The Ethicist Was Right…

Background Reading

Bike Law Illinois – Freeman Kevenides Law Firm.

I have seen instances time and time again in which CPD blames a cyclist for a collision when it wasn’t their fault. I don’t believe the CPD version of this collision for one second. I guarantee when the truth comes out it won’t be as simple as “the cyclist blew the red.”

I could post examples of bad police reports all day long. I’ve seen cases where the police just interview the driver, then they visit the bicyclist in the hospital just to give them a ticket. I’ve seen police record facts that clearly showed driver fault, but they come up with some narrative to blame the cyclist. I’ve seen police reports that make no sense. …and don’t get me started on the police reports filed after a CPD officer hits a cyclist…


If Kant Were a New York Cyclist – Randy Cohen

THE rule-breaking cyclist that people decry: that’s me. I routinely run red lights, and so do you. I flout the law when I’m on my bike; you do it when you are on foot, at least if you are like most New Yorkers. My behavior vexes pedestrians, drivers and even some of my fellow cyclists. Similar conduct has stuck cyclists with tickets and court-ordered biking education classes.

But although it is illegal, I believe it is ethical. I’m not so sure about your blithely ambling into the intersection against the light while texting and listening to your iPod and sipping a martini. More or less.

I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else. To put it another way, 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.

I am not anarchic; I heed most traffic laws. I do not ride on the sidewalk (O.K., except for the final 25 feet between the curb cut and my front door, and then with caution). I do not salmon, i.e. ride against traffic. In fact, even my “rolling stops” are legal in some places.

Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group of which I am a member, points out that many jurisdictions, Idaho for example, allow cyclists to slow down and roll through stop signs after yielding to pedestrians. Mr. White e-mailed me: “I often say that it is much more important to tune into the pedestrians rather than tune into the lights, largely because peds jaywalk so much!”

If my rule-breaking is ethical and safe (and Idaho-legal), why does it annoy anyone? Perhaps it is because we humans are not good at weighing the dangers we face. If we were, we’d realize that bicycles are a tiny threat; it is cars and trucks that menace us. In the last quarter of 2011, bicyclists in New York City killed no pedestrians and injured 26. During the same period, drivers killed 43 pedestrians and injured 3,607.

Cars also harm us insidiously, in slow motion. Auto emissions exacerbate respiratory problems, erode the facades of buildings, abet global warming. To keep the oil flowing, we make dubious foreign policy decisions. Cars promote sprawl and discourage walking, contributing to obesity and other health problems. And then there’s the noise.

Much of this creeping devastation is legal; little of it is ethical, at least where, as in Manhattan, there are real alternatives to the private car. But because we’ve so long let cars dominate city life, we take them, and their baleful effects, for granted. The surge in cycling is a recent phenomenon: we’re alert to its vagaries.

But most of the resentment of rule-breaking riders like me, I suspect, derives from a false analogy: conceiving of bicycles as akin to cars. In this view, bikes must be regulated like cars, and vilified when riders flout those regulations, as if we were cunningly getting away with something. But bikes are not cars. Cars drive three or four times as fast and weigh 200 times as much. Drive dangerously, you’re apt to injure others; ride dangerously, I’m apt to injure myself. I have skin in the game. And blood. And bones.

Nor are cyclists pedestrians, of course (at least not while we’re pedaling). We are a third thing, a distinct mode of transportation, requiring different practices and different rules. This is understood in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where nearly everyone of every age cycles. These cities treat bikes like bikes. Extensive networks of protected bike lanes provide the infrastructure for safe cycling. Some traffic lights are timed to the speed of bikes rather than cars. Some laws presume that in a bike-car collision, the heavier and more deadly vehicle is at fault. Perhaps as New York City’s bike share program is rolled out, these will become the case here.

Laws work best when they are voluntarily heeded by people who regard them as reasonable. There aren’t enough cops to coerce everyone into obeying every law all the time. If cycling laws were a wise response to actual cycling rather than a clumsy misapplication of motor vehicle laws, I suspect that compliance, even by me, would rise.

I choose my riding style mindful of my own safety and that of my neighbors, but also in pursuit of happiness. Uninterrupted motion, gliding silently and swiftly, is a joy. It’s why I ride. And it’s why Stephen G. Breyer says he rides, sometimes to work at the Supreme Court: “The advantages? Exercise, no parking problems, gas prices, it’s fun. An automobile is expensive. You have to find a place to park and it’s not fun. So why not ride a bicycle? I recommend it.” I don’t know if he runs red lights. I hope so.


