily.

The other day while biking down NW Germantown Road, there was a long backup of cars. The road is very narrow, and given that there’s often a ditch in the shoulder, I wasn’t able to squeeze by on the right. Instead, I sat behind cars for many minutes before getting through. There was no escaping the tailpipes and their toxic exhaust. I could smell it and I could taste it. It even made me a bit dizzy. I’ve breathed exhaust at urban intersections as well. Each time, I’ve wondered, ‘Why should my mode of travel make me susceptible to harmful toxic fumes to any greater extent than is absolutely unavoidable?’ and, ‘Do our existing traffic laws take this serious public health issue into account?’

As for Cohen’s ethical argument; I see it more as a common sense argument, similar to why many people (including the French) support an Idaho stop law. Unlike the completely bogus, yet decades-old bike advocacy mantra of “Same roads, same rights, same rules,” the truth is bicycles and cars are wildly different vehicles that often have separate areas of operation and very different legal standing while on them.

I think it’s a bit silly for people to expect a similar rate of compliance from bicycle operators when the system they operate in (in the social, legal, and physical sense) has been designed for a completely different type of vehicle. Unfortunately, American traffic laws and roadway culture haven’t kept up with huge changes in how we get around. Until they catch up, this debate will continue.

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  • Curtis R August 6, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    I agree that bikes aren’t cars. Otherwise, 70% of bikes would be going over the speed limit everywhere (like cars do).

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    • Randall S. August 7, 2012 at 10:19 am

      That’s not true and you know it…

      It’s more like 95% of the cars. I drove to Wilsonville over the weekend, and doing 55 in the 55MPH lane, nearly every single person on the freeway was passing me doing at least 10 over.

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      • davemess August 7, 2012 at 12:11 pm

        There’s a specific lane for 55 mph?

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        • Opus the Poet August 7, 2012 at 2:15 pm

          It’s called the “slow lane”. And I wish I was being funny.

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  • Zaphod August 6, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    The NYT article is a good one. It’s important for anyone who reads it to read the whole thing and consider it with real thought versus a knee jerk reaction one way or the other. Excellent fodder for taken-out-of-context quotes paint cyclists negatively. I hope this will spur real debate versus each side’s typical rhetoric.

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    • Spiffy August 6, 2012 at 7:08 pm

      I hope this will spur real debate versus each side’s typical rhetoric.

      I guess you didn’t read each article’s comments…

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      • Randall S. August 7, 2012 at 10:21 am

        All newspaper-website comments are like that. I made the mistake of reading the comments on a SF Gate article on the homeless yesterday. Oh the (complete lack of) humanity.

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  • Andrew K August 6, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    A couple of thoughts…

    The letter in the Oregonian was published for only one reason; to rile people up and get page views. It is poorly written and pretty much serves the same purpose as poking a hornet’s nest with a stick.

    The article in the NYT is a bit better and actually generates some food for thought for both cyclists and drivers.

    Ultimately though, the only time I can honestly encourage someone on a bike to break a traffic law is when it’s safer to do so. I can think of a case I experienced recently where I had an incredibly large truck following me much too closely. I was going to make a right turn shortly after the intersection and I was worried the truck was going to just run right over me. So I checked both ways a couple of times and pulled ahead before the light turned green to give myself some distance from the truck before making the turn.

    I agree many of our laws are poorly written. However, breaking them is not the right way to advocate for change.

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    • Spiffy August 6, 2012 at 7:09 pm

      civil disobedience has worked wonders…

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    • Brian August 7, 2012 at 9:07 am

      As a point of reference, C.W. has been writing/printed by the Editor since the mid 90’s. I shared a few lunches and a few bike rides with him back in those days. From what I know of him, I’d guess that he is not looking for “page views” or notoriety. And if the letter seems poorly written then I’d be curious if the letter was printed in it’s entirety, as he wrote it. I recall that being a subject of discussion at one of those lunches. At least, that’s what I was thinking about when I read his letter. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.

      Interesting at the least.

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    • Jonathan Gordon August 7, 2012 at 9:28 am

      “I agree many of our laws are poorly written. However, breaking them is not the right way to advocate for change.”

      ODOT has actually codified breaking speed limits as a de facto way to affect change. If 85% of road users break the speed limit on a particular road, then ODOT will change it:

      I’d like them to adopt a similar policy w/r/t stop signs/lights: If over 85% of people on bikes treat them like yield signs, then that should be the law.

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    • matt picio August 7, 2012 at 3:39 pm

      “breaking them is not the right way to advocate for change”

      Except when it is. Seriously, there are times where civil disobedience is the right course of action – I just think that many people use that truth to justify their behavior in breaking the law. Most of the time, adhering to a law is the proper course of action – but sometimes it’s not, and wisdom is learning the difference and applying it accordingly.

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  • Mark Allyn August 6, 2012 at 4:45 pm

    How about when I can’t activate the sensor on a demand driven traffic signal? Is it legal to go ahead through?

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    • El Biciclero August 6, 2012 at 5:04 pm

      I did that this morning. I don’t really care if it’s legal or not. I shouldn’t be expected to obey the rules of a system that put me at such a huge disadvantage.

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      • El Biciclero August 7, 2012 at 9:41 am

        …I should add that I was waiting for a left turn signal, positioned over the sensor (although it looks like they just installed a new detection camera…) and watched the signal on the cross street turn red, then green, then red, then green again before I ran my red. I don’t usually do this in the presence of other stopped cars, because if there are other stopped cars, the signal usually works…

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    • Nate August 6, 2012 at 5:11 pm

      Definitely not! I have never seen PPD as upset as when I made a left on a red arrow at NE Columbia and NE MLK many years ago after waiting through two cycles of the light. Turns out the officer was a few cars back and didn’t agree that it was foolish to continue to sit there. He was visibly shaking the entire time he lectured me on my foolish action and gave me an SUV-sized ticket. I had to fight hard in court to keep the points off my driver’s license (the only time I’ve ever been pulled over in OR).

