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I got stopped by the bike morality police.

December 14, 2010

What seems to be the problem, Officer Lycra?

The officer must have been off-duty or working undercover. Clad in black lycra and Pearl Izumi gear, he wore no badge, but when he pulled up next to me on the Platte River Bike Trail, I knew he was working in the name of bike morality. Because he said this:

“I hope you don’t expect to be treated with respect when you run red lights in front of cars like that.”

I stopped pedaling. The happy bike-ride rush left my body, and heavy guilt settled in my limbs.

“You’re right,” I said.

“That’s why they run us off the road, you know,” he said as he coasted beside me.

“You’re right,” I said again.

Then, I was quiet. And he was quiet too.

“Did you want to pass me?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said, falling in behind me.

Grateful for the end of the lecture, I sped up and pulled away from him, but my thoughts stayed with him and our interaction. The feelings that churned in me included:

  • Indignance at being called out by a fellow cyclist.
  • Shame at being called out by a fellow cyclist.
  • Gratitude that a fellow cyclist cared enough about our community to call me out.
  • Confusion about whether this fellow cyclist was right.

Is there really a causal relationship between my red-light running and their reckless driving?

I have trouble believing that motorists are really thinking, “Those cyclists deserve to be run into street curbs and parked cars, because they don’t stop for every red light.” Rather than some calculated, vengeful eye-for-an-eye thought process, I think the primary reasons that motorists endanger cyclists are:

  • Impatience,
  • Negligence, and
  • Outright stupidity.

If I knew that my adherence to all traffic laws would immediately eliminate all dangerous passing, cutting off, uncalled-for honking, and general disrespecting of cyclists, I’d stop running red lights in a heartbeat. I wish it were that easy.

On the other hand, if I don’t believe that my personal actions can make a difference, then what the hell am I doing on this blog every week?

OK, all right, you got me, Officer Lycra. I don’t know what got my attention—your condescending tone or your gorgeous Bianchi—but I’m finally going to do it. I’m putting an end to the “Red Light Debate.” Regardless of whether it actually makes life better for cyclists, I’m making a promise, to myself and to you:

No more running red lights on my bike.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. Melanie permalink
    December 14, 2010 3:43 pm

    I appreciate that you brought this out on your blog. I’ll give you my perspective as a driver…..I would never intentionally run a bike off the road (I know…phew!) nor do I intentionally impede a cyclist’s travel. However, I do become resentful when ‘cyclists’ (I’m lumping everyone who rides a bike together and I know that’s not fair) want the rights of the road but don’t (again, broad lumping together here) want to follow the rules of the road. So if we all would just follow the rules, it might at least lessen some of the resentment. I also feel equally resentful of drivers who ‘slide’ through stop signs or red lights. I’m ‘mostly’ a rule-follower, though, so it gets me when someone else doesn’t follow the rules.

  2. avaerewyck permalink
    December 15, 2010 12:32 pm

    Thanks, Melanie. It’s definitely important to have both perspectives. I do know that it bugs many drivers when cyclists don’t stop and wait at red lights, and I agree with your sentiment about ALL of us who use the road following the rules of the road. The difficult thing is that so many of the rules are motorist-centered (i.e. 25+ mph speed limits), and when there is a law to protect cyclists, many motorists aren’t aware of it. For example, despite the fact that Colorado law says that motorists must give cyclists AT LEAST three feet when passing, I’ve had my elbow almost clipped more than once. Also, contrary to many drivers’ belief (as gaged by their honking), it IS legal for a cyclist to take a lane when they judge it to be in the interest of their own safety. Getting off my soap box though, I’m generally a rule-follower too, so I’ll stick to my new promise of heeding the reds. Thanks again, Melanie!

  3. Jenny permalink
    December 15, 2010 4:57 pm

    Ouch. Will you weigh back in, in a couple of weeks, about how it’s going?

    I stopped jaywalking when I was pregnant a couple of years ago and felt my balance getting off-kilter — and my personal protectiveness going up over the contents of that belly.

    Now I still pretty much don’t cross against lights, even though my balance is normal, because once I quit it never seemed worth being in the wrong and having to hustle and look over my shoulder to save those 15 or so seconds. Sometimes I’ll cross if I’m really late, or the view is really clear and empty…but usually I just stand there and think about how nice it is to be outside after a long day cooped up indoors (or maybe about how ridiculously cold it is).

