Riding in Traffic
In Jan or Feb of 1982 of VeloNews there was a letter written in response to a comment or letter in a previous issue, and the topic was riding in traffic. Thee original writer wrote in complaining about his fellow bike riders not obeying the rules of the road, endangering themselves and creating ill-will toward all bike riders by not doing so. We’ve heard that before, because it still goes on. “How can we expect THIS if we do THAT?”
Roger Durham, then around 45 or so and the owner of Bullscye Components (hubs, cranks, pedals) wrote a rebuttal to the letter, a super nervy, un-pc rebuttal, in which he advocated “riding for survival” as opposed to behaving like a car driver. He recommended minimizing the time you spent in the mix with cars, and suggested that riding to survive sometimes meant riding the wrong way on streets—not as a rule, but when the right way was crowded or dangerous for another reason and the wrong way seemed fine; and on sidewalks when the road is packed with cars; and through red lights when there’s no cross traffic, and doing so would give you that much more carless riding, as the cars sat there back behind the red.
I thought at the time, wow, people are going to be mad at Roger. They’ll probably boycott Bulls eye. I don’t think the boycott ever happened, but I’ve no doubt it would happen now, because with the Internet and all, it’d be easy to twist things around some and organize a boycott.
Oddly, Idaho has this thing called, commonly called the “Idaho Stop,” which allows bike riders to slow a bit, check first, and ride through stop signs and red lights. It’s been in effect since 1983, and bike accidents have not increased. Objectively, it seems to be a success. It still irks people, but they can’t point to an increased number of accidents as proof that it doesn’t work. Google “Idaho Stop.”
Driving or riding in traffic, and just living a life, is about predicting things. You predict your neighbor won’t kill you tonight. You predict the restaurant food hasn’t been poisoned. You predict red lights will stop all cars. When you can’t predict, or aren’t confident of your predictions, you’re more careful. Maybe that’s what’s going on with the Idaho Stop. Drivers can’t be so sure that there won’t be a careless bike rider entering the intersection at the wrong time. Maybe they’ve learned to look and be extra careful.
Some other states have tried to pass the “Idaho stop.” The argument is that it encourages riding, because losing all your momentum at a stoplight, times ten or fifteen stoplights on a bicycle trip, is enough of a bummer to keep people off bikes. That argument doesn’t sit well with opponents of the Idaho Stop, but it is the main argument for it.
Another argument against it is the danger to kids, whose brains aren’t developed and who can’t make the good judgments that adults can. The argument against that is that laws aren’t, and shouldn’t be, aimed at the lowest common denominator. If they were, lots of laws would have to be changed, and the non-lowest common denominators would be hugely inconvenienced.
People LOVE this stuff, because everybody’s an instant and automatic expert on what the right thing to do is.
Here’s another twist on it. You’re eating at a restaurant, and a guy walks in with a pocketknife in his pocket. Should he be seated? What if instead of the pocketknife, he had a loaded gun? I know an imperfect analogy, but it makes the question: Should less dangerous toys have to abide by the same rules as more dangerous ones? When children play, is the plastic toy gun as bad as the real one? Is that just another lousy analogy? Should a wiffle ball and be banned from the backyard? I have tried my hand at many things, but this is my first crack at analogies. How lousy are they? (Rhetorical question, please don’t write and tell me.)
Lousy or not, consider that if a bike rider smacks into a motorists, the damage done to the motorist is a lot less than it would be if the bike rider were in a car. If I hit a pedestrian on my bike at 15 mph, some carnage will ensue, but mostly cussing. If a car hits the pad at 15mph, maybe death, at least broken bones, maybe lifetime paralysis. YES, a bike rider who hits a ped just the wrong way can do those things too, but most victims would prefer the bike.
A rider who enters an intersection is like the small fish in the pound. The car is the shark. These are facts (analogies aside). They aren’t arguments for or against the Idaho Law. A car is way, way more dangerous. Car drivers are less aware of their surroundings. They’re more likely to be distracted by things going on inside the car, and they absolutely feel less vulnerable, more protected, and so are more likely to not care, or not be as careful.
There’s also the issue that, if a bike rider scares a driver by suddenly appearing out of nowhere, that might start a chain reaction leading to a multiple-car accident. This possibility quickly leads to the Domino Theory, which takes us off track. But briefly, if you want to pursue the Domino Theory, at least do it fully and consider the long-term repercussions of being hit by a car, versus being hit by a bike.
Kind of related to that is: When a bike replaces a car, are the roads safer for everybody? Of course you can have a super lousy bike rider and a super safe driver, but in general, I mean, is it better to drive golf whiffle balls in the picnic area of the local park, or real golf balls? Another lousy analogy, I’m sure.