One of the common complaints that car drivers have about bike riders is that cyclists "disobey traffic rules". This is true, of course. It is also true that drivers and pedestrians violate traffic laws, but nobody seems to write letters to the editor waxing indignant about speeders on Interstate 35 or jaywalkers on 4th Street. So why does the issue of cyclists compliance with traffic regulations loom so large in motorists' responses to bicycle riders?
One reason that cyclists violate traffic laws is that the rules of the road are basically designed for motor vehicles and therefore make much less sense when applied to bicycles. A cyclist approaching a 4-way stop sign at 10 miles an hour has much more time to make sure that the way is clear than does a car that's going 40 mph. In my experience, some maneuvers are safer for all concerned when carried out "illegally." For example, at some intersections on my commuting route, it is clearly safer for me to go through an intersection against a red light when there is no traffic in the cross street and I have a lane all to myself (because the car next to me is stopped for the red light) than it is to start off from a stop while sharing a lane with a car to my left. Indeed, at least one state has modified its traffic regulations (pdf) to take into account the intrinsic differences between motorized and pedal-powered vehicles. In any event, a 200-lb. cyclist, even one who runs stop signs, represents much less of a danger to others than a two-ton sedan, no matter how carefully the car is operated.
But what really bugs me about the constant refrain about bikes and traffic laws is that it is typically trotted out in reponse to arguments to which it is absolutely irrelevant:
"Bikes are non-polluting."
"Yeah, but I saw a bike run a stop sign on my way to work this morning."
"Riding a bike is good exercise."
"But why do you always see them riding the wrong way on one-way streets?"
"We really need to take some serious measures to encourage people to ride bikes."
"You know those crazy cyclists are just a bunch of scoff-laws!"
Cut it out! If you want to make a serious argument against bikes as transportation, make it! If you just think riding a bike sounds too much like work, say so. If you think that riding a bike is just not cool enough for you, ok. But stop claiming to be shocked by traffic violations!