What is a socially optimal level of bike-riding danger?

by on August 3, 2012 at 4:52 am in Economics | Permalink

Maxim Massenkoff writes to me:

You’ve blogged about bike laws before; I have a question about a particular cyclist (me). As bikers go, I’m very considerate. I obey red lights and stop signs. But I’ve noticed that many DC drivers expect me to break the law, eg., if one reaches an intersection a little before me, he’ll often get frustrated when I stop and give him the right-of-way.

This makes me wonder: if my only goal is to save other bikers from injury and death, should I follow or break the rules? Say that right now 50% of bikers break rules and 50% don’t. Then I figure most normal drivers will be cautious and hesitant around bikers. But if only 5% break rules, then cycling for that subset is way more dangerous as drivers will expect law-abiding bikers.

This model is rather simplistic, as it certainly goes both ways–bikers adjust their strategies to the habits of drivers. But we can consider DC and the marginal effect of one additional rule-abiding or rule-breaking cyclist. Which side should I choose, given my selfless utilitarian preferences above?

1 Enrique August 3, 2012 at 6:13 am

there certainly is an optimal level of law-breaking (e.g. no stopping if no one else is at an intersection), but can anyone really know or discover what the “socially-optimal” level is? — isn’t that Ronald Coase’s critique of economics in “the problem of social cost”?

2 BC August 3, 2012 at 6:51 am

When Maxim can safely break the law in the presence of a large number of drivers, he should do so.

When breaking the law is particularly dangerous, and few drivers would see him, Maxim should not break the law.

3 Rahul August 3, 2012 at 1:35 pm

If Maxim is truly sincere about that his “only goal is to save other bikers from injury and death” the best strategy might be to get himself killed in a fatal bike accident.

Morbid, yet nothing like a biker-fatality on the front-page to make drivers cautious for the next few days.

4 Maxim August 3, 2012 at 8:00 pm


5 Andrew' August 3, 2012 at 7:06 am


6 tt August 3, 2012 at 7:13 am

are you complaining about “bikers”?
whats wrong with bikers ?

7 Andrew' August 3, 2012 at 8:30 am

No. I’m pretending to be a cyclist.

8 Chris August 3, 2012 at 8:58 am

Bikers ride motorcycles. Cyclists ride bicycles.

9 tt August 3, 2012 at 10:46 am

bike short from bicycle.
motorcycle should be called a mike

10 Careless August 3, 2012 at 11:08 am

I found this about eleven times funnier than I should have. Am I high?

11 fallibilist August 3, 2012 at 1:07 pm

You are laughing at tt’s Asperger’s, you inconsiderate tw*t.

12 Careless August 3, 2012 at 7:43 pm

That wouldn’t make sense even if I weren’t myself a minor Aspie.

and he’s right, and for some reason that made me laugh like I was stoned this morning.

13 Michael August 3, 2012 at 7:25 am

I’ve been carless and biking around Boston for about 2 years now, and it has been my experience that riding aggressively, breaking some laws, and generally keeping drivers on their toes is the best way to keep me from ending up in the ER. If a driver notices me on my bike I have a lot of confidence that they won’t hit me, so getting them to pay attention to me (by riding recklessly) is my counter-intuitive strategy that infuriates drivers but has worked pretty well so far.

14 Thom August 3, 2012 at 9:58 am

I’ve come to the conclusion that if a driver is honking at me, then that means they see me, which is a good thing.

15 dan1111 August 4, 2012 at 3:48 am

I bike regularly on my commute to work. I generally ride aggressively, running red lights when the intersection is clear, etc. However, I do it because I am in a hurry and don’t want to stop and lose my momentum. I can’t honestly say that this is safer than obeying the traffic laws. In fact, it is probably more dangerous overall. I find that riding aggressively leads me to take more and more chances over time. I also see lots of other cyclists breaking traffic laws in ways that endanger themselves and others.

The traffic laws may not be the optimum choice in every situation, but they do enforce a basic level of safety. Using your own judgement might be better in theory, but it is worse in practice. It leads to making split-second decisions that are not always the wisest, and that are not based on safety considerations.

Breaking the rules sure makes my commute quicker, and it usually doesn’t involve taking big risks. But I can’t think of a case when it actually made me safer. Many of the bikers’ comments explaining why it is safer sound like justifications.

16 Peter Gerdes August 4, 2012 at 4:04 am

The ONLY way to navigate boston streets in any vehicle is to be aggressive, ignore any (non-parking) traffic laws and generally force other drivers to make room for you.

I was shocked when I moved here from the chicago area and despite being no stranger to city driving was constantly finding myself unable to make the turns or lane changes I wanted until I started driving like all the other boston drivers.

17 Sam August 3, 2012 at 7:37 am

as a committed and long time bike rider I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s foolish and dangerous to think of yourself as just another vehicle on the road – I break the rules when it makes sense, I follow them when it makes sense – the whole point do what looks like the safest thing to do from my point of view on abike – I often go the wrong way on a one way street because that is the safest route to where I’m going – if i have to ride on the sidewalk to avoid a congested area I do – my rule is very simple: no one in a car can be trusted so do what you have to do to stay safe.

