Monday, March 24, 2008

Prejudice and intolerance

Chicago’s Mayor Daley introduced an ordinance last month that would impose fines ranging from $150 to $500 on motorists who turn left or right in front of someone on a bicycle; pass with less than three feet of space between car and bike; and open a vehicle door into the path of a cyclist.

When the Chicago Tribune posted the story on their website in the form of a very short two-paragraph piece. I thought the comments from readers that followed were disappointing.

One would have thought cyclists would have welcomed this as good news; instead, cyclists commented with attacks on car drivers, and of course, drivers responded. It showed that prejudice and intolerance between people who drive cars and cyclists is alive and well in Chicago, as it is the world over.

The same old rhetoric on each side; each one canceling the other out. Nothing achieved. Just a whole lot of hatred stirred up on both sides. Cyclists recalling times they have been hit, and their many near misses. Auto drivers using the same old clichés like, “Cyclists are always running red lights and stop signs.”

Just as in racial prejudice, the actions of a few are used to tarnish the whole group, and give the bigots an excuse for their verbal attacks and behavior. To say all cyclists disregard the laws of the road is akin to saying that all people of a certain ethnic group are criminals.

As cyclists, we can be guilty of the same prejudice. There are many bad drivers out there, and we tend to focus on these and view all drivers as the same. However, I still believe in human decency and that the majority of drivers would not deliberately put another human being in harms way.

Bad drivers are careless and inattentive, but still I believe it is a tiny minority that are malicious. By focusing on this minority, cyclists are practicing the same prejudice as drivers who condemn us for the actions of a few.

I do not run red lights, even if I stop and there is no vehicle coming in the opposite direction; I wait for the light to change. Not out of fear of getting a ticket, that possibility is remote. My reasons are simple, I would not do it in my car, and therefore if I expect others to view my bike as a vehicle; I must behave as any other vehicle.

In addition, when drivers expect me to ride though it creates a good impression when I don’t. A driver seeing me do this is more likely to think favorably of me, and maybe will exercise caution when he passes me a short distance down the road. It is human nature to show consideration for those we see in a good light.

The only exception to stopping on red would be, early in the morning and there is not another car in sight. My bike will not trigger the light, and after stopping and looking all around I go on through. No one sees me, no harm, no foul, and I have not really broken the law. I may have to wait an unreasonable time for a car to come along and change the light.

The same with stop signs, if I am in a quiet neighborhood and there is not another vehicle in sight, I slow, and then ride through. If there is other traffic there, I come to a complete stop and wait my turn. One of the grievances drivers have with cyclists is that they are unpredictable. No one can say I am unpredictable if I obey the law as if I were in my car.

Cyclists who run red lights and stop signs argue that they do it in the interest of their own safety, to stay ahead of traffic. Only another cyclist could understand this logic, to everyone else they are breaking the law. And it pisses people off.

You never stay ahead of traffic entirely, eventually the driver you pissed off at the last light will catch up, and when he does, he is then expected to treat you with respect and consideration.

Cyclists who still run red lights and stop signs might ask themselves this, “Am I really doing this in the interest of my own safety, or am I doing it out of habit because I have been doing it for so long, and because I can get away with it.”

This is not the first time I have touched on this subject, and as before, it is not my place to tell others what to do. However, verbally attacking drivers achieves nothing except to stir up more conflict. It is far more difficult to change the behavior of others, easier to change our own.

If cyclists stopped running red lights and stop signs, if nothing else, there would be one less piece of useless rhetoric that can be used against us.


Anonymous said...

I'd hazard a guess that there are more car drivers who roll through a "Stop" than there are cyclists who do the same. The difference is that the cyclist has a better view of any oncoming traffic.

Anonymous said...

My personal motto is: if there's a witness, I stop. Not "witness" in the legal sense (as in fear of getting a ticket), but "witness" in the sense of setting an example.