    Anyhow, I’m curious how your experience compares!

  4. pawl permalink
    December 21, 2010 4:40 pm

    Where to begin? Let me get my notes together *steps on soapbox*
    I’m sure a few of you will have heard these themes before.
    What I hear alot is that if bikers don’t obey the traffic laws we get what we deserve. It is far more difficult for a biker like myself to say that about a driver. I feel bikers are more aware of the risk taken than drivers of theirs, as there is potential risk in every situation, not just for biking & driving, but for walking too, and we are all responsible for our actions in some way. But I think that obeying laws and thinking it will save your life or keep you from getting injured is a naive thought.
    Pedestrian deaths & injuries is on the rise here in pdx, a number of which were while in the cross walk when they had the right of way. Meanwhile, I am consistently not obeying these laws and look at me now.

    And while, yes, there may be a relationship, however direct, indirect or causal between biking behavior and driving behavior, one really never knows what kind of driver or biker they will be engaging with.
    I am trying not to use the word ‘stupid’ or any variation thereof, but some people’s driving is pretty unpredictable, just like someone’s biking can be for drivers. There is a set of rules & laws designed for safety because of this. I am fine to abide by them when it matters, however getting waived through a four-way stop intersection when it is obviously not my right of way sends mixed signals and I have come to view Stop signs more as Yield signs.

    If I am waiting at a stop light when there is no cross traffic and I’m familiar with the intersection, I will go through the stop light. But I have familiarity to go on. Plus, I know, and am confident with my biking ability. I will not, to the best of my abilities, put myself in an excessively risky situation.
    Crossing a four lane, major, through-street in the middle of the day against a red light when there is no cross traffic for blocks is not a risky situation for me.
    Cutting off or cutting it close in the same situation would be.

    Also, including bikers & drivers in the same group (traffic), while noble and idyllic, is not practical because as noted in the post, most of the traffic laws are designed for drivers (Speed limit 25? No problem, especially up that hill), so bikers have to adjust their choices to the environment. Really everyone should anyway. If there’s ice on the road, maybe 25 isn’t a good idea through this neighborhood, even though the speed limit sign doesn’t say so. Laws and rules have a tendency to make people lazy in their thinking. And alot of this biker/driver conflict, I feel, comes from drivers when they are required to think. But it goes back to familiarity (it’s so easy to spot a tourist isn’t it?) and confidence in one’s ability, biking or driving. And city planners have the impossible task of designing laws & rules according to everyone’s mode of transportation and skill level.

    I guess moral of the story is not that you should go out and break laws, but that I feel people should use common sense and do what they are comfortable with in any given situation, biking or driving, and use the designated rules & laws as guides, but should tend to follow them when it really matters.

    And much of this unpredictable behavior can be eliminated if everyone would just signal or use their turn signals more often.

    Sorry for hogging the soapbox.

  5. avaerewyck permalink
    January 5, 2011 1:23 pm

    Checking back in – it’s going pretty well. I’m sticking with it for the most part, and like you, I find that it makes me feel a little bit more relaxed. I don’t have to crane my neck and pedal hard to dart across. I can just wait at the bumper of the car in front of me and then take off at a more leisurely pace when the light changes. Also, I don’t know if I’m imagining this, but I think cars behind me are less annoyed that they have drive at my pace when they see me stopping in the traffic line, rather than cutting to the front.

    I really like the point you make about familiarity. There’s a cycling advocacy theory (which I think has actually been tested and supported enough to be more than just a theory) that the more cyclists there are, the safer the cycling environment is – because drivers are familiar with cyclists and and accustomed to their presence on the street. Cyclist fatality statistics – which are amazing low, given the quantity of cyclists on the streets – in places like Amsterdam are proof of this causal relationship.

    I agree that blindly obeying traffic laws isn’t any kind of cure-all, and I still run the occasional red now and then (for instance when it’s a long light, there are lots of cars waiting at the light with me, and I know I need to change lanes in the next block; running the red will let me do that a lot more safely). But, for the most part, I’m trying to behave like a car, if nothing else, so that when drivers try to make me feel like I shouldn’t be there, I am all the more confident that I – a competent, responsible, law-abiding (and reasonably attractive!) cyclist – should be there, and will continue to be there.


  1. The red light debate continues. « No Car Go

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