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?

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Facilitators, meanwhile, say we should change the laws and the environment to recognize the innate differences between bikes and cars. That means special facilities like bike lanes, bike paths (elevated trails separate from the road), and even Copenhagen-style traffic lights for bikes. It would also mean changing car-centric laws that don't make sense for bikes, like the rule that says you need to come to a complete stop at a stop sign.

The beauty of this approach, say facilitators, is that it creates compliance from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Bike-friendly pathways encourage more people to bike. More bikes create peer pressure for bikers to follow the law. (In Copenhagen, for example, you'll see long lines of bikes stopped at traffic lights.) When more bikers follow the law, the heavy hand of enforcement becomes less necessary. Roadway design also influences bike design. City bikes in Northern Europe are heavier and more durable—in other words, more carlike—than the hybrids and racing machines you see in American cities. (Slate's Seth Stevenson provides a handy guide to European bikes.) The result is a relatively slow, comfortable, and civilized riding experience.

Vehicularists see the potential transformation of America into a Euro-style bike paradise not just as a far-fetched utopia but as an insult. Dedicated bike paths are an admission that the cyclist deserves pity and should be walled off from the world. Bike paths are separate but unequal—a way for motorists to get bikers out of their way. John Forester, the author and engineer known as the intellectual forebear of vehicular cycling, traces the philosophy back to a set of laws introduced in 1944 that relegated bikes to the far right of the road, prohibited cycling outside of bike lanes, and banned them from the street if bike paths were available. (These laws were part of the Uniform Vehicle Code, a national model on which states base their own traffic laws.) Since the rise of the automobile, vehicularists have seen any attempt to treat bikes differently as a civil rights violation.

The debate rages on. Facilitators point to the aesthetic benefits of bike paths. Vehicularists point to statistics that bikeways actually increase the number of accidents. (Partly because segregating bikes makes it more dangerous for cyclists who stay on the roads, partly because intersections involving bike paths can be especially hazardous.) Facilitators say bike paths create more bikers. Vehicularists say the push for paths is the result of more bikers, not vice versa. Facilitators say bike paths are helpful for beginners and older cyclists, who might not want to brave the open road. You know who else liked bike paths? say vehicularists. Hitler.

The strongest argument in the vehicularists' favor is realism. Building bike paths is expensive, and state budgets are already hurting. Who's going to want to put taxpayer dollars—and most taxpayers also happen to be motorists—into frivolous bike playgrounds?

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Enter the Idaho stop-sign law. The rule, passed by the Idaho state legislature in 1982 and updated in 2005, essentially allows bikers to treat stop signs as yield signs. If a biker slows down and sees no cars coming, he or she can roll through a stop sign—a so-called "rolling stop." The "Idaho stop" has become a rallying point for vehicularists and facilitators alike—a sort of Great Compromise for bicycles. Many vehicularists like it, because it acknowledges the proper role of bikes on the street rather than on silly pathways (although purists will say that it should apply to cars as well). Facilitators like it because it recognizes a core difference between cars and bikes: the importance of momentum. As this great video explains, riding a bicycle becomes a lot less efficient as soon as you have to start making regular, complete stops.

For motorists who see bikers as law-flouting pests, this momentum argument will certainly sound like a self-serving justification for breaking the law. Perhaps that perception explains why no states have followed Idaho's lead and made their traffic codes more bike-friendly. (A movement to bring the Idaho stop to Oregon failed earlier this year.) Skeptics say that the rule would lead to more crashes. But a follow-up study of the Idaho statute found that accidents involving bikes actually decreased the year after the law was passed and haven't varied much since.

But even if we can't create our own private Idaho—you hear that groaner a lot among San Francisco bikers—we can still get pretty close. Despite the anecdotal increase in bike-related ticketing in Washington recently, police rarely crack down on bikers who execute a rolling stop. (I tested one out in front of a cop car just the other day.) In the end, the legal gray area is everyone's friend. It allows cops to avoid stopping every last biker who rolls through a stop sign. (Some will know this as the paper bag theory of law enforcement.) And it allows bikers to ride knowing that safe, reasonable behavior will not be punished just because it doesn't follow the letter of the motor vehicle law. Even if you do get the occasional ticket, $25 is a small price for the increased freedom you have as a cyclist.

As a biker, my wish would be for police to crack down on more dangerous behavior, such as riding at night without a light or tearing the wrong way down a one-way street. Yes, I committed the latter crime just yesterday, and I admit I was in the wrong. If cops started handing out more tickets for one-way infractions, bikers like me would probably clean up their most-outrageous behaviors. Once that happens, maybe all of us—cyclists and car people and activists and cops—could agree to leave the rolling stop alone.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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