18 Andrew' August 3, 2012 at 9:31 am

You are just another vehicle, you just aren’t wearing a 6000 pound suit of steel armor. Seriously, the only time the army whose job is to destroy shit uses something other than basically cars and trucks is when they need to destroy cars and trucks or things to destroy the things that destroy cars and trucks.

So, realizing that, it might modify some choices.

19 Ted August 3, 2012 at 7:43 am

This isn’t just a cyclist issue; the same thing arises with automobiles. Some regions, like New York, have a culture where drivers are expected to jump the green; in Los Angeles, however, one expects drivers to run the red. Not conforming to the culture can lead to problems–switching cultures and moving to Los Angeles, one can find it impossible to make a left turn.

20 MD August 3, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Left hand turns in LA are simple. If there is traffic, two cars go every cycle. Not one, not three. Five is right out.

21 Richard August 3, 2012 at 7:51 am

Does Maxim want to survive (or walk) in expectation? Or with probability one?

In this maximization his constraint should have him stop.

22 Bill August 3, 2012 at 8:02 am

Map this out as a game strategy. But, remember you are crushable, and the car isn’t.

1. If you build a game box, with the following entries: car sees me in time, car doesn’t see me or doesn’t see me in time and columns : I drive defensively, obeying the law and another column: I drive recklessly, not obeying the law.

2. Play the game until you die in the box: car doesn’t see me and I drive recklessly (not defensively), not obeying the law.

3. Forget about playing another game.

23 Chris August 3, 2012 at 9:05 am

Bill, as an erstwhile urban Chicago cyclist, there are more outcomes than life and death. It is possible (nay, easy and sometimes preferred) to wildly violate the law and put yourself in relatively little actual danger. Although casual non scofflaw urban cyclists and motorists will see it as very dangerous.

For instance, approaching a solid red (as opposed to just-turned or about-to-turn red). One can scan the oncoming traffic, see a gap, accelerate to catch it and be through the intersection with nary a close call. Plus, keep one’s speed, always a bonus.

However, the oncoming drivers will see the streak of a bike, brake (overreacting, but rationally so based on their information) and cause a traffic jam, rear end or other mayhem.

Classic information asymmetry.

There are also societal consequences, as the original poster is getting to. The drivers who witness my reckless act will think cyclists are a bunch of scofflaws eager to scare the pants off of them and then have harsh attitudes later. When a more normal cyclist appropriately moves into the traffic lane to avoid an opening car door, they are more likely to think “what a jerk! I am going to ride them and honk, and refuse to yeild” than “look, a responsible cyclist reacting to a road obstacle. I will give him/her extra room.”

24 Bill August 3, 2012 at 1:06 pm

Rock, scissors, paper.

I’m rock, you’re scissors in an assymetrical information world.

Don’t assume you perceive correctly that I see you or that I can stop in time.

That’s Your Assymetrical information problem.

25 Bill August 3, 2012 at 1:50 pm


I have decided to PRETEND not to see bikers, or PRETEND to appear distracted.

Your move. Do you stop or go forward.

26 GiT August 4, 2012 at 7:54 am

There is no world in which accelerating through oncoming traffic on a hard red in order to conserve inertia is advisable (because you’re sure you’ll make it through. If you now see the world such that this seems like a good idea, you need a reality check.

27 Chops August 3, 2012 at 8:51 am

I grew up biking – recklessly as hell – in Boston. Now I live in DC, where I bike commute (still recklessly). In Boston, everybody (car or bike) knows a ‘code of the road’ that runs deeper than the letter of the law. The cops enforce the law only when it coincides with the code. The only time I had a serious bike accident was when an immigrant driver broke the code and pulled out of a side street so slowly that he blocked both lanes of Dot Ave at the bottom of a hill. Ouch.

But DC is different. The driving here is some of the worst I’ve ever seen, and many other transplants seem to agree with me. I attribute the awful driving to a lack of a shared code. While the laws are mostly the same around the country, road-codes aren’t. Urban blacks clearly have a different code than suburban-bred whites, and all the DC transplants from around the country and around the world come with their own codes. As a cyclist, that’s pretty scary. Lots of DC drivers merge into bike lanes without looking or signalling; others cut off ambulances in traffic (truly!). Being an aggressive Bostonian male, I respond by ignoring the law and cycling visibly – taking the lane, getting honked at by black drivers (never whites – different code), and using sidewalks on occasion. It’s more free-style than how I ride in Boston, but with drivers unpredictable, there seems to be little reason to follow any code at all.

28 Chris August 3, 2012 at 9:09 am

Chops- great comment.

I grew up in suburban Detroit where bikes are invisible – particularly in the 1980s. Drivers view them as toys for children, not things that should be on the road.

Thus, I rode like I was invisible. Blowing stopsigns – but only if I could clear the gap, knowing the driver would (pretend?) not to see me. This manifested in effectively riding RIGHT AT stopped cars, and waiting to decide if I should go in front if they were slow off the line or in back if they were quick. Drivers never saw me, so they were predictable.

Taking this to Chicago, drivers would see me riding right at them and freak out. Slam on the brakes, scream, whatever. Different rules, different strategy.

