Bikes versus Cars Under the Law

By Ken Christensen and Russ Hymas

Cycling West - Cycling Utah Magazine logoYou’ve likely heard the popular perspective among motorists that the streets are overrun with lawbreaking cyclists – a group of oblivious, space-entitled individuals that pay no heed to vehicular traffic or traffic signals. If you ride a road bike frequently, you probably see things the other way around – having witnessed motorists scoff at the law with regularity. In fact, you may have even launched a fair number of expletives on the road toward drivers who endangered your life because they broke the law. And if you’re anything like us, as you contemplated the intelligence of having hurled an angry tirade from your 18-lb bicycle toward the irate person sitting in a steel box weighing thousands of pounds, you probably jetted off on a side street to get away.

So, who are the real law breakers anyway? A 2017 study commissioned by the Florida Department of Transportation concluded that cyclists were more compliant with traffic laws than drivers. Take that, motorists! But before you beam too brightly with pride, it should be noted that the study found cyclists were only “slightly” more compliant. (www.fdot.gov/research/Completed_Proj/Summary_SF/FDOT-BDV25-977-13-rpt.pdf).

The study decked out the bikes of 100 cyclists with sensors and cameras and then recorded the data as those cyclists went about their normal lives. Researchers tabulated how often cyclists and drivers failed to yield, rolled through stop signs, or otherwise broke the law. The results indicated that cyclists were compliant with the law 88% of the time during the day and 87% of the time after dark. Drivers complied with the law 85% of the time.

Interestingly, 20 of the 21 recorded close calls where an accident could have ensued, involved a driver who failed to yield properly while turning or didn’t give a cyclist three feet of space as mandated by the law.

If you’re honest, you know that as it pertains to cyclists, this study is likely spot on. Cyclists break or “bend” traffic laws on a semi-consistent basis. Is this because cyclists have a flippant disregard for the law? Or could it be something else far more appropriate, like trying to stay alive? Our experience tells us that it is largely the latter.

Think of a crowded traffic signal near a freeway on-ramp, for example. As you wait alongside the line of vehicles for the light to change, you may jump out into the intersection just before the light turns green. Do you do this to show the motorists that the powerful quads you’ve been working on all summer can beat their horse-powered engines across the intersection? Admittedly, we know a handful of riders that may be thinking something along those lines. But for most of us, the answer is a resounding no! You jump out into the intersection to establish yourself in the lane in front of the long line of cars that will be crossing the bike lane to turn onto on the on-ramp. Cars are big and imposing, and their drivers’ attitude tends to be something along the lines of: “Get out of the way, I’m driving here!”

These types of traffic violations by cyclists sound much more reasonable when done for safety reasons. But we have to ask ourselves whether the reasoning matters if drivers don’t know enough about laws surrounding cyclists and don’t understand what might motivate a cyclist to break the law?

With the above in mind, some cycling proponents recommend that cyclists take the high road by respecting and following the laws – even unreasonable ones – until those laws are changed. As bicycle accident attorneys, we often find ourselves echoing that advice. It’s much more difficult for an injured cyclist to recover damages from an at-fault driver’s insurance company when the cyclist broke the law as well, even if it was for a good reason. Following the law is the best way to avoid having to pay for your own medical expenses when you do get hit.

You’re probably thinking that sounds all well and good — until a driver puts your life in jeopardy! And there is certainly validity to that statement. It feels wrong to expect cyclists to follow all the rules of the road when doing so would deny those cyclists the right to take the very action that will keep them safe!

Cycling advocates have spent countless hours attempting to change the laws so cyclists are placed in far fewer circumstances in which they are forced to make a choice between obeying the law and taking action to ensure their own safety. These relentless efforts are to be lauded, and have brought about successful, significant changes to the law.

But in addition to legislative endeavors, we in the cycling community can help ensure the safety of our fellow riders by promoting greater separation between bikes and cars on the road. At some level everyone must understand that cyclists are not cars or pedestrians and many of the laws governing the road were created with cars in mind, not bicycles. In addition, the infrastructure influences how everyone thinks about themselves in relation to everyone else on the road and largely shapes our behavior.

Consider for a moment that motorists don’t drive on sidewalks and pedestrians largely stay off the street. This is because the infrastructure defines their role. If the same infrastructure existed for cyclists, there would be much less hostility between motorists and cyclists and, more importantly, far fewer collisions involving those groups.

Separate bike lanes have been a wonderful step in the right direction. As that trend continues to spread across the world, cyclists and drivers will reap the benefits. The buffer between motorists and cyclists can also be increased by pushing for installation of road signs promoting the 3-foot law. These are popping up in many states and have been an effective measure in educating drivers about the rights and role cyclists have on the road.

The events of the past several years have taught us that changes to the law and improvements in infrastructure for cyclists is possible. But we can’t leave it to a few dedicated individuals to carry the banner for cyclist safety – each of us needs to do our part! “How?” you ask? Just keep reading! Almost every issue of Cycling West provides opportunities to get involved.

Ken Christensen and Russ Hymas are avid cyclists and Utah attorneys at UtahBicycleLawyers.com. Their legal practice is devoted to helping cyclists injured in collisions with motor vehicles. They are authors of the Utah Bicycle Accident Handbook and are nationally recognized legal experts on cycling laws and safety.

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One Response to "Bikes versus Cars Under the Law"

  1. Matthew Bell   June 26, 2019 at 2:02 pm

    This article is spot-on, in my opinion.

    I couldn’t access the referenced study, but I’ll try again later. As an Idaho cyclist who frequently cycles in neighboring states, including Utah, I’m wondering how cyclists would do in Idaho, where many of the common cyclist “violations” — including the one specifically mentioned in this article — are officially legal. Idaho needs a 3-foot rule… but being able to legally treat stop signs as yield signs and stop lights as stop signs has allowed me to stay out of trouble with cars many, many times. And, I can legally ride my bike in a way that avoids a lot of hassle and delay for drivers.

    For example, at a four-way stop, if I get to the intersection first, I can proceed through when there is a car still approaching the intersection. The car has to stop either way, but if I roll the intersection, I’m through it before the vehicle is even stopped. If I have to stop, I still have the right of way, but it takes me a lot longer to cross the intersection, and the car has to wait for me. In Idaho, I can legally reduce or eliminate the delay for the motorist.

    Getting laws changed is hard, and so is getting drivers and cyclists educated… but I think it’s worth the effort.

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