A fellow cyclist died and the cops pronounced that the rider was in the intersection illegally. Nobody to date has written that they believe that the red light infraction is false. What has happened is that some have surmised that the story is not complete. They believe that the bus was also at fault having also run the red light at the intersection.

Does it really matter? In the ongoing battle between cyclists and motorists it matters to the folks who have a stake in being right when it comes to defending against the attacks of ‘outsiders‘. And as usual the cops are the tipping point in this narrative. This is a damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation for the Urban Cycling Community’s hardcore types.

So the new scenario might just turn out to be that the cyclist who died ‘was framed‘. Cops lie so the narrative will go. For some reason it will be decided that the cops have a vested interest in supporting the wishes of the company which owns the touring bus that collided with the bicycle rider. I guess perhaps even the driver it might be learned is a distant cousin of one of the cops. Who knows?

The point is that somebody other than the cyclist has to be guilty of an infraction as well. Cyclists simply do not make mistakes. And it certainly is ‘victim blaming‘ if we leave the historical record as ‘guy runs light, and collides with bus and dies‘. That sort of narrative is only to be allowed if the collision involved two motor vehicles, right?

The New York Times Ethicist Has A Refreshing Candidness

Take the time to re-read what The Ethicist had to say about obeying red lights. He does not duck or shuck and jive. He owns what he is doing the way a lawyer never could. It is often a bit sad that the one critiquing the veracity of the police is a member of one of the few professions where its members are constantly maligned for being liars. Goodness knows that this is offensive stuff. How could anyone think that they are liars or worst yet call them ‘ambulance chasers‘? On behalf of the civilized world I offer them a sincere apology.

The other day when a cycling messenger was being interviewed on camera he too manned up and said what he felt had to be said. He runs evidently red lights on a routine basis and has an explanation for his behavior. He feels that he can catch the rhythm of the traffic better when he runs red lights. In essence he was offering a rather quirky redefinition of safety.

It’s Safer For Me

Okay. Let’s run with that thought. You ride your bike after work down to the lakefront to perhaps enjoy the late evening breeze, catch the last rays of the sun, drink a few cold ones and maybe grab a burger and fries. On your way there you ride the way most of your colleagues and you have ridden for years, you run red lights. You feel safer for having done so and so that is what it is. No mealymouthed defense of your actions, you ‘own your actions‘.



The fellow from Active Transportation Alliance made the concession that this was perhaps a ‘mistake‘. And then he had some twaddle about you should not have to die for your mistakes. I guess that is non-lawyer speak for ‘the cops are lying and the bus was running a red light too‘.

And suddenly it becomes clear that The Ethicist and The Messenger are the least objectionable when explaining what went down. Riders make choices. They learn to ride a certain way until it no longer works for them. Running red lights in Chicago is like watching girls in bikinis play beach volleyball. You are only doing it because ‘its safer‘?

Yeah right! You do it because the adrenaline rush you get is wonderful! It helps if some mope from out of town gets the crap scared out of him when you whiz by him at warp speed and he cannot even hit the brakes because you are gone in a flash. Besides that it all seems so effortless!

Now the wimps in the Chicago Whine and Jeez Bicycle Forum like to downplay why they do the very same thing. Some of these bearded types give you a song and dance about trying to get from A to B with the least loss of time. Yeah right! Others claim that they have had a vision that tells them that the red light was never meant for bicycles, only cars. So, they ignore them! Yeah right!

The lawyers who try to take crappy GoPro videos of themselves riding a bike ineptly following a snow storm are simply pathetic. So let’s stick with the guys who say, ‘I break the law on a routine basis and that’s that‘! No excuses, no double talk, no the cops are lying, no the other guy did it too, no bullshit! Refreshing.

At the end of the day the real score keeping has to be tallied with the idea in mind that ‘you takes yer chances‘. No BS. You live with your heart in your throat and that is enough.

Would I ride this way on a regular basis? I doubt it. I am one of the meek and timid who think that riding on city streets is best done with guarded temerity or not at all. I take side streets and stop at signs and lights. No going with the flow when it comes to the dangerous stuff. And no, I won’t contemplate rock climbing, runs with the bulls at Pamplona or playing quick draw games with cops while wearing a hoodie and dreadlocks.

A man has to know his limitations.