29 efp August 3, 2012 at 12:35 pm

A few notes on the driving code of Chicago:

1. Never, ever, use your turn signal. You will be shot.
2. It is illegal to exit a highway from the rightmost lane. You must cross two, preferably three lanes of traffic.
3. Those spaces by the curb that look like bus stops are actually passing lanes.

30 Ricardo August 3, 2012 at 9:39 am

Totally agree. Being “a good driver” means doing what other drivers expect you to do–hence the multiple equilibria we observe in different parts of the world. Expectations in DC are so nonuniform that it is very difficult to be a good driver here.

31 Chris August 3, 2012 at 10:15 am

Chops: Great analysis. Just moved to the area and I totally agree. Denver was similar… lots of transplants and Mexican immigrants, all with different codes (though the transplants are generally more bike-friendly). Denver has been able to enforce a greater level of safety than DC (IMO) through aggressive enforcement and infrastructure improvements.

32 zbicyclist August 3, 2012 at 9:00 am

Well, I have some expertise in this area, although I’m below my normal 4,000 miles this year.

Simply put, you want to be visible and predictable as a cyclist. In most cases, this works out to obeying traffic rules — riding on the right, slowing for 4 way stops (most cars don’t come to full stops), etc.

Maxim is quite correct that MANY drivers approaching 4 way stops expect the cyclist to go ahead of their turn, and you can get into an Alphonse and Gaston act if you both try to make the other go first, which wastes both your time and the motorist’s. Better to go with that expectation if you are SURE that’s what the motorist is going to do.

33 rkw August 3, 2012 at 9:07 am

What’s the unspoken code of the road in Portland?

34 Elwin August 3, 2012 at 9:18 am

In the documentary Urbanized, they feature Copenhagen, Denmark which made bike lanes between street parking and the sidewalk to encourage people to ride their bike. There is a curb between the street and the bike lane and another between the bike lane and the sidewalk. This seems like a good system if you’re serious about promoting bike riding and your streets are big enough to accommodate it.

35 Andrew' August 3, 2012 at 9:24 am

I’m not sure we’ve done the study that says we should promote cycling on major arteries. I find it completely impractical. If you have the free-time to ride a bike on a street for cars you are pretty much just goofing off.

However, on a university campus, a bike rack on your car so you can park and ride is incredibly practical.

36 AS August 3, 2012 at 9:57 am

“If you have the free-time to ride a bike on a street for cars you are pretty much just goofing off.”

In my experience biking in major cities, I’ve found that it is faster than driving, particularly during rush hour and particularly if I have to search for on-street parking. Moreover, biking is a nice way to get some exercise while making a trip I’d have to take anyway.

In fact, using my bike is something I do _because_ I am busy. Public transit to the supermarket or Target — or to see my friends on the other side of town — usually takes twice as long as riding. Renting a zipcar would be expensive and where would I park?

37 Thor August 3, 2012 at 3:54 pm

You are being uncharacteristically ignorant here, A.

In the Scandinavian cities, it is faster and more practical to ride a bike: and the bike lanes are incredibly practical in terms of coordinating plenty of bike traffic, keeping them away from cars and vice versa (and pedestrians), and speeding up commutes etc.

38 dan1111 August 4, 2012 at 3:30 am

In most relatively compact cities, biking is the fastest, most convenient mode of transportation. I use it as my main way of travelling short distances, and for nearly all the routes I travel there is no faster alternative.

That said, using lots of space for bike lanes in city streets is only a good idea if they will actually be well used. It shouldn’t be based on wishful hoping that it will encourage people to cycle.

39 A DC biker-cyclist August 3, 2012 at 9:21 am

“… I’m very considerate. I obey red lights and stop signs.” These are two entirely different sentiments. “Considerate” implies that you are polite to other drivers and aren’t getting in anybody’s way more than other traffic would. This has little to do with obeying automotive traffic laws.

Traffic laws typically have a clause that states “Bicyclists shall follow the same traffic laws as automobile drivers”, which is legalese for “We have put zero thought into how cyclists and drivers differ, and because everybody involved in writing this law drives to work, we see no real need to think about it”. For example, DC has switched to turning on the “walk” sign two or three seconds before the green light, because pedestrians are hit less frequently if they are already in the intersection when cars start moving. The considerate thing to do is to start rolling when the light is red and pedestrians are moving (if not sooner); the law says that you need to pretend to be a car and wait for the green.

Also, this is the safe thing to do: you want to be rolling before the cars are, and avoid a mass-start where you and the cars are all accelerating and shifting for lane position at once. For autos, obeying traffic laws is generally the safe thing to do, but I see no reason to think that if all cyclists obeyed automotive traffic laws that we’d have more or fewer crashes.

And to answer your specific situation, I think we all already have a sense of the subtle signaling game of intersection right of way. DC drivers do tend to cede right of way a little more often than even MD or VA drivers, which is a factor in the calculations. But even in a meeting between two cars, the considerate thing to do when somebody cedes right of way is to take it (with a smile and a nod) and clear the intersection. The “no, no, after you” thing just slows everybody down.

