Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Abiding By the Law

School just started for many students locally. It still takes some getting used to for me because I grew up in a place where no one even dreamed of being back in school until September, but I understand that weather likely plays a big part in the return-to-class reasoning here.

Like many morning travelers, I frequently find myself at intersections with children darting across roads and crossing guards attempting to keep some sort of order. There's a particular intersection that I travel through nearly daily at child-drop-off time in the morning. The intersection is set up so that the north-south bound traffic has no stop sign and only yields to the crossing guard (or someone walking through the crosswalk). The east-west bound traffic has a stop sign and waits for the traffic to clear before proceeding. There are also bike lanes that travel in all four directions, which is great.

I am no expert on traffic patterns or engineering, but I have assumed there are people far smarter than me who have determined that at this particular intersection it makes sense for traffic flow that two of the lanes of travel stop, and the other two do not. Yet, at least once a week as I approach the stop sign at this intersection on my bicycle, someone driving a motorized vehicle through the perpendicular road wants to stop where there is no stop sign and attempt to coerce me into proceeding through the intersection in front of them.
A non-perfect representation of the intersection in question.
As it happened, one day this week, this moment presented itself again. I was traveling west to the intersection where I would meet up with the stop sign. I had signaled that I was coming out of the bike lane to make a left hand turn as I was approaching the intersection. At that moment, there were no vehicles behind me as the parents were busy dropping off their children. I stopped at the stop sign as I am supposed to do, looked both ways (which is not easy at this intersection as there are always lots of large vehicle parked along the street, blocking the view) and could see that there were vehicles coming in both directions on the road to which I was planning to turn.

On the north-west side of the intersection was a crossing guard who was holding back individuals to allow some of the road traffic to get by. I was waiting for the traffic to get through (or for the crossing guard to stop the traffic to allow my left turn to the south) when suddenly a truck behind me started honking, presumably at me as I was not yet moving due to the vehicles traveling through the intersection. As I looked to the north, a woman sitting in her SUV was waving at me to travel through in front of her. I vehemently shook my head and waved for her to make her turn, to which she finally acquiesced, as I muttered about people who don't follow the laws.

I understand what this woman in the SUV was likely thinking. I "get" that she believes she is extending a nice gesture by allowing me to pedal out in front of her before she makes her turn, but the truth is that she 1) does not need to do this as traffic flow will allow me to pass within a few seconds if she just proceeded through, 2) is technically breaking the law by doing so (and forcing me to break the law if I went through as she'd wanted), and perhaps most importantly 3) is potentially causing me to have a run-in with injury or death.

When traveling on roadways, I find that there can be two extremes with people driving motorized vehicles. One side wants to continuously yield to cycling traffic, regardless of who actually has the right-of-way, instead of treating those on bikes like any other vehicular traffic; and the other side will do anything in their power to try to keep cyclists off what they view as roads meant only for motorized traffic. Both of these types of people are potentially dangerous.

On one hand, I understand why many motorists want to yield to cyclists regardless of the circumstances because I've witnessed instances when some on bicycles blow through stop signs/lights, ride on the wrong side of the street, and perform other acts as though there is no one else traveling on the road. I suppose for those who do this, it's easy to understand why a motorist could be unsure of what someone on a bicycle is going to do. However, this thought process falls apart when it is apparent and obvious that the cyclist in question is doing what should be done -- in this case, halting at a stop sign.

As the woman turned in front of me to head away from where I stood waiting to proceed, she shook her head at me, rolled down her window and told me that I "should've just gone." But, before I could respond to her, she was well on her way in the opposite direction. However, the air around me got an ear-full, despite it being an entirely useless rant.

As someone who rides a bike regularly, I understand that there are times when a person on a bicycle who breaks the law can be a safer option than following the letter of the law. Until streets are built everywhere that allow for different modes of transportation to travel with ease and safety, I think this is just a reality. I am absolutely not advocating for cyclists to break the law, but I am stating that I have found myself in situations where it made more sense for safety's sake to bend the rules a bit.

