Making A Production Out Of Following The Rules Of The Road

Stop Here On Red Sign


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.

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9 Responses to Making A Production Out Of Following The Rules Of The Road

  1. JonT says:

    I don’t know that the history that you outline is particularly accurate. I would be surprised if the first bicycle race came more than a few minutes after the construction of the world’s second bicycle. Certainly Major Taylor was racing bikes by the 1890’s.

    As for cyclists being required to follow the rules of the road, that’s what I learned as a kid in the 1970’s, long before cell phones were distracting drivers. I’m pretty sure that the concept of bicycles as vehicles goes back a lot farther than that.

    • Jon,

      Did you actually read this post before commenting? I never said anything about “the construction of the world’s second bicycle,” let alone that “the first bicycle race came a few minutes after [it].”

      As for learning the rules of the road as a cyclist in the 1970s, you’re the first person I’ve heard say they learned them at that time. Most people I’ve spoken to (and most things I’ve read) say that virtually no one wore a helmet or believed that bicycles were required to stop at traffic lights or stop signs in the ’70s. In fact, despite concerted efforts to get cyclists to operate their bicycles as vehicles, many of them believe the same thing today – so I don’t know why you think that obeying the rules of the road was commonplace among cyclists over 30 years ago.

      • JonT says:

        I never said anything about “the construction of the world’s second bicycle,” let alone that “the first bicycle race came a few minutes after [it].”

        You outline five paragraphs of “history” of bikes being ridden casually, then occasionally as transportation. Then you write “One day, someone came up with the idea of racing bicycles. From this point onward…” as if there had been a long history of people riding bikes before someone thought to have a race. I was simply disputing that, opining that bike races have existed for about as long as there have been bikes, and citing a long history of bike races (going way back, long before any of us was born).

        As for learning the rules of the road as a cyclist in the 1970s, you’re the first person I’ve heard say they learned them at that time.

        Nevertheless, that is in fact what I remember learning, when I was growing up in Florida. Of course, it was taken for granted that cyclists, especially kids, should avoid going on major streets, and should use bike paths when available. But I certainly learned to follow traffic signs and signals, and to signal my turns. Mark’s video links show that such concepts were not unique to my own experience, and go back a good bit further than the 70’s. I would also assert that laws requiring cyclists to follow the rules of the road similar (if not identical to) the way drivers do also go at least as far back (though like many laws, they may have been tweaked from time to time). I do not (yet) have proof of this. Do you have any proof that there were no such laws until recently?

        As for what people actually do, well, we live in an area where hardly anyone follows the rules of the road — not drivers, not pedestrians, and certainly not cyclists, and the police don’t seem to be interested or motivated to enforce rules other than the speed limit. I certainly appreciate any effort to get more people to follow the laws. The more people get the word out, the better. So thanks for your efforts.

        • Thanks for clarifying what you meant. I’m glad you put the word “history” in quotations because this piece wasn’t intended to be a history. I have only stated general concepts about how the bicycle was initially used.

          The phrase “one day” means “sometime later,” but with no particular date established. You interpreted this to mean that there was a “long history” prior to that day, even though the piece doesn’t specify it (as an aside, as a writer, I’m glad that you mentioned your interpretation of my words because people sometimes read things as meaning something other than what the author intended.)

          I have read several real histories, i.e. ones with dates attributed to actual events.

          According to one online source, the first two-wheeled vehicle was invented around 1817 (date uncertain) variously called the running machine, velocipede, Draisienne and dandy horse. “This is the first appearance of the two-wheeler principle that is basic to cycling and motorcycling… [These] were made entirely of wood and needed to be balanced by directing the front wheel a bit. People then did not dare to lift the feet off safe ground, therefore the velocipedes were propelled by pushing off with the feet.” It’s unlikely that these were used for racing.

          In 1863, the velocipede (also known as the “bone shaker”) became available. Its use was primarily recreational, as I stated: “They also became a fad, and indoor riding academies, similar to roller rinks, could be found in large cities.”

