Should Cyclists Obey the Traffic Laws?
Questions about what
the traffic laws are and why cyclists should obey them come up from time to
time. Explaining the traffic laws is not too difficult, although the laws do vary
from state to state and the interpretation of them from person to person.
A strong reason for obeying them can be found by looking at accident statistics.
However, there is another issue involved in obeying the law that I will
discuss here: if the action is perfectly safe but is also against the law,
are we still under any obligation to obey the law?
Our Change in Attitudes towards Laws
If this question
had been asked during the fifties or earlier, it would have been answered
with scorn. But during the sixties, large numbers of people recognized
that obeying the law was sometimes harmful because sometimes the law itself
was wrong. Therefore, we had a civil rights movement, an antiwar movement,
and several other smaller movements in which people purposely disobeyed
the law. In addition, there was a general feeling of rebellion that caused
many people to quit obeying rules and regulations, and to start living
quite differently from what was "expected" of them. Since then, people
have become less trustful of the government, and young people have grown
up believing that authority is wrong, and maybe the laws too.
Bicycling Gets Separate Treatment
I think people are also
more likely to break traffic laws when riding a bike than when driving a car. There's
a reason for this that predates the civil rights movement: police generally pay litttle
attention to bicycle riders. If you ran a red light in front of a police officer in a car, he
would almost certainly stop you. However, if you ran the same street light on your
bike, he probably would not. Two reasons probably lie behind this behavior. One is
that the officer recognizes that you're not liable to injure anyone except yourself.
The other is that the police, like everyone else, often think in terms of motor vehicle
laws rather in terms of traffic laws. Therefore, they focus their attention on motorists
and ignore pedestrians and cyclists. Unfortunately, this behavior sends the message,
which is not true, that cyclists and pedestrians don't have to obey the traffic laws.
Six Reasons for Moral Judgments
One of the problems
then in answering the question "Should we obey the law?" is who am I talking
to, and why does this person wish to disobey the law?
In 1971, I read
an article by Lawrence Kohlberg which defined six type of people according to
their reasons for making moral judgments. He established
these six types through asking people questions about a situation in which
any reasonable person would feel obligated to break the law and then asking
for their justification. I have extended his definitions to motorists and
Type I people are
are primarily worried about getting punished. These people do not
analyze or reason, and their moral development is very limited. As motorists, they
are very law-abiding, but they are likely to react poorly in an emergency
and to explode with anger easily. As bike riders, they stick to the sidewalk,
coasting at walking speed.
Type II people
are very selfish, and will modify their behavior only if they get rewarded
as a result. As motorists, they are worried only with themselves, and they
don't care about others. As bike riders, they will ride on the sidewalk and
will run anyone down; they will not ride a bike for altruistic reasons, such
as to benefit the environment.
Type III people
are governed by how everyone else is acting. They follow fashions and
trends and shape their judgment to fit the community around them. As
motorists, they are going to drive as they see others in their community
driving, whether fast or slow, carefully or recklessly. As cyclists, they
will ride on the sidewalk or the street according to other's behavior.
Type IV people
believe in law and order. They have great respect for the law, and they
will inconvenience themselves and go against the majority to obey it.
As motorists, they strictly obey the traffic handbook. As cyclists, they
obey the cycling laws if they know them.
Type V people
are more governed by the spirit and the intent of the law. These people
recognize that the law does not have to be obeyed literally; it's the purpose
and the result that are important. As motorists, they would be more concerned
with safety that with the traffic code. As cyclists, they would be more
flexible in their interfacing with traffic.
Type VI people
are governed by a sense of justice. They recognize that the law
is a set of rules only, and that those rules can be changed at any time,
and they look beyond the intent of the law and the immediate result to
see what the final result will be. These people are very likely to deliberately
break the law in order to get it changed. They are very likely to not drive
cars at all, even if riding a bicycle means great personal inconvenience.
They would normally cooperate in traffic, but if they felt that blocking traffic
would make a significant difference, they would be willing to do so. In
addition, they would be willing to go to jail, in fact, would ask to be
taken to jail, in order to stand up for their beliefs.
Of course, in explaining
why cyclists should obey the law, I would have to give a somewhat different
explanation to each group of people. Type I and II will be the least reachable; they
are governed by their self-interest alone, are likely uneducated and are more
likely to be fearful of or in trouble with the law. Law enforcement is the only way
to change their behavior. Type III and IV cyclists are most strongly governed
by social approval. They make up the bulk of the population and of those with high-school
and college educations. Type III individuals are going to be governed by what other
people are doing, for the better or the worst. Type IV individuals are best governed
by explaining to them the law. Type V and VI individuals are going to usually finish
graduate school. They will have a sophisticated understanding and abstract ideas.