40 Dufflepud August 3, 2012 at 2:10 pm

This is an excellent point and one that bears repeating. Even if we assume (incorrectly, but suiting my purpose here) that current traffic laws optimize safety for people in automobiles, there’s no reason why those laws should optimize safety for other road users. In downtown Denver, where I commute, the walk signs illuminate for pedestrians 5-10 seconds in advance of the signal for cars, giving me a chance to get off the line ahead of cars–I agree that this is safer for cyclists. The Denver police, however, feel otherwise and have pulled me over for doing as much. Seems to be a disconnect between laws and safety.

41 David Villa August 6, 2012 at 9:01 pm

Best answer, IMO.

42 aaron August 3, 2012 at 9:32 am

A more important question, “should there be stop signs?”.

43 Brendan G August 3, 2012 at 9:44 am

I think the best scenario is to cycle with 2 minds – a cyclists mind and a drivers mind. Coming up to a 4-way all-stop intersection with no cars waiting to go? Use cyclists mind and break the rules. Same goes for red lights with no intersecting traffic. The opposite would be true for a 4-way all-stop intersection with lots of cars around – use drivers mind and wait your turn, or, cycle next to a car already going through the intersection if the timing is right.

This gets even more complicated when you consider the possibility that a certain percentage of drivers you face at intersections are also cyclists (though not at the moment, obviously) and could also be thinking with a “cyclists mind”.

44 Halls August 3, 2012 at 9:57 am

OKay, so we have some good discussion about behaviour. Hate to bring this up, but are helmets optimal or not?

Somebody had to do it.

45 zbicyclist August 3, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Halls, please let’s no go there! Please!

46 theoncominghope August 3, 2012 at 10:00 am

I’ve noticed that not a single one of you have mentioned pedestrians in your parsing of this question. When bikers break the laws, that’s unsafe for walkers.

47 theoncominghope August 3, 2012 at 10:04 am

I apologize, one of you did mention pedestrians. My essential point, however, is that speaking of this in terms of cyclists vs. drivers ignores an important third part of the equation.

48 TFG August 3, 2012 at 12:16 pm

I don’t care what y’all do in the road, but the next time a cyclist is blocking the entire crosswalk when I’m trying to get past, I swear I’m gonna kick your spokes out.

49 Tommy August 3, 2012 at 1:27 pm

I regularly walk across the Key Bridge between Rosslyn and Georgetown. The cyclists there often travel on the sidewalk because there is no shoulder on the road going over the bridge. This would be fine *except* most of the cyclists want to ride down the sidewalk as fast as possible and will get quite irate if a pedestrian is “in their way”.

It seems to me that cyclists should extend the same respect and courtesy that they expect from drivers to pedestrians. I don’t want to be hit by a cyclist anymore than a cyclist wants to be hit by a car.

50 Kenny August 12, 2012 at 5:02 pm

I agree but I am conflicted about how much respect or courtesy I should extend to pedestrians that, as an example, walk on a bike-only path.

51 KWebb August 3, 2012 at 10:01 am

One should follow the rules of the road if anyone is around to see. Lawlessness on the part of cyclists fuels efforts to either remove cyclists from the road entirely or to push them to the edge of the roadway through mandatory bike lane laws or laws requiring cyclists to stay to the extreme right of the road. Being at the far right of the road increases the risk of a collision at intersections and driveways or with suddenly opened parked car doors.

I do not know if any effect would be noticeable or measurable. Cycling is remarkably safe and most cyclists are content to ride at the edge of the roadway all the time anyway.

52 Asbjorn Johansen August 3, 2012 at 10:53 am

Do you have numbers on the “cycling is safe”? I’d love to see some decent numbers, but haven’t found a good source.

I generally compare an activity to driving my car to determine if it is safe. For example, I don’t feel my favorite sport is particularly risky, because many more people have died driving to participate in the sport, then have died while actually participating. On the other hand, riding a motorcycle feels risky to me, because I’m much more likely to get a catestrophic injury on a motorcycle than in my car on a per mile basis.

53 Mark August 3, 2012 at 11:40 am

Back when I was a cycling advocate and activist – 1980’s – the amount of stats available was poor. Records just weren’t kept. If you are serious about researching this – start with a copy of Forester’s Effective Cycling – I seem to recall he had sources mentioned that would be a good place to start. If you want an easier intro – call the League of American Bicyclists and ask them where to start looking for stats etc. Google is your friend.

54 KWebb August 3, 2012 at 1:14 pm

You can start here: http://www.kenkifer.com/bikepages/health/risks.htm
There is unfortunately little data, partly because no one looks at it and partly because there aren’t many crashes worth recording. There are less than 800 fatal cycling incidents a year.
Comparing cycling to auto travel on a per mile basis will be difficult and problematic. There is no good way to measure how much Americans ride. The range of cycling behavior is also huge. There are cyclists who tide against the flow of traffic, on the sidewalk and on the road. Each carries different levels of risk. Then there are people who blow stoplights and stop signs, drunks, children, lightless night riders. It is a difficult problem.

