Are we failing our young bike riders?

I recently received a link to an online story in which a driver threatened to kill cyclists.

Or more precisely, he was afraid that he might.

The link came from David Huntsman, a lawyer and fellow bike advocate from Newport Beach, who was naturally outraged at the writer’s auto-centric windshield perspective.

My name is Nick Scholz, and I’m going to kill you.

Now, I don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with you guys. Heaven knows there are few groups more organized or zealous than outdoor bicyclists. Believe me when I tell you that I don’t wish to kill you. I’m not going to narrow my eyes and rev my engine menacingly at you. I don’t count the cyclists I crash into with notches on a special stencil on the side of my car.

Rest assured: if I kill you, it will be by accident.

His argument is that cyclists need to choose.

We can ride on the streets and be treated like other road users. Or we can ride on the sidewalks and be treated like pedestrians.

To the casual observer, it would appear that most of you are positively suicidal. It looks like you have chosen my car to be the Chariot of Fire that whisks you away to the Hereafter. Sadly, that moniker will probably become truer than you could know as your carbon-fiber bicycle gets stuck in my engine chassis at 50 miles per hour.

But, even sadder is the fact that this is not a suicide. Nor a murder. This is merely a tragedy that can  be avoided if only the cyclists will decide whether they are pedestrians or riding a vehicle.

Problem is, he has a point.

Our roads, and the laws that govern them, operate on the principle of predictability of movement. In other words, road users need to know whether other road users are going stop or proceed through the intersection, turn or go straight, and who has the right of way.

That’s why we have stop signs and red lights, are expected to signal, and yield to other road users when they have the right of way and we don’t.

It’s not perfect system.

It doesn’t take into account that cyclists are neither motorists or pedestrians. Or that it doesn’t always make sense for us to stop at stop signs when there is no conflicting traffic or pedestrians.

But it’s the system we have right now. And drivers need to know what we’re going to do in order to avoid a collision, which they don’t want any more than we do.

Even if they don’t always obey the law themselves.

And the consequences can be devastating.

Just this week, two SoCal cyclists were killed after reportedly riding through red lights.

In one case, the rider may have been trying to beat the light, and could have fallen victim to a short yellow on a wide intersection, which didn’t give him a fighting chance to get all the way across the cross street before cross traffic started.

In the other, a young rider on a fixie, apparently with no brakes, rode into a busy intersection without stopping and was hit by two cars in rapid succession.

Let’s be honest.

It’s one thing to roll through a stop sign, just like virtually every driver does. Slow down, look in every direction, and if — and only if — the way is clear, you can usually proceed without posing any unnecessary risk to yourself or anyone else.

Bearing in mind, of course, that you’re still breaking the law.

But red lights are another matter.

I’ve been roundly criticized in the past for criticizing riders for running red lights. But the fact is, there is no rational excuse for failing to stop when required at a signalized intersection.

It’s the law. It makes all of us look bad when one us of doesn’t, as far too many drivers lump everyone on two wheels together and seem to lack sufficient discernment to make the mental calculation that just because one cyclist — or a hundred cyclists — break the law, that doesn’t mean we all do.

Let alone that most of them routinely break the law themselves, even as they swear at us for doing it.

And don’t give me the excuse that it’s safer than waiting at the intersection. I’ve been stopping for red lights for over three decades, and I’m still here.

It’s just a matter of knowing how to do it.

And as this week’s deaths make painfully clear, failing to stop is dangerous as hell.

Not to mention that if you do get hit after going through a stop sign or red light, you lose all liability protection — regardless of what the driver who hit you may or may not have been doing.

Go through a stop, you’re at fault.

Case dismissed.

It may not be fair. The driver could have been drunk or distracted, speeding or breaking the law in some other way. But none of that will matter to a jury.

As far as they’re concerned, you broke the law, it’s your fault. Period.

Some would even go so far as to consider a cyclist who ran a red in traffic suicidal.

And it certainly seems that way at first blush. Even riders who routinely go through reds usually know enough to stop, or at least slow down, when cars are coming.

But what if they don’t?

