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A Plea to Cyclists: Please Obey Traffic Laws

Friday, September 04, 2009 Posted by Travis Saunders
 Image by Fred Hsu.

This has been a tragic summer for cyclists.  First 5 cyclists were mowed down while riding in a bike lane in an Ottawa suburb, while another Ottawa area cyclist was seriously injured just weeks later.  Then there was the case of Brian Browers, a Kingston police officer who suffered life-threatening injuries after he was hit by a truck while cycling to work (Peter wrote an excellent editorial on Brian's story for the Kingston Whig Standard, which can be read here).   And just this week, the former Attorney General of Ontario was charged with criminal negligence following a bizarre accident that resulted in the death of a bike courier.  Something needs to be done, and I have a very simple solution - cyclists need to obey traffic laws.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not blaming the cyclists for all of these accidents.  In at least two of the incidents cited above, it appears that the cyclists were following every rule of the road, and had no hand in the accident that caused them so much harm.  And yet, whenever an article about a cycling accident is posted online (including Peter's recent post on the topic), the comments invariably question whether it was the cyclists' own recklessness that caused the crash.  In fact, it's the first question that comes into my head as well.  Why is that?  Because hardly anyone obeys even the most basic traffic laws when they are on a bike.  They run stop signs and red lights, turn without signaling, ride against traffic, and do all manner of things that they would never consider while driving a motor vehicle.  And I understand - I ride to work everyday, and it's awfully tempting to run through a red light when there is no traffic coming the other way.  But cycling will never be truly safe until all drivers treat cyclists like they deserve to be on the road.  And drivers will never give us that respect until we stop casually flaunting many of the most basic rules of the road (don't even get me started on Critical Mass, a protest group made up of cyclists who intentionally flout traffic laws in a misguided effort to prove that "we are traffic").

Just two weeks ago, my girlfriend and I rode our bikes from Canmore, Alberta, to Chase, British Columbia - a distance of roughly 500km on the Trans-Canada Highway which took us from one side of the Rocky Mountains to the other.  I was pretty apprehensive about our safety before the trip began, but once we got on the road I was constantly impressed by how many drivers (and especially truckers) slowed down and moved over while passing us, showing us as much respect as they would show to any other vehicle on the road.  There were of course those who passed us at full speed and came just inches from us and our bikes, but thankfully they were a small minority.  My point is that most drivers are careful and courteous while driving near cyclists.  Rarely do I see cyclists showing the same respect to motor vehicles.

The great tragedy is that when I ask people why they don't commute by bike more often, they almost always say that it's because they fear for their safety.  I understand - it's not fun when a bus mirror passes just inches from your shoulder while riding down a busy street.  But most people don't realize that if they obey basic traffic rules (and common sense), cycling is quite safe.  In fact, I have only been hit by a car once, and it was my own fault (I was riding on the sidewalk in undergrad, a practice which I have avoided ever since).  I know far more people who have been involved in accidents while driving a car than when riding their bikes.  True, the consequences are more severe when you're on a bike, but that's just one more reason to minimize your risk by obeying traffic rules.  And the benefits of commuting by bike vastly outweigh the risks. Commuting by bike even a few times a week can result in dramatic health benefits, reduce your carbon footprint, and free up space for other drivers on the road and in parking lots all at the same time.  Plus, it can be a beautiful way to get around!  Take, for example, these pictures from my daily 6km commute, roughly 2/3 of which is on a paved trail and 1/3 is on major roads.

Not a bad way to get to work, eh?  Of course I spend a few minutes surrounded by heavy traffic, but it is more than made up for by the beautiful surroundings the rest of the way.

I am hopeful that we will see changes that improve cycling safety in the near future - harsher penalties for drivers who hit cyclists, more bike lanes, etc - but this will never happen until the public sees cyclists as having a legitimate right to ride on the roads.  And that will never happen until more of us obey the rules of the road.

Peter summed it up best in his recent editorial:

"Until mutual respect develops between cyclists and motorists, few [individuals] will adopt habitual active transportation, no matter how many encouraging reports the medical community releases."  

