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I recently saw a YouTube channel where a motorist with an agenda has taken it upon himself to film cyclists as they break traffic laws. Most (perhaps not all) of the actions I observed would be what I consider reasonable out of necessity or convenience (nb: cycling bias!), such as:

  • riding between the parking lane and the traffic lane.
  • passing on the right when safe.
  • yielding in lieu of stopping.

In most jurisdictions where a Motor Vehicle Act is applied to non-conventional vehicles in the roadway (electric, pedal, etc.), there seems to be an unspoken grey area where the letter of the law is not recognized by cyclists.

Has anyone codified this grey area in traffic law vs. etiquette in a way that's better defined & acceptable to both motorists & cyclists? (Arguably everything should be covered by traffic laws.) Could a better definition of this grey area help justify the need for special consideration under the law, or do you think "bikes are traffic, period"?

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In the Netherlands, apart from some separate rules like you list, we have a "special condition" applicable to cyclists (or non-motorized traffic in general, really). In the case of an accident involving both a motorized traffic participant (a car) and a non-motorized one (cyclists or pedestrian) the motorized participant is considered the guilty party unless he can prove he isn't. This rule is intended to make motorized traffic more attentive to their more vulnerable non-motorized counterparts, and I think it really works. –  jilles de wit Oct 20 '10 at 11:40
    
You should post that as an answer :) –  Mark Ingram Oct 26 '10 at 15:25

6 Answers 6

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Before posting this list, I need to preface it with my position that riding in a predictable manner, as much like a 'vehicle' as possible is safest to me. To a large degree I disagree with treating bicycles differently because:

  • It confuses interaction with motorists, especially at intersections where the risk is highest for cyclists.

  • Not all motorists or cyclist will know their rights/responsibilities. It's hard enough to educate both side now.

  • I think the time/speed/safety gains for the average cyclist would be very small.

That said there are exceptions in almost every jurisdiction already, allowing use on paths and sidewalks, allowing passing on the right, etc. - these are the common arguments I hear in favor of different treatment, primarily as it relates to an Idaho style 'Stop as Yield' law:

  • Bicyclists have to expend their own energy to start and stop--it's a courtesy to let them pass just as it is to yield to someone carrying something heavy or bulky.

  • Bicyclists have better awareness of surroundings (better field of vision, higher than cars. fewer distractions).

  • Bicyclists can avoid collisions better (sharper turning radius, much less width, less speed and weight to manage, can become flush with the side of the road almost instantly, can stop in a shorter distance);

  • Most bicyclists treating a stop as a yield pass through stop signs at a similar speed as most motorists (who usually don't stop), but comparing the straightaway speed difference, it may seem like the motorist is "stopping" while the cyclist isn't.

  • Stopped cyclists are unable to avoid the pollution of stopped cars. Pollution tends to be highest at stops.

  • Cyclists waiting in traffic can cause more problems for all--not only by blocking turns (which often elicits prejudicial anger from motorists) but there is an increased chance of being rear-ended for the cyclist. (Proper lane positioning avoids this - gr)

  • Frequent stopping is associated with long-term chronic knee problems from the pressure required to start again.

  • Most cyclists responsibly "run" stop signs at present, showing that the law simply doesn't work for people.

  • Cyclists don't endanger the public as cars do and have not been properly accommodated for--this is due in large part to short-sighted planning that doesn't recognize the benefits of cycling.

  • Places that treat bicyclists as special users, with high levels of accommodation have much lower bicycle fatality rates than the USA (e.g., Netherlands, about 1/13 our fatality rates per mile traveled). One of the reasons is that they give cyclists a head start through red lights, with special zones ahead of motor traffic, and special bicycle-only green lights.

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Upvoted for the nice list of reasons to prefer "stop as yield" laws. –  Brian Campbell Oct 19 '10 at 22:46
    
Great answer, fair and balanced view of the issues. –  Andrew Vit Oct 20 '10 at 2:28

I think bikes are indeed, traffic, and should follow all the appropriate laws. In the ideal world, of course, some of those laws might consider the fact that bikes are vehicles, and include whatever provisions make sense for bikes.

That said, sure, there are plenty of cyclists out there that break traffic laws, just as there are many drivers who do as well. I honestly don't feel that one group concentrating on the other leads to any good. You do what you can to be a considerate and skilled driver, and I'll do what I can to be a considerate and skilled cyclist.