      I’m with the NYT’s Mr. Cohen – I will absolutely run a light or stop sign if there is no one else to be impeded by such an action. Though I believe I’m a bit less eager than Mr. Cohen – it seemed like he rolled through as long as no one was in the crosswalk, while I’ll generally sit at a light if there are cars stopped. (I prefer not to heap on evidence that we are all scofflaws.) On side streets or at night, I find it ridiculous to sit at a light that may not even register my existence.

      Finally, because I think there are still numerous bikers that don’t know it (probably not that read this blog though), it should be stated again that the stencil at many intersections of a biker with a line through them signify where to stop your bike that has the greatest likelihood of triggering the light if there is no car already at the intersection.

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      • oliver August 6, 2012 at 5:22 pm

        Or just sitting out there, biding your time, waiting to get run-down by the next drunk or distracted motorist, focusing on the light and or vehicles coming in the opposite direction.

        I’ve been rear-ended in cars. I once saw a drunk in a van rear end a car waiting at a stoplight without even slowing down.

        The statistics may not bear this out, but I never feel more exposed than when I’m stopped, waiting to turn left.

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    • matt picio August 7, 2012 at 3:43 pm

      That wouldn’t happen to be 25th Avenue at Cornell in Hillsboro, would it? I told Hillsboro’s bike guy about that one.

      If you can’t activate the sensor, and no other vehicles come up to activate it for you, my understanding is that the signal is “malfunctioning” and it is legal to cross when safe to do so.

      This is why “smart” signals should go away. We should go back to timed lights and ped signals that activate EVERY light cycle, not merely when someone pushes a button. It’s time to stop prioritizing auto traffic over all other modes and making some people into 2nd-class citizens.

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    • Mike Cobb August 10, 2012 at 9:01 am

      You’re speaking of an inoperable traffic signal triggering device. Waiting for a complete cycle, then yielding to cross traffic as you proceed is what I advise as a League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructor. Auto drivers would be legally safe doing the same thing. Finding a pedestrian trigger and pushing it or waiting for a triggering auto to arrive would be an onerous approach to resolving the situation that I would confidently argue against being any kind of legal requirement. I don’t even think you should have to “dip” your bike within an inductive loop to trigger a signal.

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  • Over and Doubt August 6, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    The faster, stronger and more savvy the rider, the more relevant existing laws can be.

    Seems like one reason newbies hate to stop is because their 12 mph is so hard-won; they’re reluctant to shift (gears are a mystery), so stopping means an awkward, unpleasant restart in a much-too-high ratio. They may also be reluctant to brake enough, due to front-brake fear and loathing of pitching over the handlebar.

    Compare that to the seasoned rider who can scrub off 18 mph in a few feet while also downshifting, then trackstand for a whole signal cycle and accelerate through the gears and back up to speed in half a short Portland block (to say nothing of fixie/single-speed prowess).

    I worked in bike shops, back in the day—and in retrospect, we did everyone a disservice by not offering customers half a chance to formally learn some technique. Even now, 20 years later, I see only repair classes and not “how to ride.”

    Anyone helping to fill this void in Portland? I’d love to get involved.

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    • are August 6, 2012 at 5:49 pm

      there are over a dozen league certified cycling instructors in the portland area. tori bortman, roger averbeck, and ian stude, just among the names i recognize (and actually, i myself am an LCI, but i have not been teaching in recent years).

      also, BTA offers commuting workshops, free

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      • Over and Doubt August 7, 2012 at 1:13 am

        are, how did you/would I get certified? (Website didn’t indicate much of such activity in the northwest; did you go back east or down south for your classes?) Once certified, are there opportunities to teach on-bike with adults, or is it mostly lectures at elementary schools? Any info appreciated.

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        • Bike Bend August 8, 2012 at 11:48 pm

          The League of American Bicyclists have classes to become a League Cycling Instructor (LCI). Information can be found at:

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          • Over and Doubt August 9, 2012 at 9:57 am

            Er—thanks, there, Bike Bend. Follow that link and you’ll see that the nearest class appears to be in Flagstaff, Arizona. There’s a Portland on there, but it’s Portland, *Maine*. Hence my inquiry about League of American Bicyclists seminars nearby. Heck, anywhere on the West Coast might be doable.

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        • are August 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm

          i was living in st. louis at the time, and as i recall we had to clamor to get the seminar, which they finally set up in springfield. we committed to enroll ten people from st. louis, and there were eight or ten others from around the state. the guy who was at that time in charge of the curriculum revisions was the lead instructor, fred somebody. two full days of instruction of, well, okay quality, but it was obvious they intended to certify everyone who showed up.

          long answer short, you have to push (or at least, back then you did) to get the certifying seminars offered, and you have to make sure they make their minimum enrollments.

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          • are August 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm

            on the plus side, if you are certified and you register your classes with LAB, they will provide the liability coverage

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            • Over and Doubt August 9, 2012 at 1:32 pm

              Liability coverage: Ah, bingo! Worth the hassle, then. Thanks for the info!

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    • Spiffy August 6, 2012 at 7:13 pm

      I didn’t start running stop signs and lights until I became a faster, stronger, more savvy rider… when I was new I thought the system was designed well because I had seen it used on cars… now that I know it’s not designed well (and not even for me) I feel no obligation to use it…

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      • Over and Doubt August 7, 2012 at 1:22 am

        Er…aw, heck with it; too much irony for my plate. Best of luck to you, Spiff.

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    • Spiffy August 6, 2012 at 7:14 pm

      Bike Gallery has shifting lessons…

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    • Ben August 7, 2012 at 1:37 pm

      But I can’t shift my gears 😛
      Multi geared bikes are for the weak.

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  • t.a. barnhart August 6, 2012 at 5:04 pm

    not all motor vehicles follow the same rules, for that matter. different vehicles have different rules, depending on the vehicle, circumstance, etc. so the Idaho Stop Law is far from unprecedented; it’s an extension of current legal practice. bikes are not cars, as cars are not trucks, are not buses, are not taxis….

    appropriate rules for each vehicle, in appropriate conditions.