They will want to argue quite a bit. Type V individuals, for all their sophistication, are
going to want to go along with society, even if not completely convinced, but Type VI
individuals are much more morally stubborn and are less concerned with personal well-being.
All of these people
have the ability to change from one type to the other, but the
change upward is gradual, as a person can relate to only the next highest level. On
the other hand, they all have the ability to understand the moral positions below
themselves. We are all motivated, for instance, by concern for our personal safety.
People are not entirely consistent, and the person who is willing to picket
against pollution may drive a car every day with a bad muffler. The cyclist who is
highly indignant of a motorist running a traffic light may think nothing of running
traffic lights himself. When arguing for something
convenient, it's probably just as well to argue to people's base instincts (cycling is
fun), but when we are trying to get them to make sacrifices, it's probably better to
appeal to their higher moral instincts. Such an appeal would be best if it
spoke to all levels, or at least the top five levels. (Sometimes cyclists say
to me, "Why do you include arguments about the environment? No one would ride
a bicycle to counter global warming. But type VI cyclists would.)
How and When to Disobey the Law
If in reading this
article, you feel that you belong to the last group, I would suggest you
read very carefully, if you have not already done so, Henry Thoreau's "Civil
Disobedience," Martin Luther King's "Letter
from the Birmingham Jail," and this
discussion of Mohandas Gandhi's use of civil disobedience and non-cooperation.
I have the perfect
story to show how Thoreau, Gandhi, and King are misunderstood. On my New
England bike trip, I stopped at Walden Pond. As I was visiting the site
of Thoreau's cabin, a young man rode up on his mountain bike, enjoying
a good ride. But, the whole park was posted "NO BICYCLE RIDING ON THE TRAILS."
So, I asked him why he was riding there, and he said, "Well, I'm just like
Thoreau; if I don't think the law is right, I just don't obey it." But
he's not like Henry Thoreau; he's the exact opposite. Thoreau, Gandhi,
and King all point out clearly that they are not saying, "Do whatever
you want to do, if you can get away with it." They recognize the value
of the law and deeply respect the law. They are saying that there are times
when it is necessary to break the law for a higher purpose.
the most dramatic examples. With a large gathering of people, he
walked completely across India to the sea. At the sea, he deliberately
scooped up a cup of water in front of law officials and the press in order
to make salt. He was immediately arrested because the British had a monopoly
on making salt, charging outrageous prices. When taken to court, he did
not defend himself; instead he insisted that either the law was wrong or
he must be given the most severe punishment possible. He was sentenced
to prison, and once inside, he began starving himself to death. The British
were afraid that he would die, so they released him. As soon as possible,
he returned to the sea and began making salt once again. He persisted in
this fashion until the salt law was repealed.
nor Gandhi nor King ever advocated breaking laws on the sly for personal
convenience; they attacked unjust laws at their own risk in order to improve
society. Thoreau said, "If I have taken a plank from a drowning man, I
must restore it to him although I drown myself." In Walden, Thoreau discussed
Mirabeau's deliberate commission of crimes in order to prove his manhood,
and Thoreau said a man "would have found himself often enough 'in formal
opposition' to what are deemed 'the sacred laws of society' through obedience
to yet more sacred laws, and so would have tested his resolution without
going out of his way." All of us, at one time or another, must stand our
ground or forever surrender to injustice. Anyone who rides a bicycle on
the road knows what I am talking about. Every cyclist who has refused to
get off of the road after being blasted by the horn of a rapidly approaching
truck knows what it means to be willing to die for what he or she believes.
Civil Disobedience on the Roadway
At one time in
America, back in the fifties, if you wanted to walk across a street, you
did it to your own peril. No motorist was ever going to slow down, and
if your skin was black, the motorist would be likely to step on the gas.
Somehow, during the civil rights struggle, it occurred to Blacks that it
was no longer dignified to scurry across the street to get out of the way
of Whites. So, young Blacks would slow down when a car approached and slowly
cakewalk their way across the road, as if in a parade. Sometimes they would
even do it when they didn't even want to cross the street. One even cakewalked
in front of my bicycle. The motorists thought they were crazy. I thought
they were wonderful. By slowly walking across the street, they were standing
up as individuals, as a race, as pedestrians, as Americans, and as human
beings. Ever since then, motorists will slow down for pedestrians in the
road, at least in Alabama. In the same way, the only way for the roads
to be open to the cyclists is for the cyclists themselves to take back
the roads. No one is every going to give us anything more than a bikepath
from nowhere to nowhere unless we make them. The rule from history is that
no one was ever given their freedom; everyone had to take it. Black history
illustrates this better than anything else. Abraham Lincoln didn't free
the slaves; Rosa Parks and many others had to free themselves.