What if an inexperienced rider gets in over his or her head, trying to make it across a busy intersection he should have stopped at. Or finding himself riding too fast to stop, on a bike with no brakes, when the light changes with too little warning.

Even experienced riders make mistakes. It’s easy to get in over your head, make the wrong decisions in rapidly changing traffic conditions or overestimate your own skills.

It’s even easier for in experienced riders.

It took me years, if not decades, to master the Tao of riding on busy roads. And even then, I still make mistakes; fortunately, I’ve had the skills to get myself out of it.

So far, at least.

Beginning riders don’t.

Unlike when I grew up, there’s no training in bike laws and riding skills in our schools. There’s no official training programs for beginning cyclists, or any other established method of reaching out to young riders to say do this, not that.

Like don’t push the limits and get yourself into a situation you can’t get out of. And maybe it’s not smart to ride with no brakes, even if that is the trendy thing to do these days.

Instead, they learn by emulating their friends, who may have been riding longer, but have no more knowledge of even the most basic traffic laws than they do.

We assume that everyone is familiar with traffic laws because they’ve taken their test and gotten a driver’s license.

But many young riders — and even some older ones — don’t have a license, whether by choice or some other reason. And so they may have no working knowledge of the laws that govern our streets.

I’ve spoken with some who didn’t have a clue that their right to the road is governed by the same laws that restrict motor vehicles.

They actually don’t know that bikes are required to stop for stop signs and red lights, just like cars. That they have to signal their turns, even though many other cyclists and most drivers don’t. Or even that they’re required to use lights at night or to ride with traffic, instead of making their way up the wrong side like salmon on their way to spawn.

And we all know what happens to salmon once they spawn, right?

Because no one ever told them.

They haven’t been taught the laws that govern cycling because no one bothered to do it. And in that, we, as a society and a cycling community, have failed them.

Many motorists think the solution is to license and register cyclists, just like drivers are. I won’t waste your time explaining why that’s not the answer; others have made the same points before, anyway.

Maybe there should be some sort of state or school-sponsored bicycle certification training. Maybe riders should get a discount on car insurance or bike parts if they complete one or more of the League of American Bicyclist’s training classes.

Maybe it’s up to our local cycling groups to step into the breach and offer rider education; the LACBC recently voted to reestablish its Education Committee in an attempt to address this problem.

Or maybe its up to you and me to offer advice, even unsolicited, when we see a rider doing something dangerous. Even though experience says the response will be made with just one finger, or its vocal equivalent.

I don’t have the answer. I just know that we need to find it.

Because right now, too many beginning riders are forced to figure it out for themselves.

And failing.

18 comments

  1. Psy says:

    I certainly agree with you – I actually ranted about something similar myself just this morning.

    However, perhaps I’m alone here – I distinctly remember in driver’s ed years ago, back in high school, having a unit about cyclists as vehicular drivers and the rules they needed to follow. We were taught about taking the lane, using lights when riding at night, always stopping at signs and signals, using hands as turn signals, etc. And, in turn, we learned as motorists what rights cyclists have on the road.

    I honestly don’t even know if driver’s ed is taught in school anymore, with all the California budget cuts. But it’s something I’ve always remembered, and would love to see more of.

    And…if I’m not mistaking, didn’t Long Beach recently try to implement a traffic school for bikes type program?

  2. complete nonsense.

    though i will give you credit for actually considering the fact that a dead cyclist was potentially _not_ breaking the law. big step for you.

    no amount of your blaming cyclists for criminal driver behavior will result in safer streets — just the opposite in fact.

    get on the right side of history.

    • Evan says:

      I’m not saying that a green light is an excuse for a driver to run over a cyclist or pedestrian, but someone crossing the street against a red light is putting themselves in great jeopardy. There’s no excuse for doing so.

  3. bikinginla says:

    Big step for me? Sounds like you’re not a regular reader of this blog. I’ve criticized dangerous drivers far more than I have cyclists — and always try to place blame where it actually lies whenever there’s enough information to make an accurate assessment.

    But I should thank you, Peter — you’re the first person who’s ever said I was biased towards drivers instead of cyclists.

