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Road Rights- Mixed Signals

So many cyclists seem to think that it’s not worth the effort to come to a stop at signs and signals. I’m tired of seeing it, but they all say that it’s safer and easier to ride through. I know it’s illegal, but is that the only reason to stop–to avoid getting a ticket? What about the danger? What about the anger toward cyclists that results?–Dave, San Jose

Running stops is indeed illegal. In virtually every state, cyclists are subject to the same laws as motorists, and therefore are required to stop at stop signs and red lights just like other vehicles–except in Idaho, where it’s legal for cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs. (The history of the Idaho law is long, but there are currently efforts in other states to create similar regulations.) In any state, cyclists who disregard the traffic signals are subject to citations, and typically will face the same fines that drivers do for such offenses.

However, there’s another, more serious legal issue potentially confronting a cyclist who fails to stop–something called “comparative negligence.” If you are injured in a collision, and your own negligence–for example, failing to stop at a signal– contributed to that injury, your ability to be compensated for your injuries may be severely curtailed, even if the driver was also negligent. In some states, you may not be able to recover damages at all. In short, the legal consequences for failure to stop can be quite severe, so it’s in your best interest to stop.

Almost everybody bends laws sometimes, and this has helped lead to cycling’s PR problem. As any motorist will tell you, cyclists believe they’re above the law. The most common complaint? They refuse to obey traffic signals.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Motorists also break traffic laws, rolling through stops or speeding with the same sense of entitlement that they claim to disdain in cyclists’ scofflaw behavior. If breaking laws were the true basis for the animus, wouldn’t drivers who break traffic rules be reviled with even more relish? Cyclists’ behavior just seems to spark a different kind of anger.

The anti-cyclist attitude stems from a deeper motivation. There’s something primal in the competition for the limited resource of space on the roadway. This is exacerbated by the psychology of motorists trapped in congested traffic and by the expectation that motorists and cyclists must peacefully coexist within the confines of an infrastructure that is heavily biased in favor of the automobile.

And yet, a negative perception that cyclists are arrogant persists. The truth is, the stereotype doesn’t reflect the reality that many reasonable and considerate cyclists roll through a stop when it is safe to do so, simply because it helps conserve energy. Likewise, it’s far less complicated to maintain a paceline by rolling through a stop than it is for each rider to stop and start again. These considerations are lost, however, on any judgment-forming drivers who happen to see the incident.
Regardless of whether a roll-through is reasonable, it perpetuates the negative view. In the end, it’s our choice to reinforce the stereotype or counter it. We’re used to seeing stops as obstacles to avoid, but they can also be opportunities–to improve bike-handling skills, braking technique, trackstands and acceleration. By shifting how we perceive stops, we can become better cyclists and better cycling ambassadors.

Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J. D.

This article, Mixed Signals,  was originally published on Bicycling on April 9, 2009.

Now read the fine print:
Bicycle and the Law, Bob MionskeBob Mionske is a former competitive cyclist who represented the U.S. at the 1988 Olympic games (where he finished fourth in the road race), the 1992 Olympics, as well as winning the 1990 national championship road race.
After retiring from racing in 1993, he coached the Saturn Professional Cycling team for one year before heading off to law school. Mionske's practice is now split between personal-injury work, representing professional athletes as an agent and other legal issues facing endurance athletes (traffic violations, contract, criminal charges, intellectual property, etc).
Mionske is also the author of Bicycling and the Law, designed to be the primary resource for cyclists to consult when faced with a legal question. It provides readers with the knowledge to avoid many legal problems in the first place, and informs them of their rights, their responsibilities, and what steps they can take if they do encounter a legal problem.
 
If you have a cycling-related legal question, please send it to mionskelaw@hotmail.com Bob will answer as many of these questions privately as he can. He will also select a few questions each week to answer in this column. General bicycle-accident advice can be found at www.bicyclelaw.com.
Important notice:
The information provided in the "Road Rights" column is not legal advice. The information provided on this public web site is provided solely for the general interest of the visitors to this web site. The information contained in the column applies to general principles of American jurisprudence and may not reflect current legal developments or statutory changes in the various jurisdictions and therefore should not be relied upon or interpreted as legal advice. Understand that reading the information contained in this column does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Bob Mionske. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained in the web site without first seeking the advice of legal counsel.

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