How do we get bikers to obey traffic laws?

How we get from here to there.
Oct. 16 2009 12:44 PM

Stop Means Stop

How do we get bikers to obey traffic laws?

Heading home from work yesterday, I ran five red lights and three stop signs, went the wrong way down a one-way street, and took a left across two lanes of oncoming traffic. My excuse: I was on a bike.

I'm far from the only menace on two wheels. A colleague was recently slapped with a moving violation after breezing through a stop sign. My roommate was pulled over 30 feet from our house for the same infraction. And driving around Washington, D.C., recently, I saw a cop scribbling out a ticket to a bewildered biker.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

I had never heard of a biker getting ticketed in D.C. Has there been a sudden crackdown? "I'm not specifically aware of any stepped-up enforcement," says Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Kenny Bryson. Eric Gilliland, a lawyer for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, disagrees with the policeman's take. Bike ticketing "comes and goes in waves," Gilliland says, but the rate has gone up over the last five years.

Something felt wrong. It wasn't injustice, exactly—all of these bikers broke the law. But was their behavior any great public-safety risk? Even after hearing about the spate of tickets, I haven't changed my behavior. What's the point of traffic laws for bikes? And if there is a point, is there any way to get me and my stop sign-flouting cohort to follow the rules of the road?

Bikes occupy a gray area of the law. They're neither cars nor pedestrians. Most states do carve out special laws for bikes, but not enough to avoid confusion. Take this scenario: I'm approaching a stop sign on my bike. There are clearly no cars coming from either direction. Do I come to a complete stop? Can I cautiously slide through? The traffic laws say full stop. But in practice, few bikers hit the brake, put their foot on the ground, and then start pedaling again. Are they criminals?

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The D.C. Code recognizes the special status of bikes. Bikes shall follow all traffic laws, the code says, except for rules that "can have no reasonable application to a bicycle operator." Presumably, this refers to laws governing highways, some sidewalks, and other non-bicycle-friendly turf. It doesn't apply to the stop-sign scenario, even though some bicycle advocates argue that stop signs "have no reasonable application to a bicycle operator."

"If there weren't cars, we wouldn't need stop signs," says Andy Thornley of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. "They're not there for bicycles." Bikers can safely slow down, look both ways, and proceed without sacrificing the momentum necessary to keep cycling, says Thornley. Lawmakers tend to favor the full-stop, in part because not all cyclists are skilled enough to judge the safety of proceeding through an intersection. During a debate in the Oregon state legislature, one representative admitted that he doesn't like stopping at signs. "But I do it because it's the law," he said. Plus, if bikes can cruise through stop signs, why not cars? Why do bikes deserve special treatment?

The reason, say cycling advocates, is that the traffic laws were designed without bikes in mind. It was not always so. After all, bikes were here first. In the late 19th century, a group of bicyclists called the League of American Wheelmen lobbied local governments to pour asphalt on their roads so bicyclists could cruise around more easily. This "good roads movement" paved the way for cars. It wasn't until after World War II, when nearly every American household had an automobile and Eisenhower pushed to build the interstate highway system, that modern traffic laws evolved. "You didn't need stop signs until cars were in common use," says Thornley. "You just looked in the eyes of the other guy and it sorted itself out."

In this history, bikes are the American Indians to the car's Christopher Columbus. Everything about our road system, from the lanes to the signs to the traffic lights, is designed for the car, often at the expense of the bike.

What to do? Today's cycling activists generally split into two groups: "vehicularists" and "facilitators." Proponents of "vehicular cycling" believe bikes should act as cars: occupy full lanes, stop at red lights, use a hand signal at least 100 feet ahead of a turn. That's the best way to make cars—and policymakers—aware of bicycles and to respect them as equals on the road. When it comes to making roads safe for bikes, vehicularists tend to favor training, education (most cities offer bike safety classes), and enforcement. Cyclists should not grouse about moving violations, the vehicularists argue. It is a sign that they're being treated as equals.

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