The Trouble with Traffic Laws

06 December 2009 | commentary | Tags: , , , , , ,

CriticalMass.org posted a blurb about a study in the UK showing how women cyclists are more likely to get run down than men cyclists, apparently because they are far more likely to stop at red lights and stop signs and follow car traffic laws.

A commenter named Elijah responded by asserting that he felt safer for following the same rules as cars, and lambasted fellow cyclists for feeling to be “above the law”.

Sensing there was a point to be made regarding rules and practicality, and the actual point of traffic systems, I ended up writing kind of a long reply, so I’m reposting it here:

Elijah, you may personally feel comforted in obeying the laws, but that doesn’t mean you are actually any safer. And if this study was well-conducted, your sense of entitled protectedness may actually work against you statistically in the long-run.

The issue at hand is not whether bicyclists should be able to “get away with” breaking/bending traffic laws. The issue is whether, in practice, having bicyclists actually follow traffic laws results in safer conditions.

Traffic rules work not because they are correct, and certainly not because we as a society tested their effectiveness in simulated conditions before deploying them on American roads. They work because they establish shared expectations of how others will behave, so that each individual is able to make predictions about what other individuals will most likely do under a certain set of conditions.

Drivers do not expect bicyclists to follow the same traffic rules as cars. That perspective may be changing in some cities (perhaps in SF, where I too spend a lot of time dodging cars whether or not I follow the car traffic rules), but the fact is that bicycles have different capabilities and safety concerns than cars, and thus will always act differently than cars in various traffic circumstances, and thus will cause all traffic participants to make different assumptions about the behavior of bikes in traffic than for cars in traffic.

If ladies in Britain are getting run down because they’re not being seen by cars, it’s because cars don’t expect to have to look there. Right or wrong, the bicycling culture has produced a situation in which bikes are expected to jump the light rather than wait like sitting ducks among a mass of cars who can’t see them.

Traffic laws are guidelines, not declarations of absolute Truth. Many different systems will work in the same situation. The question is what combination of written rule and cultural convention which are closest to the current status quo will maximize safety.

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