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Cycling and the Law: How Much should be Followed? And how Closely?

Trigger (heh) Warning:  The following is an opinion piece.  It is my opinion of the Law in my State.  It may not reflect the law in your State or Country.  Knowing your laws is not my freaking job (heck, I barely know the laws in my own State!), it’s your job.  This post is meant to be a humorous look at how cycling laws actually work – and how that differs from intention.  In this off-season, I do plan on interviewing local and State law enforcement to get a better understanding of “how law works” but that’s for a different post.  You have been trigger (heh) warned.

The cycling club received an interesting email forwarded from a cyclist/attorney in the club.  The sender and I don’t always see eye to eye on matters – mostly because she has a tendency to blame motorist’s angst against cyclists on “the fast riders”.  Like me.  She didn’t have to bring it up this time, though.  The email hit that note already.

Nothing gets me going like the misplaced, misguided bony finger of blame.

That said, the gist of the email centered around cycling Law and how lawyers will sink to any level they can to make it look like the cyclist is to blame for getting himself/herself run over.  It’s noble enough, the email, if a little silly in its wrongheadedness in certain points.  The idea being, motorists hate us, so follow the rules of the road so they won’t – and God forbid, one of those motorists runs you over, it’ll be better to be able to say that you always stop for stop signs and stop lights.  Seriously.

Rather than break down the whole email, I’ll just get into some specific points, quickly.  Then we’ll do some fun math.

Why It Matters if We Run Stop Signs and Red Lights on Our Bike

Well, for one, if you make it a habit of running red lights, we won’t have to worry about you being a cyclist for very long.  You’ll be a spot on the ground resembling a Jackson Pollock painting before long.  Problem solved.  The stop signs, now that gets interesting:

Questions followed such as: “Do you stop for stop signs and stop lights when you ride? Do you recall ever riding through one without stopping?” Setting aside whether those responses would be admitted at a trial, how bad would it have been for him if he had to truthfully admit he commonly failed to stop or even that there were occasions when he did not stop.

Okay, stop right there.  Stopping for stop signs.  Law requires that we stop, actually stop at a stop sign, yes?  Yes.  A stop is considered a foot down on the ground, stop.  Then go.  Now, imagine a 25 cyclist deep group cruising down the road, as law allows, two-abreast.  We come to a stop sign and the first two stop, foot down, and go.  The next two slide up, foot down, and go.  The next two repeat until all 25 cyclists are down the road.  Typically you’ve got three seconds plus another ten (to get through) in between each two going through the intersection.  That’s the letter of the Law.  That’s not what we do, though.  We get to an intersection, wave traffic through, then we all go en masse (two abreast).  The letter of the Law takes more than two minutes for a group to clear an intersection.  The right way takes between five seconds and 20.

Now, how happy do you think motorists are going to be if we follow the letter of the Law?  Do you think a driver stuck behind that idiocy will say, “Oh, look Helen!  Those cyclists are stopping as they should at a stop sign!”  Uh, no.  After twenty seconds he’s going to lose his freaking mind – because that’s about the attention span of a motorist.  More:

Second, when I speak to cycling groups I remind them how much animosity exists on the part of drivers against cyclists. The comments we hear from prospective jurors about this is astonishing. Too many of them consider us to be reckless law breakers who do not stop at lights and block the entire lane on group rides.

Now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty!  I’ve done the math on this page once before, but let’s do it again.  Figure a 25 cyclist group (we’ve had up to 40).  No intelligent cyclist is going to give up the lane, so whether a motorist is passing a single file line or a double pace-line “blocking the entire lane”, the motorist is going to have to cross the yellow into the oncoming traffic lane to pass the cyclists.  Put simply, a single-file line is twice as difficult to pass because it’s twice as long.  Figure a bike is 6 feet long (or two meters).  Add an extra foot for the space between the wheels and you’ve got seven feet per bike.  Multiply that by 25:  175′.  Double pace-line?  91′ (you have to account for that odd 25th cyclist, so you’re multiplying by 13 instead of 12).  Better, multiply that out with a larger 40 person group.  No motorist would be able to pass a group in those conditions.  How angry do you think motorists would be then?  Words cannot convey.

Better, legislation has been proposed by states that would limit drafting groups to 4 cyclists that must be separated by ten to twenty feet.  Do the math on how long that 25 person single-file group would be with ten more feet in between each four cyclists…  235 feet.  Five full-length semi-trailers.

Folks, you think motorists are angry now, let’s follow the rules as they’re written and you’ll see how wrong you really are.  You haven’t seen anger yet.

On the plus-side, as they’re flying by chucking pop bottles out the window at us, at least we’ll be able to claim the moral high ground.

UPDATE: I should add, I do, at every chance, give a vehicle the right of way whether it’s mine or not. We cyclist never tend to win in a fight against a vehicle so I always figured better safe than sorry.

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