Have a great long weekend, and consider going for a law-abiding ride if the weather permits!


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5 Response to "A Plea to Cyclists: Please Obey Traffic Laws"

  1. justjuliebean Said,

    It certainly seems as if you're blaming cyclists. The solution to cars mowing down cyclists in the bike lane, or while turning right on red, or many other things, is for cyclists to be more timid? How about jail time for motorists who kill cyclists out of negligence "I didn't see them", or "the sun was in my eyes", or "I was on the phone" or other lame excuse? In the city where I live, cars run red lights regularly as well. Who do you think is going to cause more damage-the bicyclist that pauses first to make sure nobody is coming, then goes early to get a bit in front of the cars, not so much in the way? Or the idiot illegally on the phone who didn't notice or doesn't care that the light has changed?

    Posted on September 4, 2009 at 12:12 PM

  2. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    I don't feel that cyclists deserve any more than their fair share of the blame for the current situation (and as I alluded to in my post, I certainly don't blame the cyclists in that incident). But I don't see how the situation is going to improve unless cyclists make the first move. Are we likely to see tougher jail sentences for motorists who kill cyclists, when there is the popular perception that many of those crashes are caused by the negligence of the cyclists themselves? We need to remove that excuse from drivers, so that if there is an accident where a cyclist is injured, people do not immediately assume that it was due to the cyclist's own dangerous behavior (which I fear is what happens at the moment).

    My suggestion has nothing to do with being timid - it has to do with following the rules of the road in a gesture of good faith, so that drivers can trust us to use the roads respectfully and that they should do the same.

    Each time that a cyclist runs through a red light (which in Ottawa happens with far more frequency than for motor vehicles), it allows drivers to remain complacent, and to rationalize their dangerous driving by telling themselves that all cyclists are reckless anyway. If we are asking for motor vehicles to respect the rules of the road, the very least we can do is to lead by example.

    Posted on September 4, 2009 at 12:31 PM

  3. tOM Trottier Said,

    It seems to me that might does not make right. The bigger, for safety and harmony, must give way to the smaller, the truck to the car, the car to the bike, the bike to the pedestrian.

    A witness in the Bryant case said Bryant actually bumped Sheppard deliberately, because he was going too slowly ahead of him. Then Sheppard came around to the driver-side door, angry, then was killed clutching the side mirror which he probably wanted to tear off.


    Why the road rage on both sides?

    We all need to calm down, to respect other road users, and make life easy for others as well as ourselves by accepting a little delay. That's one of the obligations that go with the benefits of civilisation.


    Posted on September 6, 2009 at 12:04 AM

  4. Lauri Said,

    You've both written on this topic and I've shared my view: both motorists and bicyclists need to learn to obey traffic laws.

    Critical Mass is popular here, usually once college starts up and traffic is a huge mess anyway. Today's newspaper has in it's weekly athletic column an article on 'pedal parties', 1 hour biking events of 200 bicyclists or more that encourage bicyclists and motorists to just get along. Oh and they start and/or stop at a bar.


    They state that they encourage following the rules of the road, but I'm not sure how 200 bicyclists are all going to stay to the right and let traffic flow through downtown, let alone while bar hopping.

    Bicycling like this encourages interaction with others so it's designed to be a slower moving affair and it's going to be very hard to police the actions of so many people at the myriad of intersections and oneway roads we have in our small downtown area.

    As it is, I gave up my 150cc scooter because I got tired of being taken as a personal challenge whenever I was in traffic. I'll now stick to the suburbs and highway. And avoid my own city on Thursday evenings.

    Posted on September 7, 2009 at 8:46 AM

  5. Anonymous Said,

    Huh. I was not aware of that cyclists often are reckless in traffic. I do not know how to drive, and will have to start regularly biking starting in a month, yet it seems obvious to me that I would have to learn general traffic rules as well as bike specific rules before getting on the road. Are the people who fail to comprehend that suicidal, or just that stupid?

    Posted on September 11, 2009 at 4:53 PM


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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