However, when a motorist is attempting to get someone on a bicycle to put him/herself in harms way, I absolutely must protest. While the intention of the motorist may be one of good will, many simply don't understand what they are doing to a vulnerable road user. While the sentiment is appreciated, the actual action has potential to cause far more harm than good.


  1. You described on of my biggest pet peeves. When drivers try to be "nice" to bicyclists - not knowing it is at the expense of the safety of the cyclist. As you outline, the drivers are often offended if the cyclist declines. Again, not realizing they have put the cyclist in potential danger. Experienced cyclists decline anyway. They know making the driver feel good is not worth the risk. Or they pretend to be looking elsewhere or doing something else (to avoid conflict).

    If everyone in America grew up cycling, like in Amsterdam or Copenhagen, drivers would know how dangerous it can be to deviate from the basic rules of the road. If schools taught our children basic bicycle safety, drivers in America would know what cyclists are doing and why. That is not yet, the world we live in.

    All of us, and every teacher in America can recite basic safety measures on what to do if a child's clothes catch on fire. Stop Drop and Roll! Those rules came about when every home in America had some form of open flame. Today, the vast majority of homes no longer have open flame, or it is very limited. The risks have shifted to other areas and our education program has not caught up.

    Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about bicycle safety. I think we would be hard pressed to scare up many parents or teachers in America that possess any idea about basic bicycle safety. That needs to change. If we can teach our children, they will make better drivers and hopefully, they can teach their hard-case parents!

    1. I have definitely done the "I'm looking somewhere else" thing in order to avoid confrontation with a motorist. It's not ideal, but on the road is not the place I want to get into an argument about what is safe or not, so sometimes it's just the better option.

      I agree that there is a disconnect with education when we are young here in the U.S. in regard to bicycles and safety on the roads, and if it was added into the curriculum being taught in schools it would be very beneficial for the future. I have seen a few one-day courses offered in elementary schools on bicycle safety, but because it is not considered a viable means of transportation in the U.S. to most people, I think something that is offered more regularly would be beneficial.

      I have to wonder if it will change here because oil (and all that goes with it, including new car sales) is such a big part of the economy. Plus, we build cities that aren't necessarily conducive to traveling via bicycle. There's always the argument from motorists that they own the road (believing that they are the only ones paying for them, which is untrue), and this belief only exacerbates problems.

    2. I meant to mention our local (Tucson, AZ) organization dedicated to making streets safer and more inviting to pedestrians and bicyclists. Education is an important part of their role.

      Living Streets Alliance

      If you don't have such an organization in your locale, here is your chance to have the accomplishment of "founder" attached to your name!

    3. This is wonderful!! It sounds as though the organizers were able to bring together a variety of individuals so that different aspects of livable/usable street use comes together in one place.

      We have a bicycle advocacy group locally, but I think this idea is more all-encompassing so that it hits on needs for pedestrians, cyclists and public transportation users.

      Thank you for the link!

  2. I know they mean well, but I feel the same way you do about these overly helpful drivers. Just follow the rules, and we'll all be better off. In addition to the "looking the other way" maneuver, I've discovered the value of planting my feet on the pavement and reaching for my water bottle!

  3. I've done the reach-for-the-water-bottle maneuver too. Funny how we learn these coping techniques, huh? :)

  4. I don't run into this scenario very often, though it could be the roads I travel. We have crossing guards who seem to do a great job with the children. If I feel unsafe and a motorist wants me to dangerously cross in front of them, I usually point to the area in question and shake my head "no".

    As there have become more cyclists on the road, more needless biker deaths, more close calls, etc. I've long thought that young drivers should be educated in schools and at driver education curriculum (I've written a blog post on that topic a few years ago) to the potential dangers of passing, yielding, etc. around cyclists. It wasn't until this year, when my oldest teenager took drivers ed, that he said our local advocacy group was involved in their classes. It's a small step forward...

    1. Annie, It's nice to know that (at least in some areas) bicycle advocacy groups are becoming involved with drivers education classes. I hope this continues to be the trend and that before long it's just standard practice across the U.S.


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