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  • stephanie r August 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    I guess I usually break laws on a situation by situation basis. When I’m at a stoplight and there are cars and/or bikes waiting for the light to turn, I almost always wait for the light. But often if I’m the only one at the light, I go through it, understanding that I am risking a ticket. On local service streets I slow for stop signs and go if it’s clear, only stopping if a car/bike/ped is coming. I don’t know anyone who stops at every single stop sign on those streets but I have met a lot of people who try to front like they do!

    Personally I feel it’s tacky to blow through a light where others (cars or bikes) are waiting, but I don’t yell at anyone who does or try to change their ways. …There’s a lot of dumb bikers in portland to go along with our lot of dumb drivers.

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    • Marsh August 8, 2012 at 9:14 pm

      Well said!

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  • Joel August 6, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    Yeah, great article. He raises some really great points. This is particularly timely as I got pulled over last week by a cop for stop-and-going through a red light at MLK and Burnside when there were no cars in site.

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    • JV August 10, 2012 at 7:21 am

      Except that obviously there was a car in sight if you got pulled over by one. 😉 I use a variation of this stop and go – Stop – look around for cars (including behind me) and Go if the coast is clear. Basically my feeling is that if my situational awareness is so low that I miss a police vehicle, then I probably deserve the ticket.

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  • jim August 6, 2012 at 6:20 pm

    Iwas almost involded in a chain action acident last week because someone rode a bike through a red at an intersection and the cars all had to stand hard on the brakes, the intersection was wet from some running water so that also made a panic stop a little harder. So I say NO, don’t run red lights.

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  • wsbob August 6, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    Idaho’s stop law ’49-720. Stopping — Turn and stop signals’ specifies conditions under which people on bikes may ride past stop signs and stop lights.

    As reported by the bikeportland article about French support of an Idaho stop law, the approach France seems to be taking to allow bikes to ride past stop lights, is different than Idaho’s approach, in that France seems seems to be providing that each intersection allowing bikes to travel through red lights without stopping, must have signs indicating that travel through stop lights is allowed only at those intersections. Idaho’s law doesn’t seem to call for any such signage.

    The bikeportland article doesn’t mention whether French law allows people on bikes to travel past stop signs without stopping.

    “…A local citizen activist sent me a translation of the ordinance by a French-speaking friend. The friend looked into the details and here’s what she found (emphasis mine):

    “While the French press is reporting that cyclists can now run red lights, the details are far less salacious. At intersections that have the special signs specific to this regulation, cyclists can turn right at red lights. At T-intersections, where there is no road to the right, cyclists will be allowed to go straight through the light. Cyclists must yield to pedestrians, and can not go through intersections when people are crossing the road. Right now the city is testing out the policy at a few intersections. If it is successful, they will expand it to intersections in 30 km per hour zones. I don’t think they have installed any of the signs yet, but they are going to be posted in 15 intersections in the 10th arrondissement.” …” maus/bikeportland

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  • Bill Stites August 6, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    The arguments for bikes being so different from cars and therefore playing by different rules can be compelling. However, I still don’t find myself supporting such reforms based on ‘human nature’, here referring to the tendency to stretch the rules in many situations in life.

    We all see cyclists blowing stop signs today illegally – I am astounded by how much since IMO they often put themselves in danger. I just get the sense that with an Idaho-style law where stop sign rules are relaxed, people will cruise through even more unsafely than today. It’s this ‘margin of violation’, where people consistently push the rules, that concerns me.
    As for red lights, I think folks should honor them, with very rare exceptions.

    And let’s not overlook the effect that such scofflaw riding has on the minds of car drivers – to understate it, it’s not positive.

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    • Sarah H August 6, 2012 at 11:56 pm

      I think just the opposite is true – people disregard the laws now because the laws are unreasonable. Asking a cyclist to come to a full stop at every stop sign regardless of circumstances is like asking a pedestrian to do a jumping jack at every corner. Once you have an unreasonable law, the question is not whether the law will be broken, but rather to what degree, leaving everyone to decide for themselves to what degree they’ll break the law, and I think it’s clear that this is where we get into trouble. Even cops break this one “a little” when they ride around on their bikes.

      With an Idaho stop law, I think we’d begin to see a lot more cyclists actually slowing down for stop signs and yielding to existing traffic, since it’s really hard to argue that being expected to do so is unreasonable. But right now, rolling through a stop sign at a walking speed with nobody around is legally the same infraction as blowing through it at top speed and cutting everybody off. I strongly believe that the fact there’s no difference legally between these two maneuvers is a large part of why many feel free to completely disregard stop signs altogether.

      Simply put, reasonable laws will see better compliance because we’re people, not machines.

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      • dbrunker August 7, 2012 at 4:26 am

        I don’t blow through stop signs at full speed but slow way down long enough to look both ways. Safety is pretty important to me and I don’t want to give a car an excuse to claim I was at fault. I ride mostly on low traffic streets, the kind with sharrows. These streets have a stop sign every other block. Ride two blocks, stop. Ride two blocks, stop. Over and over for miles. I do obey red lights, but wouldn’t wait for them to turn green in every situation. If it’s 4am and I’ve stopped at a light and can’t see moving car anywhere from any horizon to any horizon I’d probably go through (and maybe ride a few circles in the intersection for fun). However, I should be asleep at 4am, not riding a bike so I haven’t allowed myself to be in that situation. (Please don’t look at the posting time of this message. No-…HEY! Didn’t I just say…?!)

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      • Kristen August 7, 2012 at 9:34 am

        Of course it’s irrational to ask cyclists to fully stop at every stop sign, but why don’t more of them at least slow down and look? I often ride through SE 34th and Clinton, and SE 34th and Lincoln–both four-way stops–and see cyclists blowing through without regard even for other people on bikes. I just don’t get it.

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        • dan August 7, 2012 at 10:15 am

          I think it’s very rude to ignore someone else’s right of way, whether they’re in a car or on a bike. When biking, I make no special effort to adjust my course when someone runs a stop and puts themselves at risk of a T-boning…and given the right incentive, I’ve found that people can get out of your way in a hurry!

