FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2012
The Way You Ride Is Probably A Crime
Most state vehicle codes require bicyclists to stop at every stoplight and every stop sign. Every single time. How many cyclists do that? If you are like most reasonable urban bicyclists you stop and wait for the light to turn at busy intersections. You never “blow through” stop signs. You always look for traffic when approaching even the quietest intersections. But you do not always stop. You consider yourself a safe cyclist.
There seems to be a disconnect between what the law presently is in most American cities, and the way many reasonable cyclists ride. To be sure, there are risk taking adrenaline fiends riding the streets who run lights out of a desire to go fast, or perhaps just, because. But many others do it because the rule of staying alive trumps the rules of the road. City cyclists share the road with speedier and heavier motorized vehicles. Staying safe often means staying away from cars, trucks and buses which can poleax a bicycle and its rider in an instant. Controlled city intersections often provide the bicyclist with a good opportunity to break away from traffic, to acquire that little, if brief, cocoon of space so prized in the urban streetscape.
One Chicago bicycle commuter who identified himself as Dan, explained his reason for taking such an approach. “I like to jump out ahead of traffic not just for the extra buffer but for the extra visibility, especially downtown. If you need to take the lane for any reason, it’s nice to know that the driver behind you has plenty of time to make a decision about how to react to your presence in the lane,” he said.
But criminalizing the way many reasonable bicyclists ride is bad for cycling. Doing so neither helps broaden the appeal of urban cycling nor the image of bicyclists in general among the non-biking public. Now, however, there seems to be a movement afoot to change this.
More places are seriously considering allowing bicyclists to yield at stop signs and lights. If these initiatives take root, cyclists would not have to stop at intersections under certain circumstances. To be clear, no one anywhere is seriously talking about allowing bicyclists to recklessly blow through traffic lights and stop signs. Rather, under measured consideration is permitting cyclists to yield if traffic is present at an intersection, but not waste time by stopping when nary a caris in sight. These proposals have been enacted to some degree, or are under serious consideration, in London, several cities in France, in Virginia and in Arizona. In London, under consideration at some 500 or so intersections is the possibility of giving bicyclists an “early start,” according to The Guardian. Each intersection or junction is to be separately assessed by Transport for London (equivalent to the DOT) to determine if permitting an early start makes sense given the existing conditions and risks to bicyclists. The plan could “include the installation of traffic lights set with an ‘early start’ phase for cyclists, allowing them to move ahead of the mass of motor traffic.” In June, the city’s first bicycles only traffic light was installed in one East End neighborhood. In France, permitting cyclists to treat lights and stop lights as yield indicators is under consideration, according The Telegraph. The relaxed rule is being tested at 15 intersections in Paris and at locations in the cities of Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Nantes. The law requires that “cyclists yield to pedestrians and opposing traffic,” and bicyclists will, of course, need to rely on their own self-preservation instincts to avoid calamity with motor vehicles. So far, “these experiments have led to no rise in the number of accidents,” The Telegraph quoted Paris’ town hall as stating.
Some will scoff at these overseas measures. Those goofy Europeans; so permissive. However, last year, Virginia became the second state in the nation to permit bicyclists to yield at traffic control devices. For some time Idaho has permitted bicyclists to do so. Since July 1, 2011, throughout the Old Dominion a bicyclist may proceed through the intersection on a steady red light after coming to a “full and complete stop at the intersection” and waiting two minutes. Sensibly, the revised traffic code requires bicyclists to yield the right of way to motorists approaching the intersecting road and to only to proceed when it is safe to do so. Presently, the Arizona legislature is considering a similar measure, but without the somewhat random two minute waiting period. If passed Arizona House Bill 2211, a bipartisan measure, would permit bicyclists 16 and older to slow to “a speed reasonable for the existing conditions” upon approaching a stop sign and “yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection” before proceeding. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Patterson (D) and Rep. Vic Williams (R), in its present state would also establish that, “If after riding past a stop sign without stopping the bicycle rider is involved in a collision in the intersection, the collision is prima facie evidence of the bicycle rider’s failure to yield the right-of-way.” In other words, if a cyclist proceeds through a stop sign and gets hit, it would be presumed that he or she is at fault for causing the collision. One supporter of the bill told azcentral.com that the proposed law, “Isn’t a green light to blast through a stop sign.”
Recently, Illinois’ legislature has demonstrated an understanding that traffic laws may require revision to reflect sensible human tendencies. Earlier this year, a new Illinois law went into effect that permits bicyclists outside of Chicago to pass through red light controlled intersections where the light fails to detect their presence and when no other vehicles are present. While obviously not as far reaching as the other initiatives described above, this sort of law is an important step because it recognizes that it sometimes does not make sense to treat bikes just like cars. Safety should not require a bicyclist to wait for a light to change when good sense and the circumstances permit safe passage through an intersection.
At the moment many state traffic laws criminalize the way sensible, careful bicyclists ride. This sends a terrible message and gives fringe anti-bicyclists something to scream about every time a cyclist rides through a light. Cyclists should not be legally permitted to blast through stop signs, but let us consider where it might make sense to revise the rules of the road.
The article below appears in the November issue of Urban Velo. Idaho’s “stop as yield” law has been around for 30 years. Until recently its approach to the vehicle code has failed to catch on. When I have brought up the Idaho stop law to bicycling advocates in Chicago the response I typically get is, “Well, this ain’t Idaho.” Fair enough. But changing the vehicle code to allow city cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs still makes sense and, as I discuss below, is an approach that is taking hold. Oregon bicycle lawyer Bob Mionske’s website has a very interesting description of how the Idaho law came to be. Check it out here.