Bicyclists have rights, too

By Kevin Williams
October 7, 2014 4:57 PM

Source: Chicago Tribune

People finish their daily commutes and sometimes have anecdotes about the maniac who ran a red light. Does anyone note the bicyclists who obey traffic laws? (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune)

People finish their daily commutes and sometimes have anecdotes about the maniac who ran a red light. Does anyone note the bicyclists who obey traffic laws? (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune)

“Days of Rage” described another event in this city’s history, but it can also apply to the aftermath of any article about cyclists, even one that involves death.

Any time a cyclist dies in a traffic incident, it doesn’t take long before a commenter notes that, “They don’t follow traffic laws anyway.”

In Tuesday’s Tribune, reporter Ron Grossman suggested that because cyclists run lights, ignore traffic laws and are a general pox on pedestrians, perhaps banning them for a day would make it safer to be a pedestrian.

Cyclists got in a huff, walkers and drivers got in a huff, huzzahs accompanied tales of two-wheeled miscreants. And as a longtime racing cyclist who also commutes by bike between Highland Park and downtown Chicago, it’s hard not to agree with the grumblers. Blowing red lights and stop signs is reckless, stupid and shows no regard for anyone, which is why I and so many other riders refrain from such behavior. In a May interview with The Telegraph, Olympic and world champion track cyclist Chris Hoy related the tale of an incident in his hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland.

“There was a guy who was riding like an idiot, jumping lights, cutting up the pavement,” said Hoy. “And I just said: ‘You’re not helping matters here. If you want respect you have to earn it.'”

As a rider who obeys every traffic law — even stop signs erected at those cross-at-your-own-peril pedestrian crossings that so many cars ignore — the stereotype of the two-wheeled hooligan is more complex because “they” isn’t everyone. People finish their daily commutes and sometimes have anecdotes about the maniac who ran a red light. Does anyone note the bicyclists who obey traffic laws?

No, because it’s what we’re supposed to do. We notice the aberrant biker as we do aberrant motorists who flout the law. That makes tarring everyone with the same brush inaccurate. It’s no more valid than the assertion many cyclists state that, “All drivers want to kill us” because a few motorists act in a way that is dangerous. You can’t ban all cyclists because some are jerks any more than you can ban cars because drivers often do everything in them except drive.

Sensible riders understand the anger that scofflaw cyclists generate. They make me mad enough to yell at them. But that rage really hits home when I see, and occasionally encounter as a rider, the aftereffects on motorists and pedestrians. Faces are nervous around me. I stop at a stop sign, and confused drivers don’t know what to do. Motorists gun their engines and cut me off, possibly thinking, “They don’t obey the law anyway, so to hell with them.”

One day during a pedal to work, a man in a car yelled at me, “Why don’t you damn riders stop at red lights?” while I was stopped at a red light. All I could do was shrug.

Like Mr. Grossman, I love the notion of banning everything that vexes me. In that magical world, the roads would be occupied by courteous drivers in Priuses, law-abiding cyclists and pedestrians who don’t jaywalk or cross against the light.

But existing in an imperfect world requires patience, tolerance and, like it or not, the need to account for idiocy. So as drivers blow past me in a way that they believe sends a message, or yell at me simply because I am on the road, I don’t think, “Ban them.” I think, “I hope they don’t kill a less-capable rider.”

Disobeying traffic laws on a bicycle is suicidal. So is being a pedestrian who crosses against a red light, or a driver who tires of waiting for that red light. If stupidity were a capital crime, a solution to overpopulation would be easy.

I prefer caution, as we live in a world in which enforcement of traffic laws — whether on two wheels, four or more — is intermittent and capricious.

For this newspaper a few years ago, I wrote a piece about how to ride your bicycle and not die. Obeying the law was part of that program. Many more people are riding now, which means more knuckleheaded behavior, more angry drivers and more intemperate reactions on all sides. But it’s worth remembering something:

That cyclist is somebody’s wife, husband, brother, sister, child, friend. That person is also a vulnerable road user, who purchased a bicycle and might not have any idea that the vehicular rules of the road apply, because cyclist education is as nonexistent as the education drivers receive in how to capably deal with cyclists.

And anger and ignorance can kill. Please be careful out there.

Kevin Williams is a Tribune reporter.

Twitter @tribunekevin

Copyright © 2014, Chicago Tribune


No one is above the law. None of us. If we belong to a group and defend it (as Mr. Williams is doing) then he has to assume the mantle of ‘scofflaw cyclist‘. I know this to be true because as an African-American I have to deal with ‘racial profiling‘ whether I like it or not. I am certain that Jews and Muslims have similar stories about having to bear the brunt of the public condemnation for things that they were not personally responsible for.

But when we allow our bosoms to swell with pride when one of our own does something wonderful we are taking credit for something we did not personally do. Every coin has two sides.

First and foremost as a member of a subsets of humans we have to be willing to engage in self-criticism. The bulk of the Urban Cycling Community is far too defensive to be able to do this without experiencing some repercussions from their fellow cyclists. That is the fact of the situation.

But if I want to claim my individuality as a cyclist from those who are visible scofflaws, then I need to be prepared to be spurned by those who are unable to be dispassionate in their assessment of the group. It is not meaningful to continually make allowances for the fact that the other guys do it too.

This “So’s Your Old Man” defense is silly and pointless. What is needed is for every cyclist to stand up and be counted. We need to be the very harshest critics of the behavior of ourselves and others in our group. Failing that we can never achieve very much.

We need to act like Bears Fans who when they watch a clunker of a game (like the one we lost to the Carolina Panthers) need to call out their own team. It is difficult to do but being apologetic and trying to always be supportive of players who did not give their best performance means settling for second best.

That is in essence what Mr. Williams is doing here. We do not need excuses for our ‘bad behavior‘. What we need is a good old-fashioned ‘ass whupping‘. We need to stop trying to coddle cyclists for whatever reason. If telling them or admitting to ourselves that we screwed up and have lost our way is going to minimize the number of newbies, then fine. That is what is called for.

But those that remain will gain the courage to call out the bad performers without having to wait for someone in the press to do our job for us.