Separate But Equal Revisited

Bicycle Traffic Lights

Traffic laws are a sticky issue for cyclists. Whether to obey traffic laws or not has been a topic of hot debate. And neither side can manage to see eye to eye with the other.

I’ve written about this topic before. And doing so has struck a nerve with cyclists who don’t want to obey the same traffic laws as cars.

They see bicycles as “different” from cars. Bicycle sare vehicles but not vehicles simultaneously. That’s all well and good if your goal is a discussion of semantics. But if your goal is to gain respect for cyclists or to keep order on the roads, then you can’t have it both ways. You can’t be separate but equal without causing confusion on the roads.

Last time I said this a couple of cyclists who don’t want to obey the traffic laws came along and went on a tirade about how bicycles are different from cars and how they should have their own set of rules. I found their comments very discouraging because, while this idea may be more convenient for some cyclists, it comes at a cost.

Decreased safety and decreased respect are the price cyclists pay for maintaining such an attitude. When I said this, they retorted by citing examples of large trucks which had different rules than passenger vehicles. These rules did not include the right to run red lights or stop signs. The rules were designed for safety, and in some ways reminded me of bike lanes, whose purpose is to accommodate different vehicles on the same road.

These cyclists didn’t see it that way. They wanted to believe that only cars should have to obey traffic signals. For cyclists, they argued, traffic signals should be optional.

Even when I pointed out how dangerous  it would be for all cyclists to ignore traffic signals, they were adamant in their position. Knowing this made me feel less safe on the roads.

Seeing many cyclists running red lights would make drivers resent cyclists even more and they would be less certain how a given cyclist would behave. This made me particularly nervous when I had to stop at an intersection with a car directly behind me.

I worried that the car wouldn’t stop because the driver would expect me to run through the red light. In essence, my greatest concern became getting rear ended by a motor vehicle.

Thoughts of being struck from behind and thrown head first over my handlebars began to preoccupy me when I was riding in traffic. I do use hand signals, but in my experience, many drivers are unfamiliar with the hand signal for “stop.”

I almost felt as if I was being forced to run through the lights just to avoid getting rear ended. As one who always obeys the traffic laws, whether on my bike or in my car, I didn’t like the idea of having to run red lights or stop signs — and I didn’t. Instead, I stopped and cringed.

After a couple of exchanges on my blog with the separate but equal crowd, I began to think that most cyclists shared their views primarily due to the number of drivers who claim that all of the cyclists they encounter run red lights. This made it seem like a large number.

Over the winter months, I didn’t see enough cyclists on the roads to determine whether more cyclists were disregarding the rules or not. But, once spring arrived, I was able to spend more time on the roads and watch the increase in cyclists that always accompanies milder weather.

Recently, I’ve noticed an influx of young male riders in the suburbs just outside of Boston. These young males have been riding in small groups. Some of them are dressed in full kit. Others are dressed in cycling specific attire. And still others are dressed in street clothes.

When I first noticed these young males, I expected to see a lot of reckless riding and red light running because they fit the stereotype of the irresponsible cyclists. What I saw instead surprised me.

Most of these young men stopped and waited at red lights. All of them slowed down together and stood at the red light chatting.

The first time I saw this, I thought it was a fluke. It didn’t seem possible that young males would ride bikes this way. Stopping at traffic lights didn’t look macho or cool. Yet the next few times I rode in that vicinity, I saw the same thing.

Even more remarkably, I saw several young men wearing reflective vests for night time visibility. This was in stark contrast to what I remember seeing a couple of years ago. At that time, I noticed a large number of young people, male and female, riding bikes without lights, without light colored clothing and without reflective gear.

I still see people who ride that way. But their numbers seem to be dwindling in comparison to the people who have begun to obey traffic laws and consider visibility and safety.

It’s still too early to get excited about this trend. I see it as a good thing. However, I expect to see push back from cyclists who do not want bicycles to act like cars. They, of course, will not see such a trend as a good thing.

As nice as the idea of separate but equal may seem, it can’t work when mutual cooperation and safety are paramount. Fighting traffic laws is a losing battle.

Maybe we should look at this as a temporary thing. If there were to come a time when roads were designed with bicycles in mind, separate signals might exist for cars and bikes or a design could be implemented to allow bikes to slow down and yield in places where cars would come to a full stop.

Such designs are probably very far off. And they may be little more than a pipe dream. Still, redesigning roads is a much better way to accommodate differences among vehicles than allowing some vehicles to disobey the laws while requiring others to obey them.

No doubt, some cyclists will disagree with me. But for the sake of cyclist safety, I hope they come to their senses before innocent cyclists begin to pay the price for what drivers see as scofflaw behavior and an attitude deserving of punishment.

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One Response to Separate But Equal Revisited

  1. Alex says:

    This makes me so happy to hear! I totally stand behind you on this. I’m a carless cyclist/pedestrian and it makes me so angry when other cyclists blow by me at red lights.
    I began cycling regularly while living in the Netherlands where they take the rules of the road extremely seriously. I was fined 35 Euro one night when my tail light was out, another friend was 50 Euro for going the wrong way down a one-way. And it makes sense. There are so many cyclists in the Netherlands it would be bedlam if they all just did whatever they wanted.
    The same holds true here as well: the more people that take to cycling the more chaos will ensue without some responsibility on the cyclist’s part.

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