Wet and Cool; Traffic Laws

January 26th, 2012

There was a dusting of snow last night, so I begrudgingly went back to the commuter bike today. Temperature was 33 degrees, so a good temperature for my setup.

Clothing: Rain pants, waterproof shoes, heavy winter coat, wool gloves.

For some reason, whether to obey traffic laws on the bike is a contentious topic. I’ve found that moral questions aside, there’s little reason not to do so: you get to your destination at the same speed and without stress by stopping at lights.*

However, I think the reason many people do not wait for lights is simply a matter of habit and culture, and they justify these irrational behaviors with arguments about safety and convenience (which may have some validity in suburban conditions, but not in urban ones). On my route to work, I often take Hampshire Street in Cambridge to Broadway, make a left, and continue to the Longfellow Bridge. At that left turn, there is a phase that, in the morning, generally causes one to wait with no cars passing through the intersection for about twenty seconds. On some days, there will be cyclists piled ten deep waiting patiently for their signal, on others everyone will burn through that left turn with not a soul waiting. I will stop to wait, and cyclists pile up behind me (there is generally still space to go around me and go through the light, yet they choose to do so).

This experiment indicates to me that most bikers follow the lead of the person in front of them. I know that when I first started riding for transportation a few years ago in New York, I rode like the deliverymen and messengers I had watched all my life: cutting into intersections between speeding cars, and weaving between trucks and cars and riding in their blind spots. (That was a really stupid time.) I did get scared, and started researching safe riding behavior, and learned about taking the lane, waiting for lights, avoiding the door zone, and I changed my behavior

The point is that because there is no real cyclist education, observation of others is how people learn to ride in traffic. When there are more people intentionally misbehaving (and that’s what it is), there is a multiplier effect as others haplessly imitate them.

You don’t have to agree with me from reading this: go and watch the traffic patterns and see whether I’m right.

* I’m not going to pretend to be perfect here. At an empty intersection which I’m familiar with, I will go if I think it’s safe and it will save me time.

2 Responses to “Wet and Cool; Traffic Laws”

  1. cycler Says:

    I like to think that people are more likely to observe the law when someone else does, but I’m not so sure it’s actually true. I just say this because I see a lot of people blowing past me when I’m stopped at lights.
    I persevere however, because for me it’s just simpler than making a split second decision on whether the intersection is really clear or if I have time to make it.
    I hope to model good behavior to other cyclists, and I also think it’s just more polite to the cars who are patiently waiting at a light for me not to break the law right in front of them.

  2. Weather Out There » Blog Archive » Two Ways to Run Reds; Cool and Dry Says:

    […] derided, whereas the latter is hotly debated. (As regular readers may know, I am generally against it.) I won’t say more except that drivers tend to view all red light running as the former, […]

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