The last SF Bike Coalition bulletin had tit-for-tat links to a an SF Chronicle article about how bicyclists are more often at fault for their own injuries and an op-ed response from the SF Bike Coalition. Reading them, I am reminded of the tensions that I myself have with auto drivers during my daily bike commutes.
From what I’ve experienced, these tensions tend to arise because bicyclists and drivers have different assumptions about what proper use of the road entails. For example, when I’m riding on a bike, it seems like common sense (i.e. when considering safety) that I don’t need to stop at stop signs if there is no cross traffic. On a bike, I can stop on a dime. I have more than 160 degrees of peripheral vision and unobstructed lines of sight and sound. I can tell if there is traffic is coming or not, and if there isn’t, there’s no common sense reason why I shouldn’t just keep riding.
Some drivers (a minority) seem to be angered by this. They will accelerate past me, getting real close (though still at a safe distance – one doesn’t have a very good sense of the space around your car, from the inside.) They will very occasionally honk or even roll windows down to yell at me. I just try to smile back. This one man even got angry enough that he ran into an intersection out of turn (at Sixth and Harrison) and ran into another car that had right of way. I did my best to suppress my schadenfreude on that one.
From what I can tell, this behavior comes from the driver’s thought of “Hey, I obey traffic laws, why shouldn’t bikers?” I understand this to some degree. If I ever get pulled over for running a stop sign on a bike, I won’t argue. I broke the law and I’ll take the ticket. In my opinion, though, the law should reflect common sense. I drive way less often than I bike, but even so, it’s clear that in my lifetime I’m much more likely to hurt someone while driving a car than while riding a bike. After all, traffic laws exist to regulate the flow of cars which are so often the source of injuries, whether or not bikes are involved.
In any case, this thought has been knocking around in my head for a while. Today’s articles finally prompted me to search around for what other people think. On the BCLU (Bicycle Civil Liberties Union) site, I hit the jackpot. That page has no less than sixteen well-reasoned arguments for why bicycles should operate under different traffic laws. The most interesting thing I read there, however, was the fact that Idaho and and Montana already have these common sense laws on the books. For example:
PEDESTRIANS AND BICYCLES
49-720. STOPPING — TURN AND STOP SIGNALS.
(1) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching
a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before
entering the intersection. After slowing to a reasonable speed or
stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in
the intersection or approaching on another highway so closely as to
constitute an immediate hazard during the time the person is moving
across or within the intersection or junction of highways, except that
a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the
right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a turn or proceed
through the intersection without stopping.
(2) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle
approaching a steady red traffic-control signal shall stop before
entering the intersection, except that a person after slowing to a
reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may
cautiously make a right-hand turn without stopping or may cautiously
make a left-hand turn onto a one-way highway without stopping.
Basically, bicycles are to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs. Which, as it turns out, is already the social norm in San Francisco amongst bikers (and the way that I myself ride.) If only we could get this on the books, here, we could have a much better understanding between drivers and bicyclists, not to mention making roads safer and more efficient for everyone.