  4. peter says:

    I’m like you – I always stop at lights and generally stop at stop signs, although, like you, I will admit to occasionally carefully treating them like yields. But that can be a bad habit to get into. All it takes is one time messing up – better to develop the firm habit of always stopping.

    The worst thing is, although I follow the rules of the road and I try to share the road politely, if I am ever hit by an automobile I imagine I will be tarred with the brush of the “typical reckless bicyclist” and blamed for the accident even if I am not at all at fault.

    You seem to well understand the needs to follow the rules of the road and why, but I notice in other postings you have railed at us “vehicular cyclists” for opposing various bicycling facilities.

    The problem is, many facilities put bicyclists in the dangerous role of following different road rules than automobiles. They can make the bicyclist less visible and less perdictable to other road users. That is why most VCers are unenthusiastic about nearly all facilities such as bike lanes and, worst, side paths in suburbs.

    I realize that many bicyclists already bicycle so dangerously that things like bike lanes certainly won’t endanger them anymore than they already are and by attracting timid cyclists they can, in the long run, possibly make roads safer for many bicyclists. But in the short run they offer no real safety and many of us feel that is ethically wrong – to put in a facility that people think is safer when it is not.

    • bikinginla says:

      Just to be clear, Peter, I have no problem with Vehicular Cyclists or Vehicular Cycling; thanks to L.A.’s lack of infrastructure, I ride VC at least part of my ride every time I leave my home.

      My problem comes when VC riders stand in the way of good infrastructure projects and laws that the overwhelming majority of riders want. When L.A. recently updated its bike plan, riders and potential riders did not beg for the opportunity to ride vehicularly, they demanded more bike lanes.

      As for safety, I’ve ridden VC, as well as in bike lanes & bike paths for over 30 years. I personally have always felt safer and more comfortable in a well-designed bikeway than in the lane in front of impatient and distracted drivers.

      And I think the question of whether bikeways are safe has been answered in New York City, which as doubled the number of bike lanes in recent years. Ridership has also doubled, while the rate of cycling injuries have remained flat, and the rate of collisions for all road users has dropped.

      VC is a valuable technique, but it has never been shown to improve safety or increase ridership; in fact, based on the low rates of ridership and high fatality rates of the 80s, 90s and early 2000s, it can be reasonably argued that the exact opposite is true.

      • Peter says:

        I ask you to consider why you think things like bike lanes would be safer given what you know about safe interactions with other traffic. The only thing a bike lane can help reduce is hit from behind collisions, a very rare accident in urban areas. They actually make intersections, where most urban/suburban accidents occur, more confusing and difficult to negotiate.

        I suspect factors other than infrastructure enhancements are involved in declining bicycle accidents in NYC.

        If you are actually interested in these issues, I suggest you start with reading the recent Copenhagen study where the city compared the accident rates on the same streets before and after they modified them with bicycle facilities of various types. In the regression analysis, ALL the facilities decreased safety.

        More interestingly, the safer the facilities made bicyclists feel, the more they actually degraded their safety.

        Now it is possible that the “safety in numbers” effect, if it exists, is already saturated in Copenhagen. So even though the addition of facilities increased cycling on those streets, the increased volume of bicycling could not add to the safety and the problems with the facilities could be more clearly seen. That’s one theory I have.

  5. Jim Lucas says:

    Peter is obviously confused and is trying to create an excuse, where none exists, for not putting in bike lanes.

  6. Spidra Webster says:

    I agree with a lot of your post. While there is puh-lenty of reckless auto driving out there, there’s a lot of irresponsible cyclist behavior out there as well. And at least some of that is due to lack of education as to the law and as to the practical reasons some of these laws exist.

    I’d like to see the written and driving tests at the DMV include a decent amount of material about cyclists and pedestrians on the road. If during the driving test someone parks and *doesn’t* look in the rear view or over their shoulder to make sure the coast is clear before opening the door, they should get points off the test for that.

    I wouldn’t mind being licensed & registered as a cyclist if the day they instituted it they instantly gave cyclists as much consideration, funding and infrastructure as they give car drivers. As it is, some people buy a bike license from their local PD and find it isn’t used at all if, say, the bike is stolen. And CalTrans spend their time (and our taxpayer dollars) actively lobbying against things like a bike-ped bridge that goes *all* the way across the Bay Bridge.

