In an ideal world, cyclists would never break the law, but we don’t live in that world. Sometimes, well, you just have to break a traffic law to get where you are going without the trip being completely annoying. There are two main schools of thought on how to ride a bike as a means of transportation. “Vehicular Cyclists” believe that bikes should be treated exactly like cars – take up a lane of traffic, obey all traffic laws, use hand signals. Then there are the “facillitators.” These cyclists are always looking to add bike lanes, bike paths, anything that keeps bike traffic separated from car traffic. Facilitators believe that if you make cycling appear to be safe, then more people will bike. Vehicularists believe that their method is the best way for cars to be aware of bikes, and make the roads safer for all. Both styles presuppose that the cyclist will be obeying the law. Well, guess what – real cyclists are going to mix it up between the two styles, and some times, break the law. Riding a bike allows you to go in directions that you can’t go on a car. Even if there is a bike lane on a street, if there is a more direct route without bike lanes, I’m going to take that instead.
Generally, I’m a fairly law-abiding cyclist, and I like to think of myself as far safer than most of the cyclists I see in Providence. I bike on the right side of the street, I don’t go the wrong way down a one-way street, I use lights at night, and for god’s sake, I usually use turn signals (except when there are so many potholes that I can’t take one of my hands off the handle bars). But sometimes, as a cyclist, I break the law.
I can classify my law-breaking into 3 categories: “It’s far more convenient”, “I can get away with it because I’m on a bike”, and “If I didn’t break this law, I wouldn’t get anywhere.” First: convenience. If you look at my daily 1.5 mile commute, I am probably obeying the law for 1.4 miles of it. But there’s one intersection where obeying the law would just make it so annoying. I head down a hill and I need to turn left onto the next street. Because of the way the streets intersect, it’s impossible to do that. To be legal, I should dismount, wait for a walk signal, walk my bike across the intersection, walk on the sidewalk until I get to a driveway, remount and head on my way. Instead, I bike down the hill, signal a left turn, turn into a parking lot and get onto the sidewalk. Generally I don’t like to ride on a sidewalk, but there is almost never anyone walking here. I do slow down to about 5 mph so I can stop quickly if there is someone here. I then go down around the corner on the sidewalk, hop into the street and away I go. There are weird little intersections like this all over New England, and sometimes, you just have to break the law to get through them.
Next: “because I can get away with it.” My office is downtown, and I sometimes arrive at the peak of rush hour. There are a few intersections where the cars will stack up and even block the intersection. Do I wait patiently in line with the cars until it is my turn to go through the intersection? Hell no! I ride between the cars and if anyone is blocking the intersection I go around them. Now I don’t barrel through the cars or run the red lights, I slow down and try to get eye contact from anyone I’ll be going in front of – even if they are stopped. But still – my vehicle is much smaller than a car, so why should I have to wait? Also, it’s legal to pass traffic on the right if the traffic is stopped, well kind of.
Third: Not getting anywhere. Traffic lights are rarely just on a timer, they’re often triggered by a sensor. The sensors are designed for cars, which weigh about 20 times more than I do riding my bike. So if I’m waiting at a light and it’s not going to change and there are no cars coming, I’ll run the red light. Last there’s the problem of stop signs. First of all, almost no driver in Rhode Island actually comes to a full complete stop at a stop sign unless there is someone coming from the cross direction. For me to come to a complete stop at every stop sign completely destroys any momentum I may have. Instead, I treat stop signs as yield signs. I stop when there’s someone coming from the other direction, but other than that, I just slow down and look out for cars. Evidently, it is now legal for cyclists to do this all across the state of Idaho. As a matter of enforcement, rolling through a stop sign is all but legal in Rhode Island. I swear it’s almost like a game of chicken at a four-way stop in this state.
As far as breaking the law, I think the main thing is staying safe. The only times I’ve been in a bike accident were when I did something stupid, like going the wrong way down a one-way street. When ignoring traffic laws, I think that cyclists need to heighten their awareness of what’s going on, slow down, and make sure that our friends in cars can see what we are doing.