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Thats no reason why the laws can't be different. There are different laws for freeways for example. You could allow cyclists to turn right (or left in UK) on red for example or have an advance stop line. –  mgb Oct 19 '10 at 22:16
    
Sure the laws can be different, or have different sections for cyclists. But unless those laws specifically say you can ignore other laws, you don't get to do so. And I'd argue that a law that says "ignore this other law" is badly written ;) –  zigdon Oct 19 '10 at 22:23

I think the answer is definitely yes, and this is certainly the case in Australia. Of the three examples you have cited, two of them are explicitly allowed under the road rules for cycling:

  • Passing on the outside (i.e. left, as we ride and drive on the opposite side of the road to you guys), and
  • Riding between the parking lane and the traffic.

However, as well as special rights, we should expect that there are also specific responsibilities for us cyclists. Again, in Australia, we are not allowed to ride more than two abreast in a traffic lane.

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I believe that the rules for cyclists should be mostly the same, to prevent confusion and keep traffic moving smoothly, but not exactly the same. They are vehicles, yes, but they have somewhat different safety and performance characteristics, that mean that rules specially tailored for bicycles make sense.

For one thing, there are plenty of rules that are already different for cyclists as motorists. You don't need a license to ride a bike, nor does it need to be registered (note that for anything I mention, there may be some jurisdictions in which it's not true; I'm discussing the most common cases). Bicycles are allowed to ride on bike paths, and on the sidewalks in some locations and jurisdictions (usually, outside of business districts).

In many jurisdictions, bicycles are allowed to pass on the right (left in left-side driving countries), and ride between traffic and parked cars. You don't mention what state or country you live in, but in my state, it's allowed: "the bicycle operator may keep to the right when passing a motor vehicle which is moving in the travel lane of the way."

Furthermore, treating stop signs as yields, and red lights as stops, is legal in Idaho, and seems to have no ill effects there. As this is the way that I see the majority of cyclists actually ride, and doesn't appear to significantly affect safety, I advocate trying to get this style of law passed in more places, but while it's been proposed in a few other locations it's never passed.

So yes, exceptions for bicycles have been codified into law in some places. There is an active debate about whether similar laws should be passed in other locations. Some people advocate for "same road, same rules," while others advocate for a more nuanced approach that gives bicyclists the right to use the road, while also acknowledging that they have different needs than other road users.

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Considering that:

  • Cyclists are more vulnerable than motorists

  • Every time someone choose to bicycle instead of drive, everyone benefits

We should absolutely give cyclists special traffic laws. We should adjust the laws to make bicycling safer (e.g., car vs. bike accidents automatically the driver's fault) and more attractive (e.g. STOP is a YIELD for a bicycle).

While we're at it, let's stop spending tax money on improving driving infrastructure, and direct it to walk/bike/bus infrastructure.

Also, let's lower all the speed limits by 10mph. That makes walking & biking more pleasant, and reduces the time advantage that cars have over other options.

(Marking as community wiki because this is subjective and argumentative.)

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Lowering the speed limit is probably only going to infuriate drivers, unfortunately. Drivers going through the main street of my town with a 25mph speed limit (and a police force not shy about writing tickets) are nasty and belligerent. These same drivers on the side streets are considerate and polite. Similarly, when the US passed a nationwide 55mph sped limit, few drivers on the highways followed it. –  Neil Fein Oct 20 '10 at 2:30
    
@neilfien: Unhappy drivers benefit no one. sigh –  Jay Bazuzi Oct 20 '10 at 14:56
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Perhaps an overall review of speed limits. In my town, there's places where it's 50mph on very crowded, narrow roads, with lots of cars turning into/out of heavily populated shopping areas. It's very dangerous to drive in that area and suicidal to even consider cycling there. Then, just outside of town there's wide open, rarely used roads, nothing around and the speed limit is an infuriatingly low 35mph... –  Brian Knoblauch Oct 20 '10 at 19:48
    
I without question agree with your first two points. Government needs to give incentives to promote behavior that is beneficial to the society. –  sixtyfootersdude Oct 21 '10 at 10:02

Washington state has a fantastic example - RCW 46.61.790: Intoxicated bicyclists. In the US, DUI laws came into effect due to the overwhelming danger of operating motor vehicles while intoxicated. The rationale for the penalties associated with these laws make little sense when applied to bicycles, and the Washington legislature agreed. In fact, the state traffic laws were rewritten to specifically define laws that apply to 'vehicles' and those that apply only to 'motor vehicles'.

Practically speaking, it seems that nearly all roadway users take liberties with the letter of the law, and many roadway users engage in multiple modes. I myself have been known to drive 5mph over the speed limit, roll a stop sign on my bike, and jaywalk all in the course of the same afternoon. It can be dangerous to make these sorts of conversations about any single class of user, and instead more useful to discuss the rationale behind the laws and the appropriate level of enforcement or alternative solutions.

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