55 Asbjorn Johansen August 3, 2012 at 2:24 pm

That is a good link, I recall reading the site last time I did a search for decent numbers. (I believe the site hasn’t been updated since 2002).

I was hoping the literature had improved a bit. I’m moving significantly closer to my work and I’m trying to decide if riding is a reasonable risk, given there are no dedicated bike lanes or trails on the way.

My brief stay in the Netherlands spoiled me for high quality bike access.

56 njnnja August 3, 2012 at 11:23 am

You write “should I follow or break the rules?” What you are really asking is “should I follow or break the *laws*?” While I don’t think that everybody at all times should obey every law to the letter, the greatest advances in civilization have come in the codification of rules and the applicability of said laws to all individuals.

Follow the laws. Period. Full stop. If you believe that doing so is dangerous, don’t do that activity until the laws change. Is your desire to ride a bicycle really that strong?

57 Adam Pearce August 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm

When you encounter a stop sign while biking, do you always come to a complete stop?

58 njnnja August 6, 2012 at 9:00 am

Where I ride I rarely (i.e., never) see stop signs :), so yes, I do. But moreover, I only ride on trails that have been authorized for bike use, no matter how tempting (or convenient) it might be for me to break the rules and take pedestrian only trails.

59 superflat August 3, 2012 at 10:14 pm

do you always drive under the speed limit? always? without fail? why not, given that the law provides no exceptions for you drifting up to 67 (gasp!) on the interstate?

60 njnnja August 6, 2012 at 9:10 am

Like every human, I am imperfect and often fail to live up to my own morality. But when I do, rather than try to justify my selfishness by some self serving philosophical BS, I feel bad about it and work harder to leave a few minutes earlier next time. Which is when you will see me puttering along at only 55 (in the right hand lane!) until I hit the 65 sign.

61 Mark August 3, 2012 at 11:31 am

I am impressed by the number of commenters who know what they are talking about here. For instance Michael says: ” it has been my experience that riding aggressively, breaking some laws, and generally keeping drivers on their toes is the best way to keep me from ending up in the ER. If a driver notices me on my bike I have a lot of confidence that they won’t hit me, so getting them to pay attention to me (by riding recklessly) is my counter-intuitive strategy . . .” This strategy is not so counter-intuitive as you might think. It is the core of John Forester’s Effective Cycling – which was at one time something of a bible for many cycling advocates and planners. Please note, though, that Forester did not generically condone law-breaking as part of the equation. Several commenters note that predictability of action is a key point. Indeed, this is the essential basis for all traffic law and traffic common sense. Accidents are the result of something unpredictable – so the best strategy is to control the predictable. This includes making sure you are visible, and that drivers are aware of your presence, and aware of your existence as a vehicle. That means they will include you in their internal predictability equation as they drive.
The optimal answer to the OP is that the response should be adjusted for each driver they interact with – but within the limits that you are in the interaction zone of additional drivers. Oddly enough, on crowded city streets, sometimes this is easier – as you deal with fewer cars at a time – and they are traveling closer to your speed.
As for bike lanes, Forester opposed them for the simple reason that they involved the cyclist and the automobile traffic in repeated unpredictable interactions – the cyclist has to leave and re-enter traffic somewhere. Pedestrians do exactly this – enter and negotiate the traffic zone. For pedestrians we have very elaborate laws and expectations, so that they can do this. Denmark has done something similar for cyclists, I think – if not officially, then the unwritten rules cover the interactions of auto and bicycle. I don’t foresee the same thing happening in the US.

62 Go Kings, Go! August 3, 2012 at 12:04 pm

This information is much appreciated as I completed my first round-trip bicycle commute (about 10 miles) yesterday, rode in today and hope for many more (self pat on back).

Almost half the commute occurs on a bike path down lovely Venice/Santa Monica beaches. I’ve ridden that part many times and tourist pedestrians clog the bike lane (ignoring the pedestrian lane and miles of sand); tourist are the definition of unpredictable actors: crossing without looking, stopping suddenly, walking 5 abreast at random times, etc. I find this true of driving, the motorcycle commute is pretty safe because we’re all professional drivers on the road, but weekend tourists amateurs are scary.

63 GiT August 4, 2012 at 8:12 am

Oh I loathe the pedestrians in the Venice/Santa Monica beach bike lanes. There are big symbols and signs that say *no pedestrians*, and yet…

64 dearieme August 3, 2012 at 11:51 am

There’s a junction in Cambridge (England) where the custom has arisen of cyclists going through the red light in one direction while pedestrians have right of way to cross the road, walking in the same direction. By the time the cars move off when the lights turn green the cyclists are out of their way.

I have used this junction often as pedestrian, cyclist and driver, and I thoroughly approve of the custom. There must be some risk of strangers mucking it up though.

65 Go KIngs, Go! August 3, 2012 at 11:56 am

The California Highway Patrol deployed its lobbying might to keep motorcyclist lane-splitting (or filtering) legal for all motorcyclists, on the theory that it conditions cagers to the presence of all motorcyclists, including CHP.

Filtering is common over the entire world, but California is the only state in the U.S. where it remains legal (and California has not witnessed the rise in moto-auto accident fatalities seen when other states banned the practice; another public health legislation failure).