          In 1870, high wheelers made an appearance. “These bicycles enjoyed a great popularity among young men of means (they cost an average worker six month’s pay), with the hey-day being the decade of the 1880’s. This machine was the first one to be called a bicycle.”

          In 1884, Thomas Stevens made the first transcontinental bicycle ride, an example of how bicycles could be used for transportation.

          Bicycles were not mass produced until 1890, when they became more widely available for use as transportation and recreation. “It was a practical investment for the working man as transportation, and gave him a much greater flexibility for leisure. Women would also start riding bicycles in much larger numbers.”

          The 1890s was when Major Taylor (who you mentioned) competed in bicycle racing. “… bicycle races drew crowds that filled Madison Square Garden, the biggest draw of all was Major Taylor.” These races were held in stadiums, not on the roads. I was talking about the latter in this piece.

          As far as I can tell, organized bicycle racing began in the 1890s. I haven’t been able to find evidence of organized racing prior to that time, in America or elsewhere. However, I have seen racing of high wheelers, which suggests that people may have been racing them, informally, as early as the 1870s.

          In either case, it wasn’t until years later that large numbers of cyclists were found, worldwide, training on the roads for road racing (or even for racing in stadiums).

          If the invention of the first two-wheeled vehicle was 1817, and there were no race worthy bikes until the 1870s, that’s a period of 50 years, which is consistent with what I wrote.

          As for bicycle laws, there is a lot of confusion about when “bicycles as vehicles” (who could be held accountable for traffic law violations) became part of the code in the U.S. Many people attribute this phenomenon to the 1970s, even though bicycles have always been allowed to use the roads. I haven’t found a definitive source for verifying this information.

  2. Eoin says:

    This is a terrific post, as usual. I would like to see cycling legitimized as a form of transportation, and adhering to the traffic laws is an essential component of that.

    The pessimist in me worries that if a large number of cyclists start conspicuously following the law, the anti-bike crowd will simply latch on to another rationale, such as cyclists not paying excise taxes or some other such nonsense. Some drivers just don’t want to believe that people on bikes have just as much of a right to the road as people in cars.

    After all, I follow traffic laws to a tee and, roughly once a month, I’ll still get someone screaming at me to get off the road. Some people just can’t be convinced, it seems.

    • Eoin,

      Yes, the anti-bike crowd will always find a reason to discriminate against cyclists. But, the main excuse drivers give for threatening to injure cyclists is that “they are scofflaws who were asking for it.”

      Drivers who don’t want bicycles on the roads will continue to do everything in their power to maintain exclusive use of the roads for cars. Blatantly acting like legitimate vehicles is one of the few ways cyclists can assert their right to use the roads. By behaving in this manner, cyclists can integrate themselves into the framework of vehicular traffic, thus forcing drivers to resign themselves to the fact that cyclists — as road users — are here to stay.

  3. Mark says:

    From 1963 a twisted, creepy (perfect for Halloween) video explaining the “rules of the road” to kids:

    • Mark,

      These are great movies. However, I wonder how widespread their use was. They were shot in California, where some kids may have seen them. But, this doesn’t prove that teaching bicycle safety was commonplace throughout the country (or even in California, for that matter.) And, it certainly doesn’t prove that bicycles were perceived as “vehicles” (as in subject to the same penalties for traffic law violations as cars) under the law.

      Both of these movies were made before my time, so I must rely on the recollection of people who are old enough to remember what sort of safety training kids were given in the ’50s and ’60s. The majority of people I know lived on the East Coast at that time. None of them had bicycle safety training or had to register their bikes (as was mentioned in the movies).

      If this was a widespread phenomenon, then such training would have persisted, nationwide, into the ’70s and later. I know from firsthand experience that it did not.

      By reading the comments on YouTube, you can see how surprised the commenters are about someone having made these movies. None of them mentioned having seen similar movies when they were kids.

      In my view, the ideas expressed in these movies were the precursor for creating rules which could be used to define bicycles as vehicles in Bicycle Statutes, Laws and Codes. Even today, laws pertaining to bicycles vary by state, and many are in need of reform.

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