The Continuing Scofflaw Debate

The Virginia Bicycling Federation’s Scofflaw blog post continues to get traffic and comments over a year later.  I understand it’s one of their highest-trafficked posts of all time.  This debate over whether bad bicyclist behavior reflects poorly on all bicyclists, how much self-policing the bike community should be responsible for, and the relative risk of bad bicyclist behavior vs. bad driver behavior continues to rage with no clear clear winner.

So, an anecdote.

An accident probably caused by a scofflaw.

Last night, I was driving my daughter home from her karate lesson along I-581.  It was about 8:00 and full dark.  At the Orange Avenue onramp, a sporty little red car leaped from the merging lane, climbed up behind me with its engine gunning, then flew into the far left lane.  It sped up until its front bumper was nearly touching the rear bumper of the car in front of it, and proceeded to sort of weave back and forth within the lane in obvious agitation.  As soon as a space had opened up, the car in front of the sporty red speedster ducked back over into the right-hand lane, at which point the impatient driver gunned the engine of his car and leaped forward down the lane.

He was easily going 5-10 miles an hour over the speed limit, flying recklessly through traffic, and following at an unsafe distance, all at night where reaction times and visibility are already compromised.  This clearly was a bad driver.  He (or she, to be fair) was a clear and verfiable scofflaw.

I didn’t think, “Geez, people like that shouldn’t be on the road.”  I didn’t think, “It’s drivers like that who make driving unsafe.  Sports cars just don’t belong on the road with minivans like mine.”  I didn’t think, “See?  That’s why cars shouldn’t be on the road, because of lawbreakers like that.”

I thought, “Geez, what a jerk.”

One driver behaving badly doesn’t reflect on all drivers.  We know that.  And yet, not only do drivers think that about bicyclists, we in the bicycle advocacy profession have an unfortunate tendency to reinforce that perception because of our – understandable – habits of self-policing and calls to behave to a higher standard.

Vehicles on the road – no matter what they are – are operated by people, and many people are jerks.  They’re going to operate their vehicles like jerks.  They’re going to get impatient, or not pay attention, or participate in any number of bad behaviors.  For those people you enforce the law, you punish them when they cause accidents and dangerous situations, and you move on.  You don’t extrapolate their behavior to their whole community, you don’t lecture the whole community because of their actions, and you don’t lose focus of what’s really important:  the commitment to make the roads safer for all users.

You don’t make the roads safer for cyclists by calling out a few bad apples and telling them to behave.  You’re not going to encourage new riders if you make them think they’re automatically going to be associated with the existing bad ones.  You improve infrastructure, you train drivers and cyclists (who, remember, are generally the same people in different situations) on the rules.  Ultimately you create the circumstances which get more people on the road and visible, and you make them more and more a common part of the everyday traffic that every vehicle deals with.

Don’t be Nice, Be Predictable

Talk to any cyclist or cycling advocate about safety and you’re bound to hear the word predictable, as in, “Cyclists are safest when they are predictable and behave like any other vehicle on the road.”  This is true, but so is the reverse:  the road in general is safest when drivers behave predictably as well.

In my case, this is particularly true as a pedestrian.  Specifically:  in the mornings, I walk my daughter the block or so down to her elementary school.  The streets around that block are crowded with a combination of morning commuters, parents dropping their kids off at school, and (a satisfying number of) parents walking their kids to school.  I cross one of the main thoroughfares that cut through the neighborhood – still a two-lane road, but just wide enough with few enough stop signs that cars tend to zip down the street pretty fast as they head to, from, or past the school.

Increasingly, while my daughter and I have waited to cross the street at the end of my block, I’ve had cars stop at the intersection (which does not have a crosswalk or a stop sign) to kindly wave me across.  Most of the time, I can’t actually see the driver doing this past the glare on the windshield.  Since it’s a school zone, I’m also not sure if I’m being waved across or if a kid is about to jump out a side door.  In the meantime, cars coming from the other direction aren’t necessarily stopping, nor are the vehicles turning onto the street from side streets, none of whom may even have seen the first driver pause to let me cross, or have even noticed me yet.  In the meantime, other cars start to back up behind the first.  I’m not sure if these even have a view of me, and I have seen many occasions where impatient drivers decide to whip around vehicles that are stopped for no apparent reason, which makes me hesitant to take the invitation to step into the street.  Since there’s no crosswalk on the street or pedestrian signs along the side of the road, it’s not clear how many of the cars at the intersection might be looking out for me if I make a run to the other side.

The effect is a few heartbeats of complete confusion on the part of almost everyone at the intersection as we’re all waiting to figure out what to do next.  Add into the mix that the majority of these cars are giant SUVs (a topic for another time and, probably, another blog), and there are multiple visibility and predictability issues at play all working to make the situation completely unsafe.

I understand the driver is trying to be polite.  I appreciate it.  But because they’re behaving unpredictably, there is confusion, and therefore danger.  Do I take advantage of the moment to cross, risking that other drivers – who are only following the rules – may not be looking for me?  Do I wait while cars back up and the polite driver gets increasingly annoyed at my inaction?  Do I wave the driver on with a smile?  Or do I start talking to my daughter and pretend I didn’t notice any of this happening until the next break in traffic?

In this case, behaving predictably is a lot more appreciated, and a lot safer, than being nice.  As long as we’re all following the rules, we know what to expect.