Monday, May 08, 2006

Cars and Speed Limits

A recurring episode in newspaper editorials and commentaries is a motorist complaining about scofflaw cyclists. Last summer it was a couple of Saint Paul Pioneer-Press columnists (and I wrote about them last July in Middle Ground, an entry in this blog. A few weeks ago it was a student columnist in South Dakota whining about bikes and fantasizing about giving them a nudge with her car when they irritated her. As summer arrives and more bikes once again take the roads we're bound to see another outbreak of the same columns scattered around the country.

My attitude is that as cyclists we need to obey the laws in much the same way motorists do. I also get annoyed when bikes sail blithely through Stop signs and red lights without even a look. I console myself that eventually probabilities will assert themselves and the herd will be thinned. However, I also get annoyed at the high-handed attitude of the writers of these columns and letters, who insist that cyclists obey all the traffic laws when motorists disobey the law all the time.

The most blatant of these is the same Stop signs that are so often a complaint against cyclists. You hear this a lot; bikes never stop at Stop signs. Well, guess what, cars don't either. If there's no opposing traffic, cars almost never come to a complete stop. Just watch their wheels, they don't stop turning. When people who drive through Stop signs at 6 mph get mad at those who ride through at 9 it comes off as a bit hypocritical.

Related to this is right turns on red. You're supposed to come to a complete stop before executing the turn. Watch an intersection sometime. Cars will come up, peer left to make sure there's nobody coming, and go right on around without coming to a complete stop. Guess what? That's breaking the law, and something of a hazard to pedestrians, too.

And then there's speeding. Last summer, also in July, I posted the text to a letter I wrote in reply to a column by Bob Sansevere of the Pioneer-Press in which he whined about scofflaw cyclists and referred to law-abiding motorist, where I said:
Law-Abiding Motorists? Just for a day, just once, try driving the posted speed limit on all the roads you drive all day long. I predict that many people will enthusiastically communicate with you!

Well, apparently KARE-11, our local NBC affiliate, did this. They run long segments called "Extras" and Tuesday's Extra involves mounting cameras on a car and driving the speed limit and showing the enraged reactions they get. I've just seen the teaser for it, but it promises to be good. Those of you who are local might want to watch it, it should make interesting material next time some motorist gets all high and mighty about anarchic cyclists. (For those of you who aren't from the Twin Cities or the KARE-11 viewing area, I think you'll be able to see it online after it's broadcast).


Frostbike said...

I love that KARE did this. Now I just have to remember to watch...

Anonymous said...

I think different standards should be adopted for motorists than for cyclists. A motorist rolling through a stop sign is hardly the same as a cycist doing the same thing. While they are both violating the same law of the land, they operate under a somewhat different law of physics. Well, it's the same law of physics, but the effect is generally different. My point is that the momentum of a 4,000 lb vehicle plus driver at 7 mph is enough to do some serious damage if it happens to be imparted on an unsuspecting pedestrian or cyclist or another motorist. A 250 lb bicycle plus driver is likely to cause far less damage, and is almost certain not to cause a loss of life. Also, the cyclist is far more likely to be able to skirt around other users of the road while s/he is bending the rules.

I guess it comes down to a dispute between fairness and practicality. People on both sides of the argument seem to think that cyclists/motorists should follow all the traffic rules out of fairness - i.e. if I have to do it, then EVERYBODY should do it. As a practical matter, however, it seems that motorists have a higher obligation to follow the rules than cyclists do.

Anonymous said...

I've been anticipating the inevitable round of anti cylist crap in the local papers. I've been thinking that someone should write a pre-emptive anti motorist letter to the Strib. You know, use the same kinds of 'arguments' and 'logic' typically used against cyclists to claim that if motorists can't follow the rules they should get off our roads.

By the way, I mostly agree with what Jim said. But all this about following the rules or getting off the roads is crap anyway. A certain subset of motorists wants us off the road period. The 'follow the rules (that I ignore)' crap is just an excuse.

On the other hand I'd be happy to support lifetime bans from the public roads on the first offense for any traffic violation. As long as it applies to all road users.

Nathan said...

Thanks to your heads-up and my wife's reminder, I actually got to see this last night. While nothing surprising was revealed it was interesting. It ended by saying something like "This has to change, even if it's one driver at a time." Word.

Matt said...

I actually managed to miss it on the broadcast, but then caught it on the web. There was nothing surprising, at least to anyone who has tried driving the speed limit. There is a lot of impatience and hostility out there.

As for the comments about cars and bikes and laws, I guess I don't advocate that everybody absolutely obey all the laws all the time. As a practical matter, nearly everybody driving routinely breaks the laws regarding speed limits, stop signs and right turns on red. I get irked when they (and I, since I too am a motorist) get all high and mighty about cyclists' breaking the same laws that motorists violate all the time. On the other hand, there are plenty of cyclists who ride stupidly (wrong way on streets, sailing through stops, no lights at night) who do merit scorn or pity or even tickets. As a cyclist, I no more want to get lumped with those idiots than I want to get classified with the smattering of hostile morons we witness driving motor vehicles.

notlance said...

I've been riding in traffic for about 38 years now and I've figured out what works for me in obeying traffic laws. These are the priorities I follow:

1. I do what is safe for me. As a cyclist, I'm much more vunerable than any car or truck on the road. This means that if I have to run a stop sign to avoid an accident, I'll run it. This does not happen very often.

2. I do what is considerate or convient for other vehicles on the road. I'll roll through a stop to get out of the way of cars. I don't need to do this very often either.

3. I'll obey the law. The traffic laws were written to keep everyone safe, so I abide by them when they don't violate 1 or 2 above.

So what happens when I approach a 4 way stop, for example? I don't sneak up the right gutter past cars because that violates 1, 2 and 3. I take my turn but I don't come to a complete stop because it is more dangerous to stop, put a foot down, and start up again on a bicycle. If I don't come to a complete stop, it is also means I can get out of the way of other vehicles faster. That's what most drivers seem to want; they just want the bicycle to get out of the way. If I'm turning, I will signal my turn because it seems to reassure the drivers.

And I never, ever, flip off a driver any more. If they do something really stupid, I just wave and smile.