Saturday, August 25, 2007

Real and Imaginary Traffic Rules for Cyclists

Motorists who complain about cyclists seem to have two principal beefs. Some argue that cyclists take up space that "rightfully" belongs to cars, and that cyclists simply get in the way of what they view as "legitimate" road users. Others point out that the rules of the road apply to all of us. Unfortunately, the first view tends to inform the second: many motorists don't just want cyclists to obey the rules of the road, they want cyclists to obey the rules as they understand them, or even as they invent them.

The laws motorists claim cyclists routinely break fall into four categories: laws which really do serve the purpose of keeping us safe, laws in which the spirit reasonably ought to exempt bicycles, laws which serve a purpose but do not apply in the context that many motorists claim, and, last, laws not found in the Ontario statute books at all, and which some motorists have apparently made up out of whole cloth.

Real Laws that Really Apply

Everyone who operates a vehicle at night needs lights and reflectors. That includes cyclists as well as drivers. Every vehicle should obey the traffic lights. Vehicles don't belong on sidewalks or in crosswalks. Any cyclist can turn into a pedestrian at any time; just get off the saddle, grab the handlebars, and walk. Don't ride past open streetcar doors. Yield to the bus. Respect crosswalks. The list of laws that reasonably apply to bicycles includes most of the highway traffic act.

Real Laws that Common Sense Says Shouldn't Apply to Bicycles

Traffic calming rules apply to bicycles, although many of them really should not. When a local neighbourhood committee asks for stop signs on every block to deter commuting motorists from barreling through at fifty km/h or more, they don't intend to force bicycles traveling at twenty to thirty km/h to stop every sixty meters. However, we have a solution for this: change the law, so the letter reflects the intent. Where four-way stop signs and other traffic calming measures don't need to apply to bicycles, change the rules, and change the signs to match.

Real (Sort of) Laws That Would Paralyze Urban Traffic

According to a literal reading of the highway traffic act, you cannot pass another car on the right. Toronto has a number of streets with advanced right turn signals, and of course, cars routinely turn right on red. In congested traffic, the cars in the least congested lane move ahead as quickly as they can. Whenever cars in the rightmost lane move before cars in the left or center lane, they technically violate the law. If everyone followed the law rigidly, no lane could move unless the left-most lane started moving first. Nobody ever drives like that, but some motorists apparently insist that cyclists ought to ride that way.

"Rules" Made Up Out of Whole Cloth

One motorist recently wrote to a public forum, complaining that:

As a driver, this is frustrating. Cars move at a good clip, as I'm sure you're aware. When a cyclist darts in front of them to avoid a "pothole", as in your example, they usually do not signal. This is actually the law, to signal, if you are a car or a bike...any vehicle needs to signal.

This argument misstates the law in two ways. First, cars do not "move at a good clip"; they travel at the speed selected by their drivers, who have at all times the obligation to operate them in a safe manner. That means a driver who cannot avoid a cyclist in front of them maneuvering to avoid a pothole should slow down. Second, a cyclist, like a car, has a right to maneuver in the cyclist's own lane without needing to signal. If you want to pass a cyclist in their own lane, you have the responsibility to do it safely. That means leaving the cyclist enough room to avoid road hazards. If you can't pass safely, slow down. I don't think any motorist has ever died from driving at bicycle speed for a few blocks.

Then we have the extraordinary delusion that the highway traffic act, or any other traffic regulation, contains some sort of provision for those drivers who consider it unfair that cyclists take advantage of the nimble nature of our vehicles. Yes, bicycles work better in congested traffic, precisely because we can cycle through gaps in traffic that cars cannot. If you want to take advantage of that too, get on your bike; with one less car, we'll all have less congestion to worry about.

Why does this matter? First of all, it matters that road users have reasonable expectations of one another. Also, some drivers seem to believe they do not have to respect any cyclist if they see just one cyclist do something they consider wrong. That attitude has plenty of obnoxious features by itself; if you extend that way of thinking to cars, could the police ban motorized traffic from the city for twenty-four hours after every hit and run? If drivers can behave with contempt and distrust for all cyclists because of the behavior of one cyclist, can any cyclist who has ever encountered a drunk driver treat all motorists with contempt and disdain? But this belief in collective guilt takes on an additional dimension of absurdity when the "rules" motorists blame us all for breaking exist only in heir own heads. Plenty of cyclists, including myself, advocate excellent cycling, which includes showing respect for other road users. We should follow the rules that keep us and other road users safe. Those rules, however, come from the law and the courts, not the desires of individual motorists.


FixedXorBroken said...

nice post.

Allison MacDuffee said...

Well said, John!

Val Dodge said...

Good points all around.

But it's a common misconception that you can't pass on the right. Section 150 of the HTA explicitly allows passing on the right under most circumstances where people would normally attempt to do so.

Anonymous said...

Every vehicle should obey the traffic lights.

To be more clear. Every vehicle operator should obey the traffic lights.

Many fall into this trap. The operator is responsible for their actions, not the vehicle they operate.