One last thing about safety and etiquette. This may seem obvious, but traffic laws are intended to make traffic flow more smoothly by getting us to follow some basic principles.
Stop signs are there to tell people going one direction to stop. The clear implication is that people going the other direction don’t stop. It makes things nice and orderly. We don’t hit each other. That’s pretty much the way most traffic regulations work.
Sometimes, someone tries to be polite and stops when s/he doesn’t have to. Let’s say I’m proceeeding north on my bike and you’re proceeding east in your car. I’m stopped at the stop sign with my foot on the ground. You don’t have a stop sign. Convention says you keep going, but you want to be polite to the bicyclist and you stop and wave me through. Now what? I can accept your generous offer and go, or I can point to my stop sign and wave you through.
Let’s say I (bike is the white car) take you (you are the blue car) up on your offer and I start to cross the intersection. A car behind you (red car), wondering why you stopped for no reason, pulls around and hits me. Oops.
Or maybe there are two lanes and the car in the next lane over doesn’t know why you stopped and continues through, since he has the right of way. Oops. (Sorry about the white arrow indicating the bike turning the wrong way in this instance. I “borrowed” these diagrams and added to them. Think of the bike going straight.)
Or maybe the traffic going your way stops but traffic going the other way doesn’t. Oops.
Or maybe you change your mind and decide to go again; maybe you remember you’re in a hurry, maybe you didn’t think I took you up on your offer soon enough, maybe you just have it in for bicyclists and decide to run me down.
In all of these scenarios, the bicyclist loses. In all of these scenarios, the bicyclist is at fault in the crash, for failing to yield the right of way. Maybe in the last paragraph’s choices, where the very car that waved me through hits me, I have an argument. But that supposes that: 1) I’m alive; 2) I don’t have a head injury resulting in amnesia for the time surrounding the crash (common in even mild traumatic brain injury or concussion); 3) the motorist admits fault; 4) the police/judge/jury believe the bicyclist over the motorist. We all know that bicyclists can’t be trusted. In the post “Better Safe than Sorry”, I alluded to the “otherness” ascribed to bicyclists in our car-centric culture. My daughter reminded me that this experience is common to all “other” groups. We are seen as representative of a class and not as credible as the dominant class. The bicyclist in this scenario may be considered an unreliable witness because he might have a head injury and thus remember it wrong (ironic, if this is actually someone who does remember), or just unreliable for his “otherness”.
Regardless of the question of fault (actual or ascribed), it is always the bicyclist who comes out of this scenario with the physical injuries. That’s why, if you try to wave me through a stop sign out of politeness or solidarity or for any other reason, I probably won’t take you up on the offer. I risk being seen as rude or unappreciative, but I don’t risk being dead.
P.S. I will admit that I accepted a “wave through” this winter. I was stopped at a stop sign, foot down, waiting for traffic to clear. The next car that approached on the through street was a police car. The officer stopped and waved me through. The temperature was -5° Fahrenheit. There were no other cars approaching from either direction. Rather than “argue” (even if only with hand signals and pointing, as his window was closed) with a police officer on a cold day, I went through the intersection.
P.P.S. I can’t end this topic without acknowledging John Forester, a bicycle transportation engineer, originator of the “Effective Cycling” program, advocate of “vehicular cycling”, and one of the prime thinkers in the area of bike safety. I also want to acknowledge Bob Mionske, former professional bike racer and now attorney working in the field of bicycle safety and rights. He writes a regular column for VeloNews. Some of the ideas in the last three posts certainly came from them.
P.P.P.S. A Dude Abikes posted on safety this week, about a campaign in Austin – “Please be kind to cyclists” – check it out.
Next week: urban cycling, San Francisco