True confessions of a bicycle scofflaw
Photo: mad driversOkay, confession time: I’m one of “those” cyclists.
You know, the ones who are giving us all a bad name, the ones who think we’re above the law, who regularly pass through stop signs without stopping — even without slowing down very much. I even ran a red light or two in my younger, brasher days.
Well, scofflaw that I am, I do get yelled at plenty. Drivers hate me! And they have every right to — after all, as they are careful to roll down their windows and snarl or shout, with some degree of profanity — I am *not on the sidewalk.*
Yep, that’s right. It’s not running stop signs that gets me yelled at. I raise public ire — at least once a week, even in bike-friendly Portland — only when I do something that’s totally, mundanely legal. I’ll explain.
My egregious behavior at intersections, despite its openness, regularity, and the potential expense of racking up $242 tickets, is largely ignored by fellow road users, including the ones with flashing lights on their cars. Until a recent mini-media-flurry surrounding running red lights, the issue hadn’t come up in the local media in over a year. I was beginning to think I was off the hook for good.
But since it’s back, How do I get away with this unruly behavior? Because, let’s face, it, it’s unremarkable. I ride my bike in the same way that I drive a car, and that most people drive, ride, or walk: predictably, considerately, and holding safety as a higher priority than the law.
More specifically, I take Gandhi’s exhortation to “be the change you want to see” to heart and behave as though the Idaho stop law, that paragon of reasonability that allows people on bicycles to treat stop signs as though they were yield signs, already existed in Oregon. I prefer to focus on the action rather than the inaction, the positive rather than the negative, so I simply call it “yielding.”
Here is what intelligent yielding means: At any given intersection, regardless of signage, I slow down and look around. If there is someone waiting to cross the street on foot, or if another bicycle or a car has the right of way, I come to a complete stop with my foot on the ground. If none of these things is happening, I go on ahead. This video describes it well.
Rolling through stop signs is something each of you dear readers does every day, whether you drive, bike, walk, or jog. Pay attention tonight when you’re out and about — you’ll notice that you don’t stop completely and count to three before proceeding, like you were taught in driver’s ed.
But your yielding behavior works. Yes, there are people out there — in cars or on bikes — who yield badly or not at all. And there are streets where yielding conventions are broken. (Many busy arterials, for instance, fail to provide cues for people in cars to yield to people walking or biking, leading to situations like the one in which a Georgia woman was blamed when a driver struck and killed her 4-year-old son while they were trying to walk across a dangerous street.) But by and large, we manage to navigate intersections peacefully, even though we often don’t come to a complete stop.
So when do I get yelled at, if not for stop sign violations? Another part of riding predictably and safely means “taking the lane” — riding right down the middle whenever possible, and merging right to let faster traffic pass whenever that is safe and necessary. But that’s when I get yelled at and swerved around. That is when I get lectured while stopped at a stoplight about “all you” cyclists or sworn at and told to get on the sidewalk.
It’s understandable — these drivers have learned to expect cyclists to ride unsafely, hugging the line of parked cars, in danger of being “doored” whenever not swerving unpredictably to the right at intersections. Or they expect us to be on the sidewalk — the least safe place you can possibly ride a bike, and in many places illegal.
That’s right — despite my crimes (well, technically they’re misdemeanors), I only seem to cause a PR problem for cycling when I am behaving with perfect, obnoxious compliance with both the letter and the spirit of the law.
Yet there’s a persistent meme out there, spread by bike advocates and bike haters alike, that we two-wheeled travelers need to earn our right to the road by absolute adherence to stop sign laws. This is smoke and mirrors. What we really need are streets that bring out the best in us — streets that are slow and safe enough that we can intelligently negotiate our interactions in traffic with each other.
We’re not only capable of yielding to each other in a polite, safe, and orderly way that happens to be illegal, we already do it every day.