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Cyclists & The Rules Of The Road


Two Toronto bike cops doing security for a protest. Nothing to do with post other than they're cops on bikes.

Today, the popular Toronto Blog BlogTO had a piece written by Derek Flak about whether or not cyclists should have to play by the same rules as cars on the roads. The article was called, predictable, “Should cyclists have to play by the same rules as cars?” What Derek Flak means when he asked that question is if a cyclist judges an intersection to be safe is it OK for him/her to just ignore a red light or stop sign. Derek opines that cyclists are “[a]lways something of a grey area when it comes to traffic laws…” Really Derek? You go on to acknowledge in your article that under the Ontario Highway Traffic Act cyclists are responsible just like other road users to obey all traffic laws but you don’t seem to think that is much of an issue. I am not a lawyer – and maybe one of my favorite commenters who is one will weigh in here when this article is posted – but seems to me that no matter if a law is generally followed or not it is still the law and you can still get in trouble for disobeying it, and rightly so.

A friend of mine’s brother once walked across the opening to a private street (in many people’s opinion it is more of a driveway, here’s a link to Google Street View of the intersection) and the 16 year old kid was given a ticket for jaywalking because it was a red light for him. He didn’t pay it and got his permit (not his license, his permit) suspended, which we all thought was absolutely hilarious at the time. Now, do people jaywalk across major streets all the time? Sure they do. Did most of us even consider where this guy walked across a real side street? Nope. But, the law says it is a street therefore it is a street and the cop was perfectly correct in giving the kid a ticket.

Derek Flak’s reasoning for why it is OK for bikes to disobey the rules of the road are:

  • They don’t even take up a full lane.
  • When a bike hits a motorized vehicle they will’ lose’ (bear the brunt of the collision and more likely be harmed) pretty much every single time.

I will deal with these 2 reasons and why I think they are not valid arguments.

  • Bikes don’t take up a full lane? Guess what, neither do motorcycles, scooters or mopeds! Do they have to obey the laws of the road? Of course they do!
  • Yes, this is completely and totally true. When a bike hits a car (or vice versa) going any speed above a crawl 9.9 times out of 10 the person on the bike is in trouble likely going to be hurt whereas the person in the car is likely not even going to notice…though they might need to get their paint job fixed up. But why does that matter? They are both vehicles on the road and must share it as such by law. No one is stopping the cyclist from getting a license and a car. By the logic of Derek Flak, a full sized sedan is ALWAYS at fault when it is in an accident with a Smart Car by virtue of the fact that those things are tiny compared to a full sized car. Does that mean the sedan is always at fault and the Smart Car doesn’t have to obey the rules of the road? Can we set up a hierarchy of cars so if I am in my Pontiac G5 GT and I see an 18-wheeler I can just throw caution to the wind because if we get into a high speed collision how can I be blamed? His vehicle is so much bigger than mine! I don’t have to follow the rules when I am around him in such a small car. (Yes, I realize that this last part is a slippery slope argument and not cogent, sue me.)

Further, if cyclists are not held accountable to the law and they start ignoring it what happens when you’re on the street and you just ignore the rules of the road is the possibility that the car swerves of of the way of the cyclist ignoring the law and smashes into another car…or maybe the car causes a pileup swerving into oncoming traffic…or maybe jumps a curb and hits pedestrians on the sidewalk? There are reasons there are laws and rules for the road – it is to keep everyone safe.

Before I go on, I would like to mention that BlogTO has a poll up on that post which I have pictured above and on the left and linked here. The poll asks:

“Should cyclists be held to the same rules of the road as motor vehicles?”

The choices with their current percentages of the vote are:

YES – LIKE IT OR NOT, IT’S THE LAW. 45.98%

NO – IT WOULD BE SILLY IN SOME SITUATIONS. 16.86%

SEPARATE RULES SHOULD BE DRAWN UP FOR CYCLISTS, AND THEY SHOULD BE PUNISHED WHEN THEY DON’T COMPLY. 37.16%

(In case you are wondering I voted yes).