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  • 2wo Wheel August 6, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    There are exceptions, but, as bicyclists we need to obey the traffic laws whenever possible. We can not give the metal boxes more to rant and rave about.

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    • encephalopath August 6, 2012 at 8:33 pm

      Daddy drinks only because you cry.

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      • 2wo Wheel August 7, 2012 at 10:59 am

        I like it.

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    • El Biciclero August 7, 2012 at 11:43 am

      As a pragmatic matter, I suppose you’re right, but the principle behind “earning the respect of motorists” grates on my nerves. Motorists as a group earn zip respect from anyone–they are merely feared because they can and do kill people–you might be next! That’s not the same as respect. Why do I need to “earn” the respect of folks who endanger my life by treating me with utter disregard on a daily basis?

      In this context, I’ll respect someone who knows the law and can treat me as an individual human being while exercising due care in the legal operation of their vehicle on the roadway. Hmm…

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  • DoubleB August 6, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    Cohen’s article is incredibly hypocritical.

    Just about every comment section on this site decries the acts of drivers: running red lights, not fully stopping at stop signs, etc. Yet apparently that behavior is completely acceptable by cyclists. You want cars to “share the road” with cyclists, but you want cyclists to have the right to disobey those rules when it suits them and not be held accountable. The hypocrisy, selfishness, and entitlement is truly something to behold.

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    • Spiffy August 7, 2012 at 8:13 am

      it’s because they’re completely different vehicles with completely different physics…

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    • El Biciclero August 7, 2012 at 10:13 am

      It’s a sliding scale from street furniture and buildings (which drivers run over fairly frequently) to pedestrians, who also get run over frequently by cars and, yes, very rarely by bikes, to cars, which crash into each other fairly regularly, to trucks and other specialty vehicles. Think about (really) which category does the most damage and creates the most danger out there on the roads.

      Would we be outraged if a semi truck went blasting through a stop sign at speed? Of course. Let’s try to conjure up that level of outrage and use it as a baseline. Now imagine a minivan or SUV blowing through a stop sign and compare the level of anger and outrage. Now a prius… Now a motorcycle… Now a bicyclist… Now a pedestrian. Let’s further imagine that all of the above blatant violations of the Law of the Land were committed without causing the slightest inconvenience for anyone else.

      Now imagine a motorist speeding… Tailgating… Turning right on red without stopping first… Not yielding to pedestrians or riders in a bike lane… Talking on a cell phone while driving… Flinging open a door in the path of a cyclist in a bike lane…

      Think up some more scenarios if you like, and place yourself as a witness to any of them and compare your imagined level of outrage. Does it match up with the level of damage done or danger posed to the rest of the public? Or is it based more on some personal sense of unfairness or envy? What if it were legal (as in Idaho) for cyclists to treat stop signs as yields and red lights as stop signs? Then would we feel outraged when they did it? I could claim I’m outraged any time a motorist runs a red light just because they think it is “safe” to make a right turn.

      If we were to take a strictly legal viewpoint, then sure, everybody is equally guilty if they “blow” (or even slowly roll through) a stop sign. In Portland, you get the same $200+ ticket regardless of whether you are in a semi or on a bike (it’s slightly less, I believe, if you are a pedestrian). Cohen’s article discusses the ethics of breaking some laws while riding a bike from the perspective of how much trouble it causes others. His claim is that when he, in particular, breaks laws, it inconveniences no one, so what’s the harm? As pedestrians are different (we don’t expect them to signal turns, or “stop” at stop signs; there is no pedestrian speed limit; they can go the wrong way on one-way streets) from cars and bikes, so bikes are different from cars and pedestrians. There are already some bike rules that are different from car rules, why not allow for more differences where it makes sense?

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      • 9watts August 7, 2012 at 12:49 pm

        ” In Portland, you get the same $200+ ticket regardless of whether you are in a semi or on a bike ”

        I don’t think that is quite true. The PPB training video suggested using discretion when dealing with bikes running stop signs, and focusing on the situations that were harmful, or something along those lines. I realize this is a bit of a gray area, but found it very heartening that on some level the PPB had allowed for Idaho-Lite.

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        • El Biciclero August 7, 2012 at 1:26 pm

          I think the decision to issue a citation is in the hands of PPB, based on whether they are in a generous mood and got the impression you were being careful, but if a ticket is given, the fine is the same; it’s up to the judge to lower the amount if he/she sees fit.

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          • matt picio August 7, 2012 at 3:47 pm

            The caveats being that some municipalities will reduce a fine automatically if it is your first offense, and that some tickets are “waiveable” in some jurisdictions if you take a traffic safety class.

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    • El Biciclero August 7, 2012 at 1:32 pm

      I think you’ll also note that the reasons for calling out driver behavior are nuanced somewhat. It is usually either a response to someone claiming that “cyclists are scofflaws” (which is hypocritical in itself), or it is pointing out behavior that can literally kill someone (other than the driver).

      Drivers usually point out lawbreaking by cyclists for two reasons: They recently had a close call (or perceived it as such) where they almost ran over someone who was breaking the law, or they are envious or annoyed. Rarely, if ever, is it because they have almost been killed by a cyclist.

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  • Zeno August 6, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    I treat cyclist safely rolling through stop signs with the same seriousness that the rest of the world treats cars going 5 over the speed limit on a clear day.

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  • Jeremy Cohen August 7, 2012 at 12:01 am

    I’m with Cohen on this one (and not ONLY because I too am a Mr. Cohen!) but because I find it absurd to come to a complete stop riding my bike in a residential neighborhood when I can approach the intersection with enough caution to come to a complete stop in under 5 feet. It is easy to say the system isn’t designed for bikes, but that glosses over the fact that the traffic signals and “control” devices are specifically designed to keep cars from smashing into each other. Where bikes are on separated spaces, there is no need for much traffic control. It is only when we interact with cars that the signals are necessary. I ride for safety–mine and that of my daughter (who is usually on the back of my xtracycle)–and efficiency. sometimes that means riding before the light changes to green (to create a “time” space between me and the cars) and sometimes I slow down without stopping at stops (for efficiency). At no time am I putting anyone in danger, because were a car to appear, I could come to a complete stop LONG before anyone hit anyone else.

