Folding Bikes Blog

Should Cyclists and Motorists be Subject to the Same Laws?

Rider on Montague Boston in traffic.

Bikes are different than cars: bikes have only two wheels; bikes are smaller and travel at slower speeds; people who ride bikes (cyclists) are not required to be a certain minimum age, pass a test, have a license, or register or insure their bicycles; there are no laws regulating the training of cyclists as there are for motorists. So why should cyclists be held to the same standards on their bikes as motorists in their cars? Why should cyclists be subject to the same traffic laws and fines for violations?

Part of the answer to the second question can be found by considering the relevant similarity between bikes and cars: it is legal to operate both bikes and cars on many of the same streets. If cyclists did not have to obey traffic laws, whenever a bike and car approached an intersection, the car would have to stop in order to avoid hitting the bike, even if the car had a green light. By stopping at the green light, while (importantly) sparing the cyclist, the motorist contradicts and thereby undermines the system of meaning that traffic signals are intended to convey. So in order to prevent corrosion of the traffic signal system and subsequent chaos, cyclists should follow the same traffic laws as motorists.

Given that cyclists should obey the same traffic laws as motorists, should they be subject to the same fines? This is where things start to get complicated.

Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon.

On the one hand, there is the idea of proportionality: the more severe the infraction, the more severe the sanction – in this case, the worse the violation, the higher the fine. Are traffic violations worse in a car than on a bike? In terms of the potential harm inflicted on others, yes, they are. Consider driving and biking the wrong way down a one way street: both are dangerous, but intuitively, the motorist is doing something far more dangerous, and therefore worse, than the cyclist. In principle, however, it’s not clear that one is worse than the other. As discussed above, cyclists should follow the same traffic laws as motorists in order to uphold a system that is supposed to enable road users to predict each other’s behaviour. In light of this system, all violations, whether by car or bike, are equally bad and therefore should incur the same fine.

On the other hand, there is the idea of deterrent: the higher the fine for a violation, the greater risk associated with it, the less likely it is to occur. It may be that bike fines are currently so low that they do not sufficiently discourage violations. For example, in Boston, a cyclist may be fined $20 for most traffic offenses; there is a proposal to raise this to $150  in an attempt to reduce bike traffic violations. In order to be an effective deterrent, however, the cyclist’s fine need not be as high as the motorist’s. Presumably, there is some threshold amount, say $50, that would stop most cyclists (and, for that matter, motorists) wantonly flouting traffic regulations. Any amount the over the threshold is not a deterrent, but a punishment. As discussed above, there is at least some reason to think that it is worse to commit traffic offenses in a car than on a bike; so there is some reason for motorists to pay higher fines than cyclists.  Perhaps cyclists should pay higher fines than they currently do for violating traffic laws, but not necessarily the same fines as motorists.

There is a lot more that could be said on this subject. What do you think about it? Do you think cyclists and motorists should follow the same laws? Do you think they should pay the same fines? How does enforcement factor into this? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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13 Comments

  1. Hal
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Most traffic laws apply to all road users, no matter what vehicle is being used. So, yes, cyclists and motorist are obligated to follow the same laws. For the occasional situation where a law is specific to type of vehicle (e.g., posted bicycles prohibited on freeways, driver and passengers must wear seatbelts, motorcycle riders and passengers must wear helmets) then the operators of these specific types of vehicles are obligated to obey those specific laws. If cyclists and motorists are engaged in the same behaviour that goes against common traffic laws, then yes, the fine should be the same. A fine is for the actions of the operator. For a parallel discussion go to http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post/8809/why-dont-people-obey-the-rules-when-they-ride-a-bike/

  2. Eli Damon
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    The real answer is a bit more complicated than your question allows, and too complicated for me to write about thoroughly right now. But the simplified answer is YES. All drivers of vehicles should obey the rules of the road. That is what makes the road predictable and safe for everyone. The basic rules of the road that we use have been refined over the past 150 years or so. There is always some room for improvement, but these rules accommodate pretty well the operating characteristics of vehicles and perceptual and cognitive abilities of people. Most deviations from these basic rules don’t work because they don’t accommodate the characteristics of drivers or vehicles as well.

    Regarding fines and Mayor Menino’s bill: Motor vehicles are much more dangerous than bicycles, so motorists should have a greater responsibility than cyclists. (That is why we require them to be licensed, registered, insured, etc.) So fines should be greater for motorists. Mayor Menino’s bill seems like a monomaniacal attempt to demonize cyclists while ignoring other traffic dangers. For example, $150 is the fine for exceeding the speed limit by 50-60MPH. Is a cyclist rolling past a stop sign at an otherwise empty intersection really as dangerous as a motorist going 90MPH in a 40MPH zone?

    The bill also ignores the fact cyclists are often punished for violating fictitious laws, so any attempt to single out cyclists for more punishment is poised for abuse.