Part of the reason I voted yes is I remember a couple of years ago I was driving downtown on Bathurst Street in Toronto, a few blocks north of St. Clair St West approaching an intersection and having slowed down because the light was solid red as I approached the intersection from quite a ways away. As I got closer to the intersection, still probably doing 20 KM/hour (I could be way off all I know is I wasn’t going very fast) and with my foot off the gas just coasting the light turned green! I hit the gas and accelerated through the intersection beginning my acceleration from about 20-30 feet before the actual intersection. I went through the intersection and suddenly heard a bang on my car. I pulled over to the side of the road just north that Shell station you see in the Street View of the intersection and got out of my car to see a biker, mostly unharmed except for some scrapes getting up. I offered him some band aids I had in the car (he took some) and asked him what the heck had just happened. He told me he had been coming west on Lonsdale Rd onto Claxton Blvd and saw the light go red for him but didn’t see me (because I was way behind the intersection still coasting at that point). He decided to go through it anyway – ya, he was IGNORING THE RULES OF THE ROAD – and by the time he saw my car it was too late so he T-boned into the back panel of the car behind the back seat door. I didn’t see any damage on my car and he looked fine but I was quite shaken anyway. But let’s go back and pretend he had been fast enough to have been seen by me because he was in the intersection a couple of seconds earlier (but when the light was already red for him)…what if I had tried to get out of his way and careened into the giant brick wall on the island between the east and west bound lanes of Claxton Blvd? What if there had been cars waiting to go east onto Lonsdale Rd or south onto Bathurst? What if I had smashed into the Shell gas station? All those don’t sound like very happy outcomes for me, the driver of a car, because of a cyclist ignoring the rules of the road and the Ontario Highway Traffic Act due to the amazing ability of people on bikes to see that the intersection is “empty”.

A Stop Sign in Toronto. I don't see anywhere where it says, "If you think you should" or "Not if you're on a bicycle".

In regard to the cyclist only disobeying traffic laws in “empty” intersections and that’s where they’ve been getting ticketed (in New York City) I, as a driver, have never been given a ticket for running a stop sign (or doing a “rolling stop”) when I saw the intersection had people and cars in it. What kind of idiot would run a stop sign then? No, the only time I have ever gotten one of those tickets is when it was around 11:30 PM in a quiet, residential neighborhood that’s all pretty much asleep at that hour and there is essentially no traffic at all. I did what a police officer perceived to be a rolling stop at an “empty intersection” and he pulled me over and gave me a ticket.

Oh, and these “empty intersections”…if they’re so empty how do the cops appear to give the cyclists tickets? Do they have a cloaking device? Are they hiding in the bushes? Do they have a stealth helicopter hovering silently 20 feet up above the intersection and when they see a cyclist run a stop sign they suddenly slide down a rope and give the cyclist a ticket? Or are they at the intersection and the super, duper vision granted to all cyclists who can infallibly judge when an intersection is “empty” proves quite fallible because they don’t see the cop waiting to give them a ticket. Oops.

And, yes, in response to what Derek wonders later in his post there IS a dissertation out there on laws that are systematically ignored – it is actually a massive area of study and part of the Philosophy of Law, which field I cannot remember at the moment (sorry, it was a first year university course for me).

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  1. danah
    April 9, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    I agree that cyclists when on the road should most definitely follow the rules of the road if only for their own safety. I still maintain that cycling in the city is not my thing. I will take my bike to a bike path before I ride on downtown streets.

    • April 9, 2011 at 9:52 pm

      Agreed. End of the day we all have to follow the rules of the road or ignore them at our own peril and/or risk of legal repercussions. This applies to pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. The argument as espoused in comments on The Gothamist website (which is where Derek Flak got the original story) that the NYPD should have better things to do than to target cyclists or to say they have been doing it for years and have never been penalized or gotten hurt are not valid arguments. They do not address the fact that what they are doing is still illegal. Should the NYPD be directing its resources to other crimes? Maybe, but that is out of the scope of the discussion. Should a cyclist disobeying the law have been ticketed years ago if they were doing something illegal? Sure if what they are doing violates the law. To say no to that question would also mean that if “Bob” is a drug dealer and has been dealing drugs for 10 years and never gotten caught or stopped by police (when he thinks they see him dealing) until one day a cop catches him and cuffs him. Should Bob be allowed to go on his merry way and deal drugs forever because “no one ever stopped him before in 10 years of drug dealing”? NO!

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