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  • kittens August 7, 2012 at 1:48 am

    only problem i see with this rationale is that it predicates a communal sense of cooperation. There is such a stunning lack of respect in all areas of public engagement, not the least of which are road manners. I’ve used the “if it inconveniences others” judgement in many areas of life.

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  • Marid August 7, 2012 at 2:02 am

    Share the road people. Share the road. Disobey the law if you must, but don’t cry when cyclists get no respect. It goes both ways.

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    • spare_wheel August 7, 2012 at 8:40 am

      when i cycle i always look for validation from motorists.

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      • Kristen August 7, 2012 at 9:38 am

        Must we snark at everybody who drives a car? Sheesh. I don’t see how we can deny that sharing the road goes both ways, although I admit that more of the burden falls on motorists given the potential lethality of their vehicles.

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        • spare_wheel August 9, 2012 at 1:02 pm

          that was not snark and your second point is a strawman.

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  • Aaron August 7, 2012 at 3:07 am

    Wait, car emissions? I have never had any problem with that. Large diesel engines, yeah, they’re a huge problem, but passenger car tailpipes these days pretty much just spit CO2 and water.

    And reducing large diesel engine emissions is a whooooole other kettle of political fish.

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    • Keith August 7, 2012 at 9:39 am

      If there’s nothing wrong with what you spew out your tail pipe, re-route that exhaust directly into your cabin and keep the windows closed.

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      • davemess August 7, 2012 at 12:56 pm

        so pull up to the front of the intersection (which you are legally allowed to do, and should be doing anyway)

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        • are August 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm

          explain “should”

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  • rob August 7, 2012 at 6:00 am

    “But I’m not going to pretend that it’s OK to break the rules just because you think the rules should be changed.”

    Rules/laws that are followed are rarely (if ever) changed, despite the massive appeals of logic that most often accompany such requests.

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  • ME 2 August 7, 2012 at 8:02 am

    Aaron, car emissions are a problem. Cars running on gas spit out more than CO2 and water, a lot are local air pollutants and some a carinogenic. Also Jonathan I think we have it a bit better than motorists. I recall reading about a few studies that said bikes behind cars are less susceptible to pollution than a driver in a car behind a car. The reason being that cyclists aren’t in an enclosed space so the pollution can dissipate whereas with cars it will get in through the grill and air conditioning.

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    • El Biciclero August 7, 2012 at 10:20 am

      …although it was pointed out to me by a friendly O-Live commenter that many passenger vehicles these days employ micro-filters that exclude much of the pollution from vehicle cabins. Yet more safety for those inside vehicles, while they perpetrate nastiness on the rest of the world outside the vehicle.

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  • ME 2 August 7, 2012 at 8:06 am

    Also on the topic of civil disobedience, I run a few stop signs on my commute mainly the one just past the Rose Quarter since I can get a clear visual of the pace of traffic on both sides as approach. The one spot in town where I regular disobey the law on principle is on SW Natio going south just before the Morrison bridge. I take the lane rather than stopping and yielding to cars that are coming off the bridge onto Natio. That hard to see concrete barrier runs counter to established traffic engineering principles (merging traffic should yield) and the fact that those same cars are expected to yield to pedestrians in a cross walk but can’t do the same for a bike lane is an example of an atrocious piece of traffic design by PBOT

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    • dan August 7, 2012 at 10:19 am

      Yah, that merge on Naito is dumb. If you follow the bike lane, you then have to make a risky merge across traffic to continue straight through the next intersection. I also frequently take the lane for a block there. I don’t think that actually qualifies as “breaking the law” though – isn’t it legal to take the lane when it’s safer to do so?

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      • El Biciclero August 7, 2012 at 11:31 am

        Almost as dumb as this arrangement in Beaverton/Hillsboro. The markings aren’t clear in the overhead view, but EB cyclists are expected to divert onto the sidewalk, take that little down-loop in the SW armpit of the ‘T’ to cross two lanes of traffic turning right off of Baseline, scoot into the chute in the middle, then cross a lane of traffic turning right onto Baseline. All just to go straight through. On the rare occasions I’ve traversed this mess of an intersection, I’ve taken the second lane early and gone, you know, straight through. I don’t know whether that counts as some kind of violation of the “Mandatory Sidepath” statute (ORS 814.420).

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        • matt picio August 7, 2012 at 3:53 pm

          Good question – I do the same. I don’t think that facility closely adheres to any of the current “bibles” for bike facilities. (then again, I am *not* a trained traffic engineer)

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        • Daniel Winks August 8, 2012 at 12:54 pm

          A person is not in violation of the offense under this section if the person is able to safely move out of the bicycle lane or path for the purpose of:
          (a) Overtaking and passing another bicycle, a vehicle or a pedestrian that is in the bicycle lane or path and passage cannot safely be made in the lane or path.
          (b) Preparing to execute a left turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway.
          (c) Avoiding debris or other hazardous conditions.
          (d) Preparing to execute a right turn where a right turn is authorized.
          (e) Continuing straight at an intersection where the bicycle lane or path is to the right of a lane from which a motor vehicle must turn right.

          I’m fairly certain that (e) would be applicable in this circumstance.

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  • Frank August 7, 2012 at 8:08 am

    Some rules do not reflect logic, equity, honesty, or even common sense; but rather history, priviledge, or political power. I saw that clearly in our efforts regarding Forest Park. Civil rights leaders and others have taught that not all rules have the same legitimacy or standing. And some just don’t work. For example, at stop signs I have seen a full stop confuse drivers, snarl traffic, and create more risk than an Idaho stop.