The Power of Cooperative Disobedience
A large group of
people can have a wonderful power against oppression. During World War II, Hitler found some counties much easier to occupy than others. The Danes resisted Jewish persecution and eventually smuggled their Jewish population to Sweden. Gandhi once asked the people of India to not go to work for one day. He couldn't ask for a complete strike because
the people were very poor, just for one day. The British said that any worker
who refused to appear would lose his or her job forever. Not one person
in all of India showed up for work! After that day, the end of the British
rule in India was just a matter of time.
So, I would advise
all cyclists everywhere to organize and to stand up for your rights.
What Kind of Laws to Protest
In picking your
battles, however, be sure to pick them carefully. Every battle that Gandhi
and King fought was careful thought about ahead of time. What cyclists
especially need to stand up for are those rights already found in their
state laws that they have not been able to enjoy; in particular, the right
to be able to travel wherever they want to go. Cyclists should not ask
for special privileges or laws that other vehicle operators don't enjoy.
Which Laws Must be Obeyed
Now we come to
the issue of, why not go ahead and run a red light if we can get away with
I cannot think
of a more self-destructive position for cyclists to take. To expect the police and
the law to protect us from motorists who run red lights and disobey the
law, but to continue to break the law at every opportunity ourselves! This
is not civil disobedience; this is truancy. If we do this, we are expecting
others to obey laws that we ignore. If the motorists who see us cheating
decide that it's OK for them to cheat too, what are we going to do then?
Do you think any policeman is going to be on our side when we consider
ourselves above the law and expect the motorist to be punished for the
slightest infraction? We have to stand on a firm moral footing.
Which Laws Should be Broken and How
It's not that some
laws can't be broken. Unjust laws that restrict bicycle passage or that
require us to ride on sidewalks are the ones we ought to break. To me,
the people who rode across the Bay Bridge were heroes; they harmed no one,
endangered no one, set no bad precedents, and made a strong point.
They broke the law, not for their own personal convenience, but to get
the law changed. There are many cities with bridges that are open only
to motor vehicles or that require the cyclists to either ride on the sidewalk
among pedestrians or to walk, sometimes up steep stairways. Those cities
need cyclists willing to ride their bridges also.
Personal Disobedience for Convenience
On the other hand,
other laws are for everyone's safety. They are not designed to hinder cycling;
they make cycling safer. To me, the people who run red lights "because
they won't get hit" are bums. They are not heroes, they are cowards. They
are not standing for principles, they are taking the easy way out. They
are not type VI cyclists, they are type II's. (This
is not meant to criticize those cyclists who live in cities where the traffic
lights won't work for bicycles.)
One of my students
once complained about "reverse discrimination" in her high school. The
White students had to behave, turn in homework, etc., the Black students
did not. I told her, "That's not reverse discrimination; that's the real
thing." In Jim Crow Alabama, if a White killed a White, he went to jail.
If a Black killed a Black, he went free. In the same way, when the police
enforce the traffic laws against motorists and let the cyclists ride on
the sidewalks, the wrong side of the road, run red lights, and ride without
lights at night, they are not doing the cyclists or cycling a favor. Anyone
who supports these activities wants to have Jim Crow cycling.
Protest through Obedience
Actually, a very good way
to protest discrimination is by obeying the law. Rather than accept the second-rate
statis forced on cyclists, protest by strictly obeying every law, just as if you were
in a motor vehicle. As you do that, you are sending a message to every motorist
and every police officer that you have the same rights as all other vehicle users.
In 1999 for the first time, I had a police officer stop me and tell me that I should be
on the sidewalk, and he said he would impound my bike if he caught me on the
street again, but I stood up for my rights when talking to him, and I immediately
sent his captain a copy of the state laws on cycling. The captain told me he
investigated and made sure the officer was informed about the laws concerning
the use of bicycles on the road.
Good Wishes towards Critical Mass
realize that those of you involved in Critical Mass are dealing with a
situation where one person does one thing and the other another, but you
have a great deal of influence on each other nonetheless. Good luck on
all your efforts!