Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Should Bicyclists Be Required to Obey Traffic Laws?

Slate.com's Christopher Beam wrote an incendiary article entitled "Stop Means Stop: How do we get bikers to obey traffic laws?" that has ignited the bicycle blogosphere. The article essentially breaks down the pro-bicycle movement into two camps: the "Vehicularists" and the "Facilitators." My contention is that there may be a third group as well which I call "the Outsiders." The debate between these two main camps, as well as the "Outsiders," digs into the various philosophies behind the pro-bicycle movement.

Vehicularists adhere to the idea that bicycles and cars are equals on the roadway and bicyclists should ride in the same manner as most drivers motor. That means following all of the Rules of the Road in a responsible manner. The Vehicularists argument is that if they act as drivers do, then they are true equals on the road and entitled to the same respect and rights as motorists.

Facilitators contend that the laws should be changed to specifically address bicycles and the physical infrastructure should be adapted so that bicycles can ride more easily. This means more bike lanes, bike paths, bike racks, etc. The contention of the Facilitators is that if it is easier to ride, then more people will ride and the bicycling culture (and peer pressure) will lead to compliance with the law.

On top of this, I would contend that there is a third camp: "the Outsiders." The Outsiders are those that feel that bicycles are a simple mode of transportation and they can use the bicycle in any way they see fit. As such, running stop signs if there is no oncoming traffic is no big deal for an Outsider. Nor is going the wrong way down a one-way street or pulling a U-Turn in the middle of the street. It's not that the Outsiders are necessarily acting as rebels, just more pragmatic riders who know that the fastest distance between two points is a straight line.

As is often the case when it comes to public policy (and life), there is no absolute answer to which camp is right, the Vehicularists, the Facilitators or the Outsiders. The reality is there are probably positive attributes in each camp and some overlapping in theories between the three. As for Illinois law itself, as I blogged in a previous post, Illinois law requires bicyclists to follow all of the Rules of the Road, there are no exceptions for bicyclists under Illinois law. This aligns Illinois law with the fundamental notions of the Vehicularists.

However, while Illinois law requires all bicyclists to follow the Rules of the Road, it does NOT consider bicycles the same as motor vehicles in terms of rights. In Illinois, bicyclists are permitted user of the roadways, but not intended users. This distinction is more than semantic. The law says that bicyclists may use the roadway, but that should not be confused with the roadways being safe or even reasonable for their use. As the law currently stands, in most instances if a roadway is unsafe for bicycles, that's just too bad because the roadway is for motor vehicles, not bicycles. The public policy in Illinois is that roadways are for cars. This is in direct opposition to the Facilitators' beliefs.

The Outlaws probably have little official support in a legal sense except for the last Friday of every month when Critical Mass assembles. In many ways, Outlaws are often as much anti-car as they are pro-bike. And that 's OK in theory, but in practice the "anything goes" approach does almost nothing to further a pro-bicycle agenda.

And where do I fit in? As an attorney and a bicyclist I would like to see more fellow bicyclists follow the Rules of the Road. That probably puts me in the Vehicularist camp. My sense is that the more respectful bicyclists act, the more respect they will be given. As a citizen of Illinois and a bicyclist, I wear a different hat and often find myself in the Faciltators' camp. I am proud of what Chicago and many municipalities in the Chicagoland area have done to make bicycling more accessible, fun, and safe. Still, in some ways my heart is with the Outlaws. Riding free and unencumbered was how most of us fell in love with riding as children. But riding like that has little practical use in an urban area and is simply unsafe compared to the other camps.

The bottom line is that bicycling in Illinois, especially in the Chicagoland area has exploded. And Illinois laws and public policy need to adapt to these changing usage patterns. Just like in a race, it's lead, follow or get out of the way. And I think Illinois needs to lead by first enforcing the already existing Vehicularist approach and then working to include the Facilitators' approach. When a few laws/policies from each camp falls into place, maybe even the Outsiders will join in with the rest of us.

Keating Law Offices concentrates part of its practice on representing victims of bicycle accidents and bicycle crashes throughout Illinois. The trial attorneys at Keating Law Offices have emerged as leaders in the field of bicycle-related litigation.