Ninth Avenue, Midtown South Precinct. Photo: Stephen Miller

Follow the law at your own peril… or not.


“Follow the law in a car in New York City and you’re pretty well guarded against death. Or don’t! You’re still safer than anyone else on the road. Follow the law on a bike, however, and you’re not necessarily safe at all”, from an article I referenced on Monday.

I’m sure you’ve all seen this by now, but, although humorous, it does illustrate a very real problem:

And, from the wordsmith Wankmeister, we have the recent discussion of the very same topic from a slightly different angle, in response to another discussion of one much the same.

These are all addressing the basic problem, which is this: We (cyclists) are classified as vehicles on the road and are subject to the same laws and responsibilities, as well as the same privileges (hold the laughter), that motorised vehicles are. Technically. These are put in place in the interest of order for, and the safety of, the general public. However, sometimes those same laws, although not their intention, actually put cyclists in danger – sometimes acutely so. In the interest of self-preservation, it is in the cyclists best interest to ignore certain laws and responsibilities in certain contexts at certain times, so as not to inconveniently cave in your windscreen or dirty the underside of your car.

Sometimes provisions in the form of infrastructure are mistakenly seen by those who don’t cycle, as well as by some who do, as laws to be followed at all costs, such as installing bike lanes and making sure we stay in them at all times (except when you actually have to). Aside from the fact that cyclists (usually) don’t have to use the bike lane, parking is either allowed in them or not enforced when it’s not, the broken glass, garbage, and random detritus that has been swept into them is left for cyclists to navigate around, the city uses them for posting signage, or simply designs them in such a poor fashion (ie, far too narrow with traffic moving far too fast, or terminating at a very dangerous pinch-point) that it is easier or safer to simply not use it. If you don’t think this is the case, you may want to watch the video again. This kind of thing is in no way unusual. “Taking the lane” is, in light of this, quite a rational and reasonable thing to do. These are problems that effect the well-being and safety of cyclists lives, quite literally.

Then you have the things that cyclists do that don’t have quite the same effect on whether they live or die or end up with a permanent injury of some kind. These are less of a personal safety issue and more of a social/convenience issue.

Running red lights when safe but when other cars are present; not slowing down and/or giving adequate space when passing pedestrians on shared paths; leaning on cars when waiting at lights while still clipped in; taking the lane when personal safety is not compromised to prove a point (hot tip: you are proving exactly the opposite point you think you are). These are things that do the greater cycling community a disservice and generally ignite the ire of motorists who may be neutral or already decided on how they feel about cyclists.

I understand the temptation to “fight back”. It’s easy to ride aggressively as a reaction to perceived persecution from motorists and “the man”. Some people try taking a political stand every time they ride their bikes, as if just riding it responsibly wasn’t already doing that. That’s like someone getting all shouty in public about political issue X and then not voting or writing the politician(s) concerned or attending the local town hall/city council/public forum meeting and speaking up. It just radicalizes you and provides no positive legacy for the cause.

You have a responsibility to your personal safety. When that is no longer in question, you have a responsibility to be a law-abiding, responsible, and respectable citizen. Most of the time, you can do both.


Header image: Stephen Miller/StreetsblogNYC