Monday, March 9, 2015

Official Rules, Informal Rules, and the Rules of Society

You’re with a group of non- bicycling friends, at work, or at a public advocacy workshop, and suddenly find yourself on the defensive. It doesn’t matter if you idolize John Forrester and call yourself a bicycle driver. All bicyclists impede traffic, and run red lights and stop signs, and by default, you're one of "them".

Caught off guard, you struggle for an answer, and attempt to clear yourself of wrongdoing. But the attempt is futile, because it's not about breaking traffic laws. You are singled out because bicyclists violate the laws of society. Complaining about scofflaw bicyclists sounds better than just saying they don't want you on the road in the first place. They think you belong on the sidewalk, a bike path, or in a local park, regardless of Title 21, Chapter 41.

Motorists complaining about bicyclists breaking the law is hypocritical at best. Put simply, all modes follow “informal rules”. No one actually decides what these informal rules are, hence, why the written law is the official rule. For bicyclists, it could be that stop signs are treated as yields. It's not on the books, but neither is driving 5-10 mph over the speed limit, speeding up on yellow, tailgating, using i-Phones, or any number of violations that virtually every driver engages in with known deadly consequences. And surprise: Just with speeding alone, most motorists break the law for much greater periods of time than most bicyclists.

The fact is, everyone bends or breaks the law at the intersection of convenience, payoff, and low probability of harm to oneself or others. Where rolling stops are concerned, it's not that bicyclists don't have respect for driving laws. It's because bicycling is a mode of transportation that lends itself well to rolling stops. It’s a slow-moving vehicle with a huge field of view and the ability to stop on short notice. And it should be noted that most drivers don’t fully stop at stop signs either if the intersection has good sight lines and is visibly clear in advance.


If motorist's complaints about bicyclist's disregard for vehicle laws were genuine, then the longer term solution would be to revise said laws with considerations for bicycling – under certain parameters (i.e. near stops permitted). Then, commit to education and enforcement.


Automobile advocacy groups have been doing this since the dawn of the motor age when it comes to behaviors that aren’t perceived as threatening to other road users. More recently, these included right turns on red and increasing the maximum speed limit from 55 mph to 65. Many more took place in the earlier 20th Century. This ultimately led to cars wresting our streets and towns from pedestrians, bicyclists, carriages, and streetcars. Driving is now a 'right' and 30,000+ fatalities per year is considered an acceptable price to pay to maintain it.

But since lawbreaking is hardly the reason for despising bicyclists (if it was, drivers would be equally disdainful of fellow drivers - even more so), safe infrastructure, education and enforcement becomes all the more important. The City of Newark is commonly viewed as Delaware's mecca of scofflaw bicycling, largely because of its student population and high modeshare. Wilmapco put together an excellent Bicycle Plan, which addresses a wide range of infrastructure needs. That alone will have a meaningful long term impact. The University of Delaware could also make a big difference - in the shorter term - if they cared about the issue from an education standpoint. Unfortunately, they have done virtually nothing for the cause, even though many of their students are foreign and clueless about even the most basic traffic rules. Some come from foreign countries where riding against traffic or on the left side of the road is the standard, or standards are non-existent. We are not aware of anything that the U of D is doing to that addresses these issues with orientation of new students. Meanwhile, not only are other universities (i.e. University of Maryland) busy publicizing bicycle safety, they also offer bicycle safety classes for credits.

There is little question that, as advocates, we have our work cut out for us when it comes to education and enforcement. Infrastructure is a big piece of the compliance puzzle. In Portland OR - probably the most bicycle-friendly city in America - studies have shown that 94% of bicycle commuters comply with traffic laws. Most of it has to do with respect and feeling welcome in the design of the transportation system.

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