The Rules of the Road are Baloney

I’m going to start with the assumption that, at one time and place or another, people who bike have been chastised by people who drive for not “following the rules of the road.”

I have seen and heard this grievance aired frequently. It has often been presented as an argument against increased bicycle infrastructure. It goes something like this: If cyclists want the “privilege” of using space “designed for” cars, then they must earn it by adhering strictly to the so-called “rules of the road.” I have also personally heard people who drive state that they will not give people on bicycles space or respect on roadways (which translates to refusing to drive in non-life-threatening ways) until cyclists learn to follow said rules.

Insofar as these are meant to be legitimate complaints or reasonable positions, they are absurd (I add the caveat because I suspect they are not really offered seriously).

To begin, a petty objection: any complaint from people who drive about the “rules of the road” is invariably hypocritical. Usually distressingly so. One day I’ll do a systematic study, but anecdotally, I’d say that people in cars disobey the rules of the road as often, if not more, than people on bicycles.

That people on bicycles rarely stop at stop signs (I’m guilty!) is probably the most typical charge from people who drive. The thing is, people in cars virtually never stop at stop signs either. The crux of the matter here, is that cars (and bikes) are meant to come to a full stop. If we are going to lament about transgressions about the “rules of the road,” we must expect firm devotion to the letter of the law. Certainly, people in cars often slow down at stop signs (usually only to the degree that it is necessary to make a turn), but they do not stop. I think part of the reason why people in cars are oblivious to their own routine running of stop signs, while getting enraged by people on bikes committing the equivalent offence, has to do with relative speeds – and simply not understanding what it’s like to ride a bicycle.

If I’m commuting I probably reduce my speed from 15-20km/h down to 10 km/h at an intersection. The cars however, are slowing down from 40-50km/h down to 10-15km/h. This seems – especially to the person driving the car – as if they are coming to a “stop.” On the other hand, it looks like I’m just continuing apace at a relatively constant speed. I recently had a fairly typical encounter in this regard: At a t-intersection with no cars on the perpendicular street, I came to a stop sign at the same time as a car. We both rolled through the stop sign at the same speed, but the person in the car started yelling me for “running the stop sign.” I explained that he did the same thing, but he could not accept it, insisting that he had “stopped.”

Beyond running stop signs, people in cars routinely commit a host of other transgressions: they fail to signal, they stop, stand, or park illegally, they block intersections, and turn at red lights without stopping. And let’s not even get started on speeding. Here I want to be very clear: Every single motorist habitually violates the “rules of the road.”

To reiterate, the issue is not that people in cars follow the rules whereas people on bikes do not. The issue is rather that people in cars ignore their own transgressions but exaggerate those of people not in cars. And the reason for this seems rather basic: most people only get upset about transgressions when it presents an inconvenience.

To illustrate this, just consider the ways people in cars interact with other people in cars. As long as some infraction of the rules of the road doesn’t cause a perceived inconvenience then it’s tolerated. Indeed, this rationale is taken further: if some infraction of the rules leads to a perceived convenience, then it is encouraged. Hence widespread disregard for speed limits. Most revealing is that the converse is also true. If adherence to the rules is regarded as inconvenient, then it is discouraged. To test this hypothesis, the next time you are driving, try going the actual speed limit, or coming to full stops at stop signs, and see how long it takes before another driver becomes enraged.

This issue is far more pronounced when bicycles or pedestrians are involved. People on bicycles are legally allowed to occupy a full lane for safety reasons, but if this legal right is exercised, it invariably leads in angry honking and dangerous passing. Similarly, pedestrians have the right of way at crosswalks, but are regularly edged out or honked at by people in cars trying to turn.

So, most talk of “the rules of the road” is a red-herring, if not disingenuous rhetoric. It typically serves as a means of deflecting discussions from ethical considerations about utilizing public space in responsible ways, to the airing of pretty grievances.

