Second Ward, Minneapolis

This is the public policy forum of Minneapolis Second Ward (Green) City Council Member Cam Gordon and his staff. We use this space to talk about some of what Cam’s working on, explain his positions, and share a little of what life in City Hall is like. Please feel free to comment on posts, within certain ground rules. See our disclaimer, including ground rules, here:

Thursday, May 01, 2008

"When Bicyclists Break the Law"

KSTP aired an interesting "investigative news" piece earlier this week about bicyclists breaking the law. To subject yourself to it, go here.

Unfortunately, they didn't get the basic facts right. The worst factual inaccuracy in the piece is the assertion credited to “police in both St. Paul and Minneapolis” that “about half the time,” accidents between bicyclists and drivers are caused by bicyclists failure to yield. This is just not the case.

I've looked through the 2006 bike/car crash data collected by the City of Minneapolis, and found that 120 of the 200 crashes (or 60%) for which fault can be determined were caused by drivers, while only 80 (or 40%) were caused by cyclists. This is far from close to “about half.” Rather, it is a clear indication that driver error and violation of law is a significantly greater threat to bicyclist safety than bicyclist error and violation of law. I have asked KSTP to correct this misstatement of fact on the air, but I'm not holding my breath.

The story exhibited an intriguing sort of willful blindness about violations by drivers of exactly the same laws that they ‘caught’ bicyclists violating. For instance, in a video clip of a bicyclist running a stop sign and “cutting off” the driver behind him, the driver does not come to a complete stop at the stop sign. Rolling through a stop sign in an automobile is just as illegal as doing so on a bicycle, but for some reason KSTP did not find this worth mentioning. As or more forceful a case could be made for drivers’ “laughing at the rules of the road,” as a very, very small percentage of drivers come to the legally-required full stop at stop signs. An even smaller percentage of drivers follow the law by yielding right of way to pedestrians seeking to cross at crosswalks where there are no traffic control devices. For some reason, these facts did not rise to the level of notice by KSTP, despite the fact that they are a) more prevalent and b) more dangerous.

Stories like this make clear that the conflict between drivers and cyclists will increase as we increase bike mode share, and that stop signs are a flashpoint for this conflict. Interestingly,
other states are addressing this problem in an innovative and progressive way: by rewriting the rules for cyclists to perfectly mirror the safe and conscientious operation of a bicycle. For example, here is the relevant section of the traffic code in Idaho, of all places:

  1. A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection. After slowing to a reasonable speed or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another highway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time the person is moving across or within the intersection or junction of highways, except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a turn or proceed through the intersection without stopping.
  2. A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a steady red traffic-control signal shall stop before entering the intersection, except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a right-hand turn without stopping or may cautiously make a left-hand turn onto a one-way highway without stopping.

I've heard this referred to as "functional yield," because it basically makes stop signs into yield signs for cyclists, and red lights into stop signs. This is how the majority of cyclists, including me, operate on the street. It's safe, courteous, and predictable. The current law, in my opinion, creates an expectation on the part of drivers that every cyclist will come to a complete stop at every stop sign, something that I don't think will ever happen. In cases where expectation and reality are irreconcilable, it's usually the expectation that should change.


At 3:24 PM, Blogger Pete said...

Minnesota should follow Idaho's lead and realize that cars and bikes need different rules.

At 10:56 PM, Blogger Paul does cycle said...

Thanks for the research into the common sense law that Idaho has adopted. For metroplexs like MSP and Chicago, I doubt the 1-3% bicycles commuter and avid user vote will sway the day... ;(

At 8:08 AM, Blogger Robin Garwood said...

Minnesota Monitor has run a story on this issue, linking back to this post and quoting me extensively. See it here:

At 8:43 AM, Anonymous Ted said...

Thank you for taking the time to address this.

At 3:40 PM, Blogger JfW said...

Apparently KSTP quoted wrong data given by the Police Dept, and apparently their investigative vehicles broke the law and endangered bicyclists by approaching too close on a roadway, but the attention brought to lawless behavior by bicyclists is well deserved.

40% is a lot given the bias against motorists given when assigning fault for a collision.

Because bicyclists are rarely cited and never require licence or insurance, the mode of operation has long become very informal. In my car, I've been cut-off by more bicyclists than other automobiles. You never see a car come off a sidewalk, and rarely see one meander accross a two-lane residential road.

Why? because it's a violation of over $100 dollars and it goes on your record if done in a motor vehicle.

Personally I have little problem with bicyclists treating stop signs as yield. I actually think that should be allowed by law so long as the bicyclist does not impune right-of-way from another vehicle, impune on the right of pedestirans, or do so recklessly.

I also do not think it proper to cite bicyclists as you would a motor vehicle. $200+ fines for 10mph over would be rediculous for a bike, but $10 or $20 fines for failing to yield would be proper.

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Robin Garwood said...

I agree with much of what JFW says here. The caveats to his support for the 'functional yield' idea are both included in the Kahn/Carlson bill. Cyclists who unreasonably and unsafely cut off other users of the road would and should be ticketable. We absolutely must increase enforcement against cyclists who are causing near-accidents, and I believe the Kahn/Carlson bill will help us do this, by differentiating between them and the majority of cyclists who are breaking the law, but doing it safely.

The idea of lower fines for cyclist behavior is an interesting one, but I believe it would also take a state law change, and to my knowledge no one has brought forward such a proposal.

Now for the few points of disagreement between JFW and me. I'm not sure what evidence backs up the assertion that there is a "bias against motorists" when assigning fault for collisions. I have not seen this bias in action personally, nor am I aware of a study of traffic accident data that indicates it exists.

JFW also mentions bicycles "coming off of sidewalks." I'm not entirely certain what is meant by this, but it's worth pointing out that on residential streets, it's legal (though unwise) to ride a bicycle on a sidewalk. Nowhere is it legal to drive a car on a sidewalk. This might account for that particular difference between cyclist and motorist behavior.


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