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  • Spiffy August 7, 2012 at 8:19 am

    I was going down Germantown road on Wednesday 8/1 because I thought it would be quicker to get to NW that way instead of going on Hwy 10…

    I was wrong… I sat in stopped traffic with my scooter engine off moving a few car lengths every minute for 25 minutes…

    a cyclist came up next to me and asked if it was normal… unfortunately I had to say yes… they proceeded cautiously down the shoulder trying not to fall into the ditch…

    a hundred cars idling next to Forest Park for an hour… all those fumes… such a waste…

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) August 7, 2012 at 9:49 am

      not only terrible to have all those fumes spewing into Forest Park, but ironic that some people used environmental degradations concerns as reasons to prohibit bicycles from trails in the park.

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      • grumpcyclist August 7, 2012 at 10:51 am

        There’s nothing ironic about bikes being prohibited from trails for fear of environmental degradation. I imagine the concern is erosion, and that it can’t be managed safely without altering the landscape significantly. That issue has nothing at all to do with the issue in this article. Shame on you for conflating the two.

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        • GlowBoy August 7, 2012 at 12:00 pm

          You “IMAGINE” the concern is erosion? Before you start throwing shameballs, grumpcyclist, how about educating yourself a bit? Maybe you weren’t paying attention in the last go-round, but there were a lot more issues under discussion than just erosion. IMO it’s mostly a turf war between the hiking clubs and other groups, with the hiking groups not wanting to share or have to encounter cyclists (on trails they probably wouldn’t be hiking on anyway).

          And hountain biking doesn’t necessarily cause substantially more erosion than hiking; furthermore, most of the singletrack trail distance was proposed in parts of the park that were already substantially impacted by human activities. The existing firelanes cause and Leif Erickson Drive cause way more erosion than 100 miles of new singletrack would.

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          • wsbob August 7, 2012 at 6:58 pm

            “…Before you start throwing shameballs, grumpcyclist, how about educating yourself a bit? Maybe you weren’t paying attention in the last go-round, but there were a lot more issues under discussion than just erosion. …” GlowBoy

            ‘grumpycyclist’…take GlowBoy’s advice and educate yourself about Forest Park and issues associated with the means by which people are allowed to visit and enjoy it, which is critical to the integrity of Forest Park’s intrinsic character of being a natural area serving the public as a nature park located within a metro area.

            You could even search bikeportland’s archives for past discussion about those issues.

            I’d agree with GB that there were a lot more issues under discussion, associated with use of Forest Park by people with their off-road bikes, than just erosion. Here in bikeportland’s comments section, you’re likely to read the comments of numerous people that are ready to jump to the fore to vociferously argue for the use of Forest Park for off-road biking.

            Re; Spiffy’s comment up above and bikeportland’s publisher-editor Maus, about Germantown Rd and pollution from backed up motor vehicle traffic traveling that road: It’s a paved road separate from the park but traveling across it. Great, that you two are concerned about this source of pollution entering the park. If you have a realistic suggestion for addressing that problem, offer it up here to your readers. I’d certainly be interested in hearing what such a suggestion might be.

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      • 9watts August 7, 2012 at 1:19 pm

        “not only terrible to have all those fumes spewing into Forest Park, but ironic that some people used environmental degradations concerns as reasons to prohibit bicycles from trails in the park.”

        Members of the Middle Classes tend to define environmental problems in such a way that it is others–people whose consumption patterns differ from theirs–who are the perpetrators. The car is predictably naturalized as ‘part of life,’ as beyond reproach, as a way to experience nature. Notice how the Subaru Outback which gets terrible gas mileage is often labeled as ULEV or similar?

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  • Curtis R August 7, 2012 at 8:34 am

    I think Naito northbound should be free of bike stops through most of downtown. I don’t see the point of stopping when there isn’t any cross traffic. Perhaps some kind of “bikes yield to peds” sign before crosswalks.

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    • matt picio August 7, 2012 at 3:55 pm

      There could be merging bike traffic. Sure, there’s not now, but someday…

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  • Byron August 7, 2012 at 8:55 am

    I do stop at stop signs (almost, I don’t unclip and put a foot down) and I never run red lights. I ride in the lane most of the time and can find the signal wires to operate the light most of the time. And until the law is changed that is what I believe. But I would love to see cars follow the same laws. I see half a dozen cars run stop signs every day. Most coast up to the stop sign and into the street, slamming on the brakes only if someone is coming, otherwise just continuing on. As for red lights, I see it all the time. Most of it is right turn on red where the stop and proceed after checking is just go as fast as you can. Even if there is a sign that says not turn on red, the cars still do it and honk and act agressive to pedestrians in the cross walk. And finally the law that is never obeyed by cars is the speed limit. So before drivers can complain about bicyclists they should clean up their own act.

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  • esther c August 7, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Another significant factor is cyclists have a better view (and audio cues) of the intersection as we approach it than drivers so that is additional justification for our treating the stop signs as yield signs.

    I’m sure some people reading Cohen’s article will be unable to distinguish between his slowing down and yielding to those that blow through every stop sign and light at full speed. So we’ll hear all the strawman arguments, “but a cyclist almost hit me the other day going 20mph when i had the right of way.”

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  • John Landolfe August 7, 2012 at 9:12 am

    I honestly think the jury’s still out on whether people shrug off traffic laws more while driving or riding. Consider that inside the plastic shell of a car, it’s not as easy for others on the road to tell if you’re texting or drunk. We might see second hand signs of it but we can’t see the person. A person on a bike can’t conceal anything. When people say to me, “bicyclists ignore traffic laws,” my reply is, “I know! Can you imagine if people in cars ignored traffic laws? Police would need a whole… like… Traffic Enforcement Division.”

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  • Wiffle August 7, 2012 at 9:13 am

    You guys know there are filters you can buy that do a really good job of cutting the junk out of the air.

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  • J.M. Jones August 7, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Yes, we all see cars breaking laws everyday. Did none of us learn anything as we were growing up? “Why can’t I do (something) when Mary Jane can? Duh! Some laws should be changed, but breaking them is not the way to do that. Setting an example is not the most attention getting method, nor is it usually the quickest, though it is easily the most effective. Perhaps civil disobedience might be best served by questioning those who make the rules for us but do not ride bicycles. Civil disobedience CAN indeed help make changes, but this is not a “wholesale” method.