    I agree there should be some sort of incentive program to get folks to take (and pass) a cyclist course similar to the Iron Horse curriculum offered to motorcyclists. There are programs that give new and/or refurbed bikes to needy kids and I think it’s a perfect opportunity to get those kids educated as to effective, courteous & legal cycling methods as a condition to obtaining the bike. Perhaps the incentives you mention like insurance discounts and other things can help get people who already own a bike into a course.

    The first thing one hears when discussing any aspect of cycling in a public forum read and commented on by the general public is how dangerous, rude & lawless bike riders are. And while it’s hypocritical to extend a person’s individual behavior to everyone who rides a cycle while bad car drivers are seen as individually bad, any honest assessment of the state of cycling in LA, SF, Berkeley and other cities has to admit there’s an awful lot of stop running, red light running, riding the wrong way and riding on sidewalks. And it makes it harder to advocate for cycling because that sort of “me first” behavior naturally makes enemies. And contributes to accidents.

    But it’s “uncool” to say that. There is enormous social pressure in the cycle advocacy community not to talk about this. That needs to change.

    (I wrote something more cogent than this before but my browser crashed and took it all with it. Grr. )

  7. DG says:

    I can only hope that as the fixie fad goes away, more young cyclists will be willing to yield to traffic that has the right of way. Then again, it could be that the difficulty in stopping is a feature not a bug: “hey, I’m a rebel and this is my rebel ride — brakes are for old people.”

    • Jim Lucas says:

      Fixie fad? I was brought up on fixed gear, I never had a difficulty stopping. I received my first fixed gear bike in about 1951, Yhe glove on my right hand had a leather, which was to slow or stop the fron wheel, and back pressure on the pedals could lock the back wheel if I wanted. I could do track stands and wait out most traffic lights. It is just a matter of knowing what one is doing.

      • DG says:

        It seems wrong to laugh in a post like this, but you’re a funny guy Jim.

        • Jim Lucas says:

          I am not sure what about my post makes me a funny guy, other perhaps than my numerous typos, though I think that anyone who wanted to could see through them and get my message. Just in case that was the problem, I will recreate it, without all the typos, and expand on it a little:

          Fixie fad? I was brought up on fixed gear; I never had any difficulty stopping. I received my first fixed gear bike in about 1951, winning my first Junior state championship in 1952, and participated in the nationals on the hard rolled dirt track at New Brunswick, NJ. My nemesis came in 1956 when I first saw a velodrome, where the Olympic trials were held.

          The glove on my right hand had a leather pad, which was to slow or stop the front wheel, and with back pressure on the pedals I could lock the back wheel if I wanted. I could do track stands and wait out most traffic lights. It is just a matter of knowing what one is doing.

          I am now in my mid 70′s, riding my Specialized Allez road bike. Yes, I am a lot slower and have a lot less power than I used to, and so cannot compete.

          I do like Idaho’s law which allows bicycles to treat stop signs as yield signs but holds bicyclists responsible in the event of an accident while doing so. Also, I hope that California someday gets real and passes a three foot law, though I know of no law enforcement officer anywhere, who has ever written up a motor vehicle operator for violating that law where it does exist.

          • Sheila Crowell says:

            As reading your reply to each other, I can hear that you love
            biking. We are a different group of people in Detroit, we have
            winters that are hard, cold with snow, making the bike lanes
            unsafe because of the snow. Are you asking whom would ride
            a bike in the snow, while I hate to say this, but it does happen,
            with the city not putting down salt people just keep on going
            though the stop signs and red light, with a bike laying on the
            ground because the biker lost control.

            The bikers are not what you are, such as winning this and that
            our bikers are ridding down the streets with shopping baskets hocked up to they bikes, stealing what they can, drunk, running stop signs, red lights as the cars do, with streets that are not smooth, so we are real messed up.

            The bikers are not safe on our streets, adding anyone walking
            and driving is also not safe. Free grant money was given, no
            rules or safety laws or even open public meetings to talk about
            these traffic problems that will be added to our already too
            many traffic we have now.

