"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:
49-720. STOPPING -- TURN AND STOP SIGNALS.
- 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.
- 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.