Presumably, there should be a connection between “the rules of the road” and the ethics of using road space. And presumably, the chief underlying ethical principle directing road laws is that of public safety. This accounts for stop lights and signs, speed limits, speed bumps, pedestrian right-of-way, and the host of other laws meant to encourage safe driving. Careless driving, broadly construed, is against the law.

This is a point worth reiterating. The “rules of the road,” properly construed, are meant to ensure public safety, not individual convenience. I suspect many a road user are confused about this.

With all of this in mind, consider another related issue: false moral equivalences placed on different road users. Many a time I’ve been yelled at by drivers for breaking some rule, only to point out that the driver obliviously also committed an infraction, to which the driver often replies, “Well, we’re both in the wrong.”

But starting with the principle of public safety, the rule-breaking is not equal. Rolling a stop sign in a car is a far greater transgression than rolling a stop sign on a bike, on the basis that the car poses a much more serious risk. Cars regularly kill people. People on bikes very, very, rarely do. Pedestrians crashing into each other, virtually never.

As the risk to others caused by your use of road space increases, your ethical responsibility also increases. This is why people who drive large trucks require special training and certification. Certainly, vulnerable road users, in the name of their own self-preservation should act in ways that maximize personal well-being, but this does not negate or equate the responsibility of risky (i.e. posing a risk to others) road users (i.e. people in cars).

This is also not to say that people on bikes or pedestrians are not also acting in ways to maximise their personal convenience. Selfishness is not virtuous, but one must also be concerned with consequences. Being in a car versus being on a bike changes the risky consequences of this selfishness. Moreover, what is “convenient” takes on very different meanings. People in cars are typically selfishly concerned with getting somewhere slightly faster, at great risk to others. People on bikes also break rules to try and get places slightly faster, but mainly at great risk to themselves. This is not meant to be an excuse or justification for silly people on bikes, but there is again no moral equivalence.

Moreover, people who drive cars probably don’t realise that many of the infractions against the rules committed by cyclists are not done merely in the name of convenience, but are often done to maximise safety. For example, if I can do so safely, I will jump red lights early because it allows me to get away from the mass of cars. I even ride on the sidewalk sometimes (usually in the north of the city where no one walks and drivers are especially horrible), because it’s simply far safer.

The corollary to the ethics of personal convenience is the ethics of “you’re responsible for your own safety.” From this point of view, cars seem to be the superior mode of transport, because in virtue of the technology that makes them a great risk to others, they are also relatively safer to those that use them. A car on car collision at 40km/h typically does not result in a death for drivers or passengers. A car hitting a pedestrian at 40km/h has a great risk of death. But drivers routinely place more responsibility on pedestrians to not get hit by cars than they do on themselves to not hit pedestrians. This is a inversion (and perversion) of ethical responsibility.

It is an inversion because it is a fundamentally selfish ethics. It is the same kind of ethics as “caveat emptor,” which benefits no one except people trying to scam you. It is the same kind of ethics that corporations turn to in order to evade responsibility for the risks of their products or practices, which they undoubtedly hawked under misleading pretences. It is an ethics that, above all, is promoted by and serves those in a dominant position. It is an ethics that would be favoured by bullies – the logic that if you are victim of bullying, it is somehow your own fault.

People in cars, essentially, are bullies (Some? Many? Most?). They dominate by literally threatening your life. And this dominance perpetuates the ethics and logic of the system. Get off the road! Roads are for cars! Either get a car, or risk dying. Insofar as the “rules of the road” reinforce this dominance, the rules are baloney.

Solutions? The actual enforcement of road laws would be great, but as usual, the issue is largely infrastructural. Thorough cycling infrastructure would require less infractions of the “rules of the road,” but more importantly, undermine the logic that puts the responsibility for safety on vulnerable, rather than dangerous, road users. There could then be a legitimate grounds for talking of individual responsibility when the main factor dictating personal risk is your own competence. If you crash because you’re riding like an idiot in a fully separated, protected bike lane, then, yes, this is your own fault. I don’t doubt that discussions would then turn to the “rules of the bike lanes,” and grievances between cyclists (or pedestrians) would increase, but this is a debate about rules that I would find encouraging.


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