OBEY ...?

First there was this (short answer: no) and there was this rejoinder from the Bike Snob and subsequently there's been a whole internet conversation about cyclists and laws and what anyone anywhere should or shouldn't have to do in order to be considered a worthwhile user of the road or some other such thing. I find the whole debate, such as it is, to be less than illuminating and only have a few thoughts to share, none of which themselves are especially profound:

1. I don't really care if you follow traffic laws. I don't lose sleep over it. I don't wring hands. Just please do not kill, maim, injure or aggrieve me or anyone else and I'll pretty much be ok. I'll admit that maybe I should care more and if you tried hard, you might be able to persuade me, but as of right now, I just can't really get worked up about it.

2. I tend to think that we overemphasize "following laws" as as kind of panacea for safety. There are many cases in which everyone is following the letter and spirit of the law in which bad things still happen. This is why I'm much more in the engineering camp than the education or enforcement camp. These latter two things do work and can be useful, but they're not nearly as important as good, separated cycling facilities. Like, think about it this way: we don't just tell pedestrians to follow traffic laws, we have sidewalks and we don't just teach people in drivers ed not to run over pedestrians or occasionally do safety campaigns where we ask the police to ticket drivers who come too close to pedestrians. Sidewalks are great and they're great precisely because of what they do!

And one last thing, a thought experiment of sorts. Imagine two scenarios:

- All cyclists and pedestrians everywhere follow all traffic laws; drivers behave exactly as they do now.

- All drivers everywhere follow all traffic laws; cyclists and pedestrians behave exactly as they do now.

There's no doubt in my mind that the first scenario would definitely see a reduction in cyclist and pedestrian injuries and deaths. Crashes that resulted from cyclist and pedestrian law-breaking would be reduced and fewer cyclists and pedestrians would die. Hooray!

But there's equally no doubt in my mind that the results of scenario 2 would be vastly better than the first scenario. Not only would fewer cyclists and pedestrians die, but so would fewer drivers. How many drivers currently die from crashes related to speeding? Drunk driving? Safe following distance? Lights at night? Turn signals? Et cetera? Not an insubstantial amount! In fact, a lot. How many drivers die from a cyclist running a red light crashing into their car? Exactly. How many pedestrians die from cars "jumping the curb"? How many drivers die when (if?) a guy headbutts your car? So, it would seem to me, that in the aggregate (especially considering that the overwhelming majority of transportation trips are in cars) that given the choice in spending limited resources on getting cyclists to follow traffic laws or getting drivers to follow the law, it sort of seems like a no brainer. Not only does it help people who walk or bike, but it would help people who drive and given that many, many people drive and they are nice people and a life is a life, that would seem, in a kind of utilitarian sense, a better idea. Cyclists and pedestrians and motorists are different and messages that everyone has the same rights and responsibilities tends to elide over these differences. We can continue to be willfully ignorant about the differences and do the whole "pox on both your houses" thing, but that doesn't seem to be working and it especially doesn't seem to be working when bicycle and pedestrian advocates do it (e.g. the Bike Snob post).

Now, obviously, having everyone, regardless of how they get around, follow traffic laws would seem be to an even better outcome than either of the two scenarios. But that brings me back to the fact that, based on my observations, maybe there are more important and effective things we can do to promote safety and solely emphasize following the law and assuming that this will cure all of our ills.

1 comment:

  1. All I'm looking for is a little predictability. Exactly what the law says isn't as important to me as having everybody operating from the same basic rulebook. So I can reasonably depend that if the cross street has a red sign that says STOP, people are probably going to stop there. If we all agreed to ignore red signs - that would be okay with me, because I'd know that the truck is probably going to cruise on through and I should stop if I value my life.