66 Bill August 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Based on the comments above,

I am going to have a front and rear bumper sticker which reads:

I Only Stop For Those Who Follow the Law

67 David Villa August 6, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Since in many circumstances you are legally required to stop for anyone, good citizen or not, that statement is ironically a self-righteous proclamation of law breaking.

68 Bill August 3, 2012 at 12:38 pm

This blog today has been a great natural experiment prooving why the Google Programmed Car will never get around the block or there will be serious car/bycycle accidents.

How do you program the Google Car to drive with bycyclists who say that they will turn in front of a car or not stop if they see the driver sees them, presuming the car will stop:

Google can either program the car to stop when it sees a bycycle–because cyclists say they do not need to follow rules if the driver sees them–OR Google can program the car to assume the bycyclist will stop and obey the rules.

I guess Google will have to have the car stop, which will lead to more traffic jams, which will lead to more bicycles on the roads to avoid Google car congestion, UNTIL Google Invents:

The Google Bike.

69 Willitts August 3, 2012 at 1:54 pm

A general rule for externalities and public goods is that you assign property rights away from the least cost avoider.

Pedestrians are the least cost avoiders. Growing up in New York City, we learned to get out of the way of a ton of metal rolling toward us at 20 miles per hour. We didn’t presume the human behind the steering wheel was going to notice Us and step on the brake. Pedestrians are the most likely to be damaged, can stop on a dime, can change direction 180 degrees in less than a second, and have better field of view and hearing than a cager or cyclist.

Bicycles have the second lowest cost of avoidance. They are far more maneuverable than cars and are more likely to suffer injury in a collision with a car.

Here’s one good opinion about cyclists:


Our laws are backward because egalitarian-minded nimrods in elected office believe that protecting the weak and vulnerable is optimal policy. If you are a pedestrian or cyclist, you can put, “I had the right of way” on your tombstone. Neither laws nor signs nor lights nor crosswalks are magic force fields that protect you. Pay some respect to the ton of rolling metal.

All users of the road have a high proportion of inconsiderate assholes. But it is automobile drivers who pay a disproportionate share of fines and suffer the greatest risk of financial liability. Bicyclists should IMO be licensed, insured, and frequently ticketed. Jaywalking laws should be enforced whenever it creates a dangerous situation.

70 crin August 5, 2012 at 8:58 am

In fact the opposite has been instituted in Holland with excellent results. While the in the States, liability is not assigned to any one mode, in Holland liability in collisions is automatically put on the automobile, regardless of cyclist/pedestrian behavior. The result is extra cautious drivers which contributes significantly to their extremely low accident rates.

71 Joe_Beer August 6, 2012 at 1:40 pm

I’m not sure you’ve defined your externalities correctly there, Willitts.

72 Delurking August 3, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Wow, I had never seen the 2008 post. Point # 2 is simply wrong. A cyclist is typically traveling at his practical maximum speed. A car is typically well below it. On a model road with traffic, with no intersections, the cyclist arrives more than 10 seconds later because of his poor acceleration, but the car driver simply drives faster than average for a while until he is speed-limited by the car ahead of him, so on average the arrival time of a car, having had to stop for ten seconds, is much much less than 10 seconds later.

Point #1 is mostly wrong. Death statistics for all cyclists and drivers are similar. Law-abiding cyclists do much better than average.

73 Dave August 3, 2012 at 2:39 pm

I have been commuting in Philadelphia by bike for about 10 years. I can certainly relate to Maxim’s situation. There are drivers who expect a biker to fly through a stop sign and will always stop even if they arrive at the intersection first and have the right of way. If you are a (relatively) law abiding biker and stop, it is frustrating to completely stop and then get motioned through the intersection by the driver when THEY have the right of way. I have had many a stand still with cars who freeze when they see a biker at an intersection. I am empathetic because I can only assume that they have nearly killed a biker or two in their time and do not want to repeat that trauma.

It should be said that stopping is a very relative term in cities, both for bikers and drivers. In Philadelphia, drivers don’t really stop. They yield or coast through or accelerate then brake suddenly. Bikers avoid completely stopping at all costs. If a biker approaches a stop sign, and there is no car in sight within 10-20 feet of the intersection, the biker will just go through. My rule of thumb is to stop pedaling and have your hand over the brake within this zone. Be attentive but aggressive. Unless you are hauling, it is pretty easy to stop suddenly if you have to.

I agree that you have to work to make yourself known to drivers. Either this means riding aggressively, or just assume that you are invisible which forces you to be proactive. If there is no bike lane, I tend to ride on the left hand side of the road so I am on the driver’s side. Drivers notoriously think there is no room to pass and will hover right on your back wheel. It is harder for them to gauge the distance between their side view mirror and the biker when the biker is on the passenger side. And drivers, always ALWAYS look at your side view mirror before opening your door. Nothing is worse than being door-ed by some idiot who flings open their door while talking on the cell phone.

I think the new battles will be fought over bike lane ownership. Cities are becoming more accommodating to bikers by adding more bike lanes. However, drivers tend to think that the city has blessed them with miles of no time limit loading zones. And runners and speed walkers think that it is a shared path. I notice more and more runners and walkers traveling in the opposite direction of traffic in the bike lanes. I have and will continue to ride straight at you with increasing speed. Do not run in my lane!!

