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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