    Also, I doubt that increasing fines for cyclists would have much of an effect. I think that the problem is one of education, not enforcement. As a cycling instructor, I believe that many cyclists don’t understand how they fit into the grand scheme of traffic, how the law applies to them, and why it is advantageous to obey it.

  3. Montague Bikes
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    @ Hal: Interesting point. I see you take a rule-based rather than a consequences-based approach to this issue. Do you think the potential for cars to cause more harm (and that cars often do cause more harm) should factor into the mix at all? Or do you think it is wholly irrelevant?

  4. Montague Bikes
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    @ Eli Damon: I think you’ll find that we agree that cyclists should follow the same laws as motorists and that we agree on the reason – we need to be able to predict others’ behaviour when we’re on the road and the traffic laws are what allow us to do this. But I’m not sure I understand your attitude towards fines. Motorists are educated prior to licensing (to some degree, at least), and enforcement of the laws (via fines/loss of license) is still necessary. Is there a reason you think education would have a greater effect when it comes to cycling? Do you think fines would be more effective if they were more regularly enforced?

  5. Eli Damon
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    First of all, I WAS MISTAKEN about the fines for speeding, so please ignore that example.

    What I meant about education is this. I think that many cyclists do not really think of themselves as drivers of vehicles, so it is difficult for them to make sense of the notion of applying vehicular rules to their own behavior. They often think of themselves either as pedestrians on wheels or as invisible “bike ninjas”, who don’t belong on the road but manage to find a space in the metaphorical cracks in society. I don’t mean to say that they don’t know or understand the laws in theory or how to follow them. I mean that they feel bound by two conflicting sets of rules–their own internal rules, and the law–and that makes them act irrationally.

    Here is an analogy. Imagine that someone is magically teleported from one world to another, but the teleportation fails half way through, and they are stuck in two places at once. They have one body, but that body is obstructed by all walls and other objects in both places. They might be on a basketball court in one world and in a restaurant in the other. So they are trying to play basketball, but at the same time they have to dodge tables in the restaurant. If you are with them in the basketball court world, their table dodging moves look pretty crazy to you because you don’t see the tables. Yelling at them to stop just confuses them more. What you need to do complete their teleportation so that they exist only on the basketball court and not in the restaurant.

    That is what education can do. It can bring cyclists fully into the driving world and out of the pedestrian on wheels world or the bike ninja world. Once cyclists understand why the rules are what they are and why the rules apply to them, and once they fully recognize themselves as drivers of vehicles and realize that acting as such gets them where they want to go with far greater speed, ease, safety, and peace of mind than they could manage before, then the rules will make sense to them, and they will want to follow those rules because the rules are essential to them being able to travel freely and efficiently. That is my opinion, based on my own experience of learning to drive a bicycle and my conversations with other students and teachers of bicycle driving.

  6. Eli Damon
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Let me add just a little bit more pedantry. What I am saying is that many cyclists are too concerned with other things–things that they can learn to free themselves from–for the fear of fines to register with them.

    Here is another analogy, a real-world one this time. According to a speech I heard, in countries where AIDS has been a huge problem, it has been difficult to convince people to take the problem seriously. Why? Because malaria is so much bigger of a problem that they just don’t have the attention to deal with the AIDS problem. But when the malaria problem comes under control, people manage to find attention for the AIDS problem. Traffic fines to many cyclists are like the AIDS problem in those countries. Bigger fines and more enforcement is more likely to discourage people from cycling period then convince them to follow the rules because the problem of their internal view of how traffic works preempts the problem of traffic fines.

  7. Colin
    Posted February 2, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Eli’s point about education having more potential than just more enforcement and higher fines sounds good to me (though I don’t know enough about most cyclists’ psychology to know whether that’s right).

    But the two things do go together. If you’re teaching somebody, it’s easier to make them remember and internalize a rule if you can tell them that there’s a serious penalty attached to it. I think some drug laws are objectively less justified than jaywalking laws, but I learned the drug laws very quickly because I was first told about them as laws that carried serious legal consequences and were seriously enforced.

  8. Montague Bikes
    Posted February 2, 2011 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the input. How do you think this education should be approached? Should it be government mandated, as it is for driver licensing? Or do you think a series of PSAs could be effective? For long term social change, education is arguably very important, but it seems like it would be difficult to get cyclists to voluntarily submit to some kind of training.

  9. Dave
    Posted February 2, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    In Illinois, it was once proposed that stop signs could be treated like yield signs on side streets.