            Do you know anyone in Detroit, if you do ask them how the
            bike lanes will effect all on the roads of Detroit.

            Sheila~

  8. Sheila Crowell says:

    1985, I moved to the City of Detroit in the area of 48210
    Claytown neighborhood. The years have taken a very hard
    tow on the residents of the passed and present. We did have
    bikers, but with the bad changes that took place in our neighborhood, the many bikers have left.

    The streets are the same, still small residential streets, some
    one way, others with one lane of parking, with our one fire
    station on the run to save lives almost everyday. This means
    the fire trucks are going at high speed doing what they must
    to help save what they can.

    With road rage, speeding vehicles, drag racing, vehicles of all
    sizes including the too many semis running stop signs, drunk drivers, people on the cell talking & etc, city buses & etc driving
    on the bike lanes, this means the people are not going by what
    law we have in the City of Detroit. Putting every ones life at risk.

    Now I understand that accidents happen, I’m not that old, but
    the street I live on, has had more accidents than can be counted,
    because people have a bad habit of “hit and run”. The last
    horrible accident if you want to call it that, was a semi that ran
    the a 3-way intersection stop sign going 40 to 45 mph and hit
    the apt building only 3 houses from mine.

    That day we were doing a truck and vehicle count, because of
    the heavy semi traffic we have. At one end of the street that accident took place & at the other end of the street that same
    day a truck hit a car taking down a pole and the red light. Look
    on line for Amy Lange & Sheila Crowell Detroit forFox 2 news &
    you will see what happened.

    The City of Detroit got a grant (free money), just like they did
    when they put in the so called Car Pool with a diamond in the
    street showing people where it was, but they didn’t tell the
    people just like they didn’t inform the people about the bike
    lanes. I hope you are wondering how the Car Pool Lanes work
    out, they didn’t.

    All bikers must come to a stop, just as anyone “must” come to
    a stop, after all stop means stop. We all must (should) have
    license, tags, reg, ins to drive anywhere in the USA, (I do).
    Then so do all bikers, you have been placed on the streets as
    well as any one driving. Bikers cause an accident, harm or kill another, then you are to be held responsible for your actions
    just as I or anyone else has to.

    Please Watch, Look & Listen when ridding your bikes, you are
    not above anyone else.

  9. Mark Elliot says:

    Thanks for the always-balanced post, Ted. I believe that it’s important to take a wide view of road safety, and of course every road user, regardless of mode, contributes positively or negatively, and so we each have a responsibility to all other users to operate prudently. In the event of harm, the courts see it as degrees of fault, or even negligence. Accordingly, when we run a red light or even a stop sign, we need to think how our action contributes to the situation at the intersection.

    And that’s not academic for cyclists: that bone-crushing smack-up that puts you in the hospital for a month can be found to be 90% your fault in the eyes of a “reasonable person” who hears from a witness (or a cop, not always accurately) that you simply ran it. If a motorist is injured while striking you, their damages go into the hopper too, 90% on your tab.

    So I thank you for another sensitive exploration of the issue, and agree with Spidra that it’s a conversation that we can’t afford – literally cannot afford if the worst happens – to NOT have in the cycling community.

    I’ll be interested to see if out of LACBC we have any recommendations like, for example, bike-specific citations payable not in cash but in time, watching an online safety course. And whether the LACBC can get behind the League or whomever to design better, much better, interactive safety materials. The days of 16mm and slide shows are over. Mobility education has to borrow from the flight simulator folks to make it real….’cause it is real.

  10. Moldavite Widdershins says:

    You probably didn’t mean to, but I think you imply that a rider is required to cross an intersection entirely before cross-traffic starts. I just want to point out that, legally, you’re in the clear as long as you _enter_ the intersection before the light turns red. Cross-traffic is required to wait until the intersection is clear before entering.

    • bikinginla says:

      You’re right, of course. Unfortunately, in real world situations, it doesn’t always work that way. Many drivers seem to feel that they have the right to go as soon as the light turns green, and don’t wait to make sure the way is clear first. And police have been known to ticket cyclists for going through the light, even though they entered on the green or yellow.

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