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  • Bike Me, Twice. August 7, 2012 at 9:22 am

    As a bicycle rider, stop at the damn stop signs.

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    • Jonathan Gordon August 7, 2012 at 2:47 pm

      As a regular reader/commenter of Bike Portland who doesn’t recognize your handle you’re going to need to back that up with some compelling reasons before I consider you anything other than a troll.

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  • Collin Whitehead August 7, 2012 at 10:02 am

    Come to Chicago where on my 5 mile morning commute from Lakeview to downtown, I am often the only cyclist I see stopped at lights. Everyone, I mean EVERYONE runs lights. A few weeks ago I watched three uniformed CPS bike cops roll through three consecutive lights with no particular haste. This laissez faire cycling attitude has created a toxic car/bike dynamic where cyclists truly do have reason to fear inattentive or even vindictive drivers. Nor do Chicago cyclists wear helmets or use lights. My 10 months as a Chicago cyclist have left me dumbfounded that cycling is being propped up as a priority with not a dime spent on education or enforcement.

    This is NOT America’s #5 cycling city. I’d be in favor of Idaho stop law here with mandatory stop for lights, increased education and awareness, a 90 day written warning period then followed by regular traffic law enforcement. But with gang violence at an all time high this summer the city’s priorities are placed elsewhere. It takes more than infrastructure to earn cycling bragging rights. Chicago has a long way to go to warrant its #5 ranking.

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    • spare_wheel August 7, 2012 at 10:26 am

      “Everyone, I mean EVERYONE runs lights.”

      As you stated, the police and motorists have better things to worry about.

      “have reason to fear inattentive or even vindictive drivers”


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    • matt picio August 7, 2012 at 3:59 pm

      Chicago didn’t seem all that bad – granted, I mostly rode the south side, and the parts close to Evanston – and Evanston. Sure, there were a few hairy spots, but no worse than Seattle, San Francisco, or other large cities. It was a lot easier riding in Detroit than in Chicago, but the lack of residents had a lot to do with that. Toledo was far more insane than Chicago, especially considering its size.

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  • Lenny Anderson August 7, 2012 at 11:47 am

    I posted my three rules for bicycling on the Monday News string: don’t get hit, don’t be a jerk, and don’t lose momentum. Great piece by Cohen.
    I’d only add…I do try to ride my bike like its a car, so that I don’t start driving my car like its a bike. This may only apply to those of us who are old and in the way and switch modes on a daily basis.

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  • GlowBoy August 7, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    I do think it’s misleading for Cohen to say “many jurisdictions, Idaho for example, allow cyclists to slow down and roll through stop signs after yielding to pedestrians.” Makes it sound like Idaho is one of many examples that allow this, when as far as I know Idaho is the ONLY jurisdiction in North America that does.

    Personally, I would love having the Idaho Stop Law here because I do try to mostly obey the law, including stop signs. It would definitely make my commute easier. There are also certain red lights on my route, mostly with optical vehicle sensors (e.g., WB Millikan at Murray in the late evening, EB Canyon Lane at Canyon Road, SB Laurelwood at Scholls Ferry) that consistently fail to recognize bikes, and I occasionally have to blow through them after waiting a couple of cycles. It would be nice not to have to explain the “malfunctioning signal” exception if a cop happens to see me do it.

    Still, a big part of me is reluctant to give up the “same roads, same rights, same rules” mantra that I’ve ardently advocated for 30+ years. When there are still places like Sunriver that get away with banning bikes from the roads. When there are small towns in Colorado that try to ban bikes. When there are millions of Americans who refuse to share the road and who still think bikes belong on sidewalks. When most drive-thru facilities still ban bicycles (one reason this matters is that in some places, this is often the ONLY way to reach an ATM and get cash outside banking hours).

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  • Tony Hawk August 7, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    I live on SE Ankeny with my office overlooking an intersection and constantly see/hear cars speeding down the street. I also see many cars roll right through the intersection, and have even seen a car sideswipe another car. Luckily the driver didn’t hit a bike.

    Obviously the physics of car vs bicycle are completely different, so it makes sense to have different rules for them.

    Btw, does anyone have any pointers on how to deal with reckless drivers? I was almost hit last night for the first time since I started riding a couple months ago. I didn’t get the plate, because I was at first relieved to have not been hit, but will try to if it happens again. I’m guessing the police won’t do anything though…

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  • paul g. August 7, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    I try to slow as much as possible because of two recent events. I was spit upon (yes, a big honking one) because some motorist who was yacking on his cell phone (no turn signal), decided to take offense when I passed him on the left and turned left at Clinton and 24th. He came up behind me, managed to get to my right, leaned out yelling and boom, spit on me.

    The second was worse–my 12 year old son was physically yanked off his bicycle by an irate motorist who decided we did not stop sufficiently at 36th and Woodstock (how ironic is that since we were in the right lane and there is no traffic lane). We slowed down but did not come to a full stop. He pulled up next to me, rolled the window down, and was irate. I told him that unless he was a police officer and wanted to ticket me, I thought we’d sufficiently slowed. He decided to pull right in front of us, jumped out of his car, and while I was quick enough to ride around, he pulled my son off his bike. Oddly enough, Charlie Hales’s wife witnessed the whole thing. Yes, I called the police but because this is only “misdemeanor threatening” and the guy lives in Eugene, nothing is happening. I

    It’s just not worth it to save a few seconds.

    BTW, “civil disobedience” means you break a law knowing you will be penalized, and CIVILLY take the consequences as a means of protest.

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    • GlowBoy August 8, 2012 at 9:43 am

      If the cop told you it was just “misdemeanor threatening” then he/she was wrong. Cops often are.

      I remember Ray Thomas’ legal clinic specifically mentioning being spit upon as an example of assault, and physically yanking a child from a bike is certainly an even more clear-cut case of assault.

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  • Jim Lee August 7, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    Whilst waiting for the 10 bus at Ladd Circle this AM I estimated 1 cyclist in 30 made at least some effort to resemble a stop.

    Used to that, but then a red VW Golf WITH BICYCLE PLATES blew through at speed. Either she felt entitled or failed to see one or the other of the TWO RED OCTAGONS guarding the crosswalk.