  10. Hal
    Posted February 4, 2011 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    @Montague Bikes; My rationale for a “rule-based” fine structure as opposed to a “consequences-based” structure is, even though a motor-vehicle (e.g., car) has potential to do more damage, the liability for the potential collision or damage is still on who’s at fault. For example, the only time in my 40+ years of cycling (and I’m knocking on wood now) I’ve been hit by a car was at a residential neighbour intersection with stop signs for the street I was about to cross. I could tell that the car coming to the intersection from my left was going too fast to stop according to the sign, so I stopped before entering the intersection. Unfortunately, the driver of the other car traveling in the opposite direction from me didn’t stop before entering that intersection. When the two cars collided, the car that went through the stop sign was veered to the right and clipped the rear portion of my bike (wheel and cargo rack) dumping me down on the road (only sustained a deep bruise on left leg) and that car came to a stop on the porch of the house on that corner. The other car was veered to the left and passed in front of my bike within three feet. Of course it was the fault of the 16-year-old kid who ran the stop sign and I’m sure there were significant fines as well as other penalties for him. Now, had it been me who didn’t stop at a stop sign and the kid swerved to miss me (hopefully, again knocking on wood) and collided with the other car, there would likely be comparable damage, even if he were not speeding. Who’s at fault in the latter scenario? It would obviously be my fault. So, the overall consequences could likely be the same and even though I was riding a bike instead of driving a car, it would have been my actions and I would have been fined. And on top of that, as another person posted, I’m not required to have road insurance. If it were my fault I’d still be responsible for damages. Consequences result from actions or failure to act and rules (i.e., traffic laws) are our societies’ attempts to reasonably limit actions that could lead to unwanted consequences. Cyclists have as much responsibility as any other road user for their actions.

    As to the education part, that’s more difficult. I’ve worked with cycling groups in several cities and on a wider scale to promote awareness and education for motorists and cyclists. I don’t think mandates for cyclists to complete and pass cycling education is the answer, at this time. We first need to change the view of many people (cyclists and non-cyclists) that bicycles are vehicles and not sporting equipment or toys. It really takes a multi-pronged approach. PSAs and other general awareness initiatives, such as the Share the Roads campaigns, are effective while they are happening, but in my experience the messages tend to fade over time. Ongoing is best. Enforcement (back to that question) also appears to change cycling behaviour, but again only when it’s consistent.

  11. Eli Damon
    Posted February 4, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    You are right. The most difficult part of teaching cycling is convincing people that there is actually something valuable to learn. I think that education should take many forms. I would like to see PSAs. I would like to see it taught in schools. I would like to see it as part of driver education and re-education for motorists. I would like to see it take forms that I haven’t even thought of. There are a number of people working on things like this in various parts of the United States, and it is very advanced in the United Kingdom. I am incredibly impressed with the work of Keri Caffrey and Mighk Wilson in Orlando, FL (commuteorlando.com, cyclingsavvy.org). I, myself, was working on some education projects. They were put on hold, along with the entire rest of my life, when I started to be targeted by some anti-cycling police departments whose actions have prevented me from traveling freely for the past year and a half. However, I plan to resume these projects once I am free again. I should point out that driver education for motorists is not government mandated as you implied, although motorists do need to demonstrate some basic competence and knowledge. Mandatory driver education for cyclists would be highly impractical and unfairly restrictive. Remember that free travel is a fundamental right, but operating an inherently dangerous machine, like a motor vehicle, is a privilege.

  12. Michael Neubert- or
    Posted February 26, 2011 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    I am surprised this question would be coming up now – it seems like it is mostly a settled issue that cyclists, when operating on the roadways with cars, are subject to the same laws. (That they may – or may not – have different fines etc. is separate.)

    Reading Jeff Mapes’ book, “Pedaling Revolution,” one reads that it was in the 1970s that John Forester (eventually president of the League of American Wheelmen) pushed strongly for equal rights for cyclists in reaction to laws in California relegating cycles to sidewalks or bike paths – eventually have national success in this. But a big part of his approach was to downplay the utility of dedicated cycling approaches, whether bicycle paths or lanes or whatever. There is a brief biography in wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Forester_(cyclist)

    Another important thing Forester did was push for effective training for cycling, embodied in his 653 page book “Effective Cycling” – a shorter updated version is the basis for programs today, but Forester apparently regards his rather longer approach as what cyclists need. He did not think much of casual cyclists.

    So I am wondering if you are aware of this history? Presumably you are not asking whether bike lanes, sharrows, or cycle paths are a good thing. But in fact (crazy or not) there has been a connection between such things and equality on the road (as in cyclists shouldn’t expect both). And the effective education question has been connected with making cycling more popular – someone like Forester, who was an influential activist for decades, not wanting people who couldn’t finish his huge book out riding, which hardly seems likely to popularize cycling for incidental short trips to the grocery store.

  13. Posted February 28, 2011 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the reference – I’ll definitely check it out.

    And yes, I do think that this is still a pertinent question, considered either practically or theoretically. In theory, as discussed in the post, if cars and bikes are going to be sharing the same streets, they need to follow the same rules. But as a practical question, bikes and cars are different in so many respects, I think it is still relevant to ask whether it makes sense for them to follow the same laws (e.g. Idaho stop laws for bikes, but not for cars), especially when you consider that drivers are required to undergo mandatory training and testing, whereas cyclists are not.

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