This brings to mind a post from Noah at KC Bike Commuting. In "Be an ambassador", he says "An ambassador is one who represents their kind to others. With a little courtesy and a lot of respect, you just might change the way people look at bicyclists, or at least bike commuters."

Respecting the traffic laws is a simple and nearly painless way every one of us can set an example for drivers, and for other cyclists as well.

Anyway, excellent post, Dave.

Anonymous said...

I *completely* agree with your thoughts!

Regarding red lights with sensors that don't detect you: This happens to me a lot when I am commuting early in the morning at certain intersections. When there are no cars around to trip the inductive-loop sensor in the pavement, I've learned to park myself right on the loop (which you can usually see in the pavement) and lower my bike down so most of the frame is near the pavement. If you have a conductive frame (i.e., metal, not carbon) this should work to trip the sensor. It works for me every time on the lights that cause me grief.

One early morning there was a group of cyclists waiting at a red in the bike lane. The cross street was busy, but the one we were on was not. They told me they'd already waited more than one cycle of the lights and were frustrated. I moved out in the car lane and lowered my bike. We had a green about ten seconds later.

Bujiatang said...

You have described my regard for traffic laws perfectly.

Anonymous said...

Excellent Post Dave. I ride in France a lot and they have a 1.5 meter rule for cars passing bikes, or just under 5 feet. They might drive fast, but they respect cyclists. Ah if it were only true in the States. I love what Randy wrote about being an ambassador. If we don't change, the drivers won't change.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! I agree completely.

Anonymous said...

I remember reading about how in some state, (Idaho?), bicyclists are legally allowed to treat stop signs like yield signs and red lights like stop signs.

Although I don't think this makes for good law, I do think this is the best practice. Save for a few soreheads, I don't think most drivers mind cyclists rolling through stop signs; they're pissed off by the clowns who blow through and violate their right of way.

I rarely come to the legally required full and complete stop. But I always slow down, yield to the cars that were there first, and even wave them through in case of a tie.

Incidentally, I believe most states allow vehicles to proceed against a red light that has failed to be triggered.

Anonymous said...

Jennifer here again. This inspired me to write a post on my blog about how European drivers in general respect cyclists (and how nice that is). I referenced this post, and quoted Randy's comment.

Anonymous said...

I understand where you come from, but I do not follow the same rules. As a working courier, I need to be faster than a car. If couriers waited at every stop sign and red light than they would surely become extinct in many American cities. My rule of thumb is to always be careful- do not cut off any driver when crossing intersections or taking right hand turns. If I made a driver even tap on his/her brakes I did a poor job. Safety first- make good time second.

If I rode in high speed suburban roads I would probably exercise much more caution and wait my turn at lights and stop signs.

SiouxGeonz said...

I think it's really sad that Chicago culture is so hostile. The Tribune posted an incredibly inflammatory "commentary" to the tune that cyclists were all smug, arrogant scofflaws who deserved to get put into comas. You can just imagine the comments after that one.

mander said...

I've been coming around to Dave's point of view. As per one of Dave's commandments, I will run reds and stop signs only when no one is around to see. Waiting it out, even on a stupid red where nothing is coming, is a small way to build a sense of community rather than enmity among road users.

Anonymous said...

Agree with the blog (as per usual) and the posters like randy, above (this site has an unusually high sense:stupidity ratio in comments).

I do disagree with anonymous @ 5:15. I think one of the things about cyclists that angers non-cyclists is the appearance that some who ride seem to think the rules don't apply to them and yet protect them when necessary. So, you're a messenger and it would inconvenience you or cost you money to slow down and obey traffic laws. You're in a tough spot. Your alternatives include riding faster between stops, working longer hours, or getting paid a higher hourly/per drop wage; none of those are probably likely. On balance, it's in the cycling-public good if cyclists are seen to obey traffic laws. Do you get stuck with many traffic violations? If you do, I would say that's just part of the job too.

Anonymous said...

Oh boy, I just blew away any small crumbs of credibility by mistyping about anonymous's @ 5:15 post. For the small readership record, I don't disagree with what the poster said.