74 Disgruntled bastard August 3, 2012 at 7:42 pm

Dave, you are a jerk-off

75 Graham Peterson August 3, 2012 at 10:18 pm

I ride 20-30mph in the bike lane, and am with Dave: if you want to crowd up a lane that is the only (still dangerous) consolation on a road where neither pedestrians nor cars are watching/anticipating me to be there, you’re going to get a startle.

76 superflat August 3, 2012 at 10:19 pm

i’m with dave — i hate hate hate the runners running not only in the bike lane, but the wrong way. if i don’t look up at the right time, we both might get hurt for their idiocy, particularly where there’s a sidewalk.

77 Eva August 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Dear Maxim,

Are you single? Would you like to go on a bicycling date?

(Now try the optimization with signaling included.)

(I’m serious!)

78 Vernunft August 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm

“As bikers go, I’m very considerate. I obey red lights and stop signs”

That’s being “considerate” rather than “not suicidal”?

Bike-riders are a menace.

When you feel proud of not running a red light, something is wrong with your brain.

79 David Villa August 6, 2012 at 8:44 pm

You have committed the fallacy of equating all persons within a group. I think you meant to say that when one of you is thusly proud, something is wrong with the group mentality. While there may be an argument in running stops as suicidal, at least insofar as you might envision it, saying that cyclists are a menace is a non-sequitur. Suicide applies to placing one’s own well-being at risk, not the well-being of others. You may as well conclude that terminally ill seniors with one foot in the grave are a menace to society. When you feel proud of a loved one not seeking euthanasia, is something wrong with your brain? I submit that a more robust measure of cranial impediment is the inability to construct reasoned deductions. For instance, if we were talking about a topic you dislike, and you were to jump in and say that our ideas were ludicrous on that basis alone, then you just might not have it all up there.

80 Al Brown August 3, 2012 at 7:51 pm

Obey the rules. In San Francisco, pedestrians have actually been hit and killed by cyclists. You don’t want that kind of responsibility. The more people that don’t follow them, the easier it will be to continue not following them.

81 superflat August 3, 2012 at 10:21 pm

do you mean obey the law? and do you mean obey the law in roughly the same way you do in a car (which for almost everyone is making judgment calls about when to disobey the law)? my priority is not getting killed, rather than helping society reach a state where we all safely follow every law, cyclists and drivers living in complete harmony, etc.

82 Graham Peterson August 3, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Ha. In San Francisco, teddy bears protest for their rights to be hugged only between 5pm and 9pm.

Bike laws are a menace, because they give drivers whom already have the vague intuition that bikes don’t belong on the road the moral justification to become indignant when we ride in a manner that keeps us safe — i.e. making sure you can see us, no matter how pissed off you might be that we’re there. I ride every day in Chicago, and were I not 7-years trained in the myriad situations in which to anticipate a driver *will not* look, and turn right in front of me, merge into me, stop in front of me, open their door into me, park in my lane, and generally be an incredible douche any time I remind them I’m there, I would get hit regularly — because someone does one of those things *EVERY* day, if not several times on my commute.

83 Graham Peterson August 3, 2012 at 10:39 pm

A list of laws I break daily in order to keep myself safe:

Riding well into your lane, away from parked cars to avoid getting doored, an accident that is often times fatal or catastrophic.

Riding down the middle of the street when a line of cars is stopped at a light — the bike lane becomes a corridor in that situation, which pedestrians will walk into, and there is nowhere to go.

Blowing red lights. I have been riding seven years and can time the approach of cars to incredible tolerance — the cars on the other hand are not even looking to see if I’m there, much less timing my approach.

Flip-off / scream-at cars that cut me off. The more you hate bikes, the better the chances are you’ll feel that twinge when you subconsciously see me in your peripheral.

Ride to the front of a line of cars at a stop light, wait in front of both lanes of cars at the red light, and start moving again just before it turns green. Everyone in that intersection sees me thus, regardless how annoying and 14-years-old they may feel I’m behaving. I also get ahead in traffic — something cars unashamedly do, well, constantly.

Merge into traffic and across lanes when I need to. Yes, I can go as fast as traffic when I push hard, and yes, it’s entirely legal and safe for me to do so, regardless how astounded you might be at my audacity.

Purposefully cut off, slow down in front of, scare, flip off, and start fights with cabs. A friend of mine whipped a cabbie in the face with a cold-forged steel chain after the guy spat on him. Good for my friend. You, as a driver, hate cabs because they’re ridiculous drivers — imagine how we feel as bikers, 100 times more vulnerable than you.

Ways cars respond to me behavior:
1) Accelerating hard, revving the engine, when they finally get the chance to pass me. So angry! So scary!
2) Shoot me looks of indignation and disgust when they have to stop and wait, or not just coast through a turn — you stopped, after all, and that was my objective. Thank you.
3) Throwing things at me — this happens in the ghetto I live in more often than wealthier neighborhoods.
4) But mostly, gladly, and thankfully at my pointed discretion — cars stay the fuck out of my way and don’t kill me — and I get everywhere I need to go as fast as them, feel like John Wayne when I get there, and don’t have a weight problem.