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    • matt picio August 7, 2012 at 4:04 pm

      I always make a point to come to a full stop at Ladd’s circle. Partly because of the frequent enforcement actions, but mostly because I used to live in the neighborhood, and I know that many of the residents feel intimidated by cyclists who don’t stop when there are pedestrians about to enter the crosswalk. A few times, I’ve almost had other cyclists hit me from behind because they are inattentive/not expecting me to stop. (even though I signal my stop) I think the big problem is that a lot of folks just aren’t aware of their surroundings. When they’re driving, it’s plain scary. When they’re biking or walking, it’s mostly annoying but not likely to kill/hospitalize me.

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      • GlowBoy August 8, 2012 at 9:45 am

        Ladd Circle is definitely a flash point. I once had another cyclist yell at me there because I stopped at the sign and she very nearly rear-ended me.

        That said, how many cars come to a full and complete stop – with the vehicle’s weight rocking back on the suspension – at Ladd Circle when no one else is coming? I bet that’s somewhere around 1 in 30 as well.

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        • dan August 8, 2012 at 11:03 am

          The thing that kills me about Ladd Circle is that so many cyclists roll the stop signs without looking to their right for pedestrians. Given that that’s also where cops park for stop sign stings, you’d think self-interest at least (if not courtesy) would get people to make this a habit, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

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          • SilkySlim August 10, 2012 at 4:37 pm

            Yes! Ladd’s is on my daily running route, and those intersections are ripe for collision. I actually have started taking the lane on the road while running to assert my space.

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    • ED August 8, 2012 at 11:43 am

      I generally roll through the stop signs at Ladds after looking for pedestrians. One thing that makes me ashamed as a bicyclist is that even when I try to yield to pedestrians entering the crosswalk (that is, I stop and wave them across), they generally decline to enter the intersection and wave me through instead. Perhaps they are just trying to be friendly, but it makes me wonder if they have they had so many bad experiences with bicyclists not yielding to them that they don’t even dare enter the intersection. Respect goes both ways–if bicyclists want respect, I think we need to respect other road users as well.

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  • JF August 7, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    Follow the rules of the road when others are present. This includes pedestrians, people riding bikes, and people operating motorized vehicles.

    4-way stop signs as an example. As a person on a bike or person in a car, stop and go when it is your turn. When i am riding my bike, the biggest pet-peeve i have is when motorists who were clearly at the 4-way stop before me, wait for me to go first after i have come to a complete stop to wait my turn. I have gotten to the point where I will just wait for them to go to make a point that motorists need to follow the rules of the road and be predictable. Therefore, i think people on bikes should also follow the rules of the road and be predictable when other roadway users are present.

    When riding with clear visiblity and no-one around, i see no problem with people on bikes slowing before a stop sign intersection, looking both ways and then going when safe and no other users are on the road. (red lights, i would still come to a complete stop before even thinking about proceeding).

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    • 9watts August 7, 2012 at 4:24 pm

      Excellent summary. Spirit vs letter of law. I do this, and as I’ve understood that PPB video that also more or less lines up with their view of the matter. So some of us and the PPB seem to agree. How to get those pesky rule-bound* drivers to understand this?

      *the speck in your eye vs the beam in mine.

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    • are August 7, 2012 at 4:53 pm

      i think they do it just to make you put your foot down.

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      • Dan August 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm

        I started racing short track MTB this year. I don’t mind putting my foot down at stop signs for the simple reason that it’s great practice for the start of races. I practice getting off to a quick start & clipping in fast many times on my commute, and as a result I’m consistently quicker off the line than the riders around me.

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        • Over and Doubt August 8, 2012 at 4:29 pm

          Yep, that’s the paradox: Newbies don’t stop ’cause they fear the loss of momentum—but repeated stops (when followed by starts, heh) build power and speed. “Momentum? Plenty more where that came from.”

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    • DoubleB August 7, 2012 at 5:51 pm

      There aren’t a group of drivers anywhere in America that have a handle on how to manage a 4-way stop. I’ve seen better organized riots.

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  • Curtis R August 7, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    About 15 years ago, on vacation in the United Kingdom, the London Cycling Campaign newsletter had an article entitled, “Why I break the law 21 times on my commute,” or something similar. Bikes are not cars or pedestrians. We don’t weigh enough to threaten motor vehicles, and a fender bender can be lethal for a cyclist.
    When we drove a rented car between Edinburgh and London, we were the slowest thing on the road at 80 mph, but when we got close to London, police were ticketing drivers going that speed.
    Laws are confusing everywhere because they’re enforced inconsistantly everywhere.

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  • Ray Ogilvie August 7, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    I never obey any traffic laws. I don’t pay any taxes. I act like I own the road. I am arrogant as well as subversive. I want to take everyone’s car away and make them ride a bike.

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    • Tony Hawk August 7, 2012 at 8:14 pm

      Ray – You should try to borrow a bike from a friend and go for a ride; it’ll bring your blood pressure down and you’ll be a lot less angry.

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      • Ray Ogilvie August 7, 2012 at 8:43 pm


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    • dan August 8, 2012 at 11:06 am

      Ray, I like your platform! Are you running for anything?

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    • GlowBoy August 8, 2012 at 11:51 am

      Wow, are you a unicorn too?

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      • Ray Ogilvie August 8, 2012 at 7:20 pm

        You mean uniCROWN don’t you?

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  • Zaphod August 8, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    With the various positions on the stop sign and traffic signal conversation, it’d be interesting to have a poll on one’s behavior and the perceived behavior of others as drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.

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  • DK August 10, 2012 at 10:18 am

    I follow this guideline:

    “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

    In other words: If running a light/sign has no implications on others or possess any danger to myself, I’m running it. OTOH, if there are others at the intersection, it’s a case by case scenario that I assess on each said occasion. Sometimes yielding, sometimes not.

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    • John Lascurettes August 19, 2012 at 4:18 pm

      Why would you ever not yield when you should? That’s just flat out wrong – both ethically and legally.

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