In the early days of automobiles, there was no such thing as “rules of the road.” With few cars on the road, driving was a free-for-all. Each driver drove in his own style, the only goal being to get to his destination. Then, something happened: cars began to multiply like rabbits. More cars meant more people driving.
Congestion grew, and something had to be done to coordinate the activities of the cars on the road — so traffic laws were born. These laws, in lay terms, were called the “rules of the road,” and every driver was expected to obey them, or face a fine.
Just as with cars, bicycles began as casual vehicles, with no rules other than to balance the bike and pedal to make it roll. In different places, in different times, bicycles played different roles in their respective societies.
In some cases, bicycles were seen as transportation. In others, they were seen as a form of recreation. But, in either case, there was no right or wrong way to ride them.
The casualness of bicycle riding probably stemmed, in part, from their reputation as “toys.” Children and adults rode them for leisure, at a moderate pace, as an occasional activity.
One day, someone came up with the idea of racing bicycles. From this point onward, certain cyclists rode bikes designed for racing with the intent of riding as fast as they could. Cycling was morphed, by this quest for speed, into a sport.
Now, it may seem that this has little to do with the rules of the road. But, actually, it has everything to do with them.
Divergent uses of the bicycle caused problems as bicyclists with very different riding styles moved from off-road areas onto the roads. Initially, they rode in a freestyle manner, with no uniformity in intention or method.
This created a conundrum: cars were following rules to coordinate their actions and bicycles were not. Something had to change to maintain order on the roads. So, the concept of bicycles as vehicles came into existence.
By giving bicycles the same rights and responsibilities as cars, cyclists became users of the road. Unfortunately, giving bicycles the same status as cars antagonized drivers who didn’t want to share the road or deal with different, slower-moving vehicles.
As if that weren’t bad enough, most of the cyclists using the roads were unaware of their obligation to obey the traffic laws. No one had informed them that they were “vehicles.” Only politically aware members of the bicycle movement knew about it.
Newly formed bicycle advocacy groups, who wanted cyclists to be able to use the roads, took up the cause of creating infrastructure to fit bicycles into the transportation landscape. They wanted cyclists to have the ability to travel freely throughout cities and towns.
The more successful the advocates became in obtaining facilities for cyclists, the larger the number of cyclists grew, prompting a need to get road users to share the road. Neither drivers nor cyclists knew how to utilize roads together, and cyclists, as a group of individuals, were oblivious to their expected role on the road. Consequently, drivers and pedestrians noticed a pattern of disregard for the law among cyclists. They raised this point repeatedly, wielding it as a weapon, in an effort to remove cyclists from the roads. Although many cyclists wanted to retain their right to use the roads, they resisted following the same rules as cars on the pretext that riding a bicycle was different and required modified rules.
In my own case, I started riding a bicycle long before bicycles were designated as vehicles. As a kid, I rode on the street without giving much thought to traffic laws. I stopped at red lights and slowed down at stop signs to look for oncoming cars. This was done purely for safety. It never occurred to me to use hand signals or to ride several feet away from parked cars to avoid being doored. Those things were less necessary in the days before road rage and cell phones, since motorists drove more conservatively and watched where they were going.
Along came the era of the angry, distracted driver, and everything changed. Speeding, wild maneuvers, and competition on the road became the norm. Cyclists had no choice but to adapt to this new environment.
Early on, I went with the flow. I didn’t concern myself with the intricacies of traffic laws because drivers didn’t expect me to, and the laws weren’t enforced. As a fast rider, I was more concerned with making good time than signaling my intentions to cars.
The tide turned when my bad knee began to deteriorate. I could no longer maintain the speeds I had once attained with ease. I was disappointed at first, but after some consideration, I began to see it as an opportunity. As a slower rider, I was in a perfect position to become a good will ambassador of law-abiding cycling.
If drivers saw more cyclists meticulously obeying the laws, I thought, they would be forced to admit that cyclists were not scofflaws and had the same right as cars to use the road. With this in mind, I set out to draw attention to myself. I wanted as many drivers as possible to notice my actions on the road.
Most cyclists ride around pedestrians in crosswalks, even though the pedestrians have the right of way. I stopped at crosswalks. Every time I stopped, I watched the pedestrians hesitate mid-stride in anticipation of my mowing them down. When I came to a complete stop, and waved them on, they were visibly surprised. The majority smiled and thanked me for letting them cross.
Looking for additional ways to improve the image of cyclists, I started thanking drivers for yielding to me when I had the right of way. I didn’t owe them any thanks, but I was trying to create the impression of being courteous and collaborative. Some drivers acknowledged me and others stared in disbelief at my politeness.
I wondered how many drivers I could influence by behaving this way. It was hard to tell. But, if enough cyclists took my tack of making a production out of following the rules of the road, we could collectively create a cooperative image of road using cyclists. In this scenario, drivers would no longer be able to use the scofflaw defense in their demands to penalize cyclists and exclude them from the roads.