Bikers that get indignant at other bikers for not following laws are obnoxious twits. I’m giving *you* a bad name? No, no, my friend — you’re reinforcing the fundamentally mistaken attitude drivers have that someone going just as fast as them with no airbags, no seatbelt, and no cage of steel, ought to stay out of *their* way, and “follow all the rules of the road,” something drivers rarely do anyway.

84 superflat August 3, 2012 at 11:10 pm


85 Bill August 4, 2012 at 8:02 am

Rest In Peace.

86 David Villa August 6, 2012 at 8:17 pm

I used to be an angry cyclist like you. Then for a short while I was an angry driver (but mean toward other drivers, never cyclists). Then I got a ticket for following too closely. Being, shall we say, rather financially challenged at the time, especially because I had to pay for the effing lemon, I then became a cautious driver who, like an epiphany, wondered what he had ever been so angry about. Then when the car finally broke down and I got on a bike again, I wasn’t so angry anymore. Some day you will shake your head at your own road rage. You’re not doing cyclists a service by yelling at motorists, most of whom are negligent but not belligerent. Quite frankly, as a car owner once again, I’m thankful that you’re not driving one of these weapons either.

87 Crin August 5, 2012 at 10:16 am

Superflat is close to my order of principals when cycling:

1. Do no harm

2. Do not get harmed

3. Laws of physics trump laws of man.

Everything else is just noise and babbling.

And yes, if you follow my principals as a cyclist you sacrifice yourself before hurting someone else. Drivers should think that way about their cars too.

88 David VIlla August 6, 2012 at 7:52 pm

If another vehicle arrives at the intersection before you do, going first is not breaking the law, at least not as I’m familiar with it. The law requires that the intersection be clear before proceeding, so if the other vehicle wants to let you go first, you should consider taking advantage of that. Just don’t forget to consider your own safety first, as much as you seem to be concerned with the safety of cyclists who aren’t yourself. Even if it’s a cop waving you through, look to make sure you’re not going to be swiped into rubble.

89 InezDC August 8, 2012 at 7:07 am

I run red lights mainly because it’s stupid for me to have to stop and wait for them. Red lights make a lot of sense for car traffic and for keeping both cars and pedestrians safe. However, they don’t make much sense for bikes. This factor mainly applies when there is little overall traffic at the intersection. Little traffic = little reason not to just go ahead.

That said, I’d like to make the point that I often try to run a red light when the light has been long enough for several cars to collect behind me, waiting for green. This is for my own safety. I want to have a head start against cars:

a) Because I hate having cars breathing down my neck, which is inevitable if they start out right behind me

b) Because this makes it more possible and likely that cars will pass me in a safe way. If I have a head start on the cars, this means that by the time they reach me there will be more space between the cars. This means that they are more likely (if they’re not complete cyclist-hating asshhats) to merge into the lane next to me (if applicable) BEFORE reaching me, because there is more likely for there to be a space in the lane next to them to do so. I find that if I start at the front of the pack on green, they are more likely to be frustrated by my very existence in front of them and try and squeeze into the lane with me (even if I’m taking the lane!). In other words, because car drivers often do not recognize my legal right (based on DC laws) to lane-split to get in front of them at a red light, take the full lane (if they can’t safely fit in the lane with me), and ride slower than the speed limit, it falls on me to break the law in order to promote my own safety.

90 joda August 20, 2012 at 4:47 pm

I think a lot of people take for granted that laws are man-made for the good of a community, and don’t reflect the morals of an individual. Furthermore, it seems like just about everyone assumes that laws are designed for SAFETY.

As economists, you should know that laws are also created and enforced for REVENUE, having nothing or little to do with the public good.

More importantly, though, LAWS PROVIDE CLEAR (OR INTERPRETABLE) LEGAL FAULT and a path for recourse for victims. Separate laws for bicyclists would be too cumbersome. It makes perfect sense in my view for the “law” to be that cyclists must conform to the same rules of the road as motor vehicles, especially when those laws are discretionarily enforced. If a cyclist is in an accident, I think most of us agree that it’s fair to apply the law when determining guilt. If a cyclist ran a stop sign and was in an accident, then it was their fault. If they came to a complete stop, then started through the intersection and was hit by a vehicle that did not stop (assuming a four-way intersection), then it was the fault of the driver of the vehicle.

We would only need to consider changing the law for cyclists if it were actually enforced, which it rarely is (though I did get a ticket for riding on the sidewalk in Santa Barbara about 15 years ago…).

My answer to the original question is “do whatever you want around motor vehicles”. You’re not going to prevent or cause injury to other cyclists. The more you ignore laws, the more drivers will look for that. You may cause some resentment among drivers, but most drivers don’t even know that cyclists are obligated to follow the same laws as drivers. I agree with the sentiment that one should follow the law when it’s courteous to do so (allowing the driver who got to the stop sign first to go first), but that there’s no logical or moral reason to follow the law when it’s impractical.

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