New York Times' YouTube Investigation: Bicyclists Sometimes Run Stop Signs

Interestingly, two weeks before the Times piece, Christopher Beam, who like Shafer, writes for Slate, made an effort to get to the bottom of the bikes-blowing-stop-signs phenomenon.

Beam sought to parse the "What's up with that?" question by asking another one; what purpose is behind modern traffic laws in the first place? The answer: to accommodate, and protect people from, cars.

"It wasn't until after World War II, when nearly every American household had an automobile and Eisenhower pushed to build the interstate highway system, that modern traffic laws evolved," Beam writes. "In this history, bikes are the American Indians to the car's Christopher Columbus. Everything about our road system, from the lanes to the signs to the traffic lights, is designed for the car, often at the expense of the bike."

A possible solution, Beam suggests, is to write new laws conducive to multi-modal traffic.
"It would also mean changing car-centric laws that don't make sense for bikes, like the rule that says you need to come to a complete stop at a stop sign," he writes.

This, he suggests, creates a virtuous cycle.

"The beauty of this approach," Beam writes, "is that it creates compliance from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Bike-friendly pathways encourage more people to bike. More bikes create peer pressure for bikers to follow the law. (In Copenhagen, for example, you'll see long lines of bikes stopped at traffic lights.) When more bikers follow the law, the heavy hand of enforcement becomes less necessary."

This is less Utopian than it may sound.

In 1982, the Idaho state legislature passed a law, which was updated in 2005, that allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs; if there are no cars, the cyclists can roll through the stop sign without violating the law. This rule takes into account the fact that momentum is a precious commodity when it's produced by leg muscles. And it acknowledges the quasi-pedestrian, space-efficient quality of cycling: Two bike-riders in the same intersection can sort things out merely by looking each other in the eye.

There's a third way -- different from vigilante motorists keen on teaching cyclists a lesson; distinct from Idaho-style laws that do a better job accommodating all types of traffic. It's universal, tough-love enforcement of all traffic laws.

In Marin County during the late 1990s the District Attorney got it into her head to make streets and roads under her jurisdiction safe for cyclists and everyone else by negotiating a policy among all law enforcement agencies to ticket all violators, cyclists included.

During this era, San Francisco stop sign-blowers would change their manners if they went for a bike ride in Marin County, because they knew they'd be more likely to get a ticket. Police and Highway Patrol would make a point of seeking out coffee shops and other places where cyclists met for weekend morning rides, to have chats informing the riders that traffic laws were being enforced. And all law enforcement agencies were put on alert that motorists who harassed or endangered cyclists would have the book thrown at them. On Highway1 north of Stinson Beach, a sheriff gave a motorist who swerved and yelled at me citations totaling $1,500.

Bicycle activists in San Francisco generally scoff at the notion that stepped-up traffic enforcement involving cyclists would benefit anyone.

But Marin cyclists were impressed.

"When you're out there bicycling on the road every day, there's a general mood out there,'' Debbie Hubsmith, executive director of the Marin Bicycle Coalition was quoted as saying. "In general, people have been more respectful.''

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