Bicycle signal stock photo from frantic00/Shutterstock.

When issues of bicycle and pedestrian safety come up, it's common for many people, including well-meaning ones, to suggest those road users ought to “follow the law” more. Some of those comments arose again after the deaths of Dave Salovesh and Abdul Seck even though, as it happens, both were purely innocent bystanders while their killers were evidently breaking laws themselves.

A Florida study found people on bikes break the law at no greater rate than people driving. Still there's no question some people on all modes take unnecessary risks. People are people, which means they are, with the exception of me and you the person reading this, uniformly idiotic. There's no question that most people on the road could take a whole vial of chill pills and ratchet up safety for them and those around them.

But some of these emails didn't just say “people should be safer.” They said more people — specifically, people on bikes and foot — should “follow the law.”

Is it safer to follow the law, or violate it? The answer might surprise you.

“Following the law” and riding safely are sometimes the same, but sometimes are not.

Let's take an example. At many intersections, DC now has “Leading Pedestrian Intervals,” where the walk sign turns on 5-10 seconds before cars traveling parallel get a green light. Because many crashes happen when a turning driver doesn't see someone in a crosswalk, the LPI lets the people get out into the crosswalk, where they are more visible, while the driver is still waiting and thus will see them. It's a big safety feature; a federally-funded study found they reduced crashes by about 13%.

The same logic applies to people in a bike lane, and so in 2013, the DC Council changed the law to allow people riding bikes to start going on a walk sign as well. We now believe this should be legal, and is safer.

Let's say you had a time machine, nothing better to do with it than win blog arguments about bike safety, and traveled back to 2012. You see a bunch of people starting to ride during the walk sign anyway, even though it's illegal in 2012. But, you know that people in The Future would say it's safer, including The Law. So what do we do with all these “scofflaw cyclists” in 2012 who are acting with reckless disregard for The Law?

On the flip side, driving while drinking used to be legal, as was smoking in hospitals. Just because those folks were following the law at the time didn't mean they were being safe. We now know they absolutely weren't.

The “Idaho Stop” is probably safer

One of the most common complaints about bicycle lawbreaking is people passing by stop signs without fully stopping or proceeding through a red light while it's still red. This is not legal. Is it safe?

Intersections are the most dangerous places, since drivers are changing speeds, turning, and so forth. Editorial Board member David Meni said, “Most of the time I roll through a red, it's so I can get out of a car's way and so they can see me, because I'm basically afraid for my life. After nearly 10 years of cycling in DC, I have a pretty good sense of when someone driving a car is acting recklessly and will attempt to speed past me really closely or cut me off. You bet I'm going to do whatever I can to get out of that person's way (including advocating relentlessly for putting a barrier between me and that vehicle).”

The “Idaho Stop” is a rule that people on bikes must yield at a stop sign, but don't have to stop; at red lights, they have to stop but then can move ahead if the way is clear. Delaware has a more limited version that only applies to stop signs on narrower roads.

The rationale is that because bicycles are so much smaller and move slower than cars, it's easier to see if the coast is clear or not. People on bikes can also yield to each other visually and with hand signals in a way that a bunch of cars in an intersection can't. Thus, a stop sign and light system that makes sense for cars isn't how you'd design a legal framework for other users.

When Idaho passed this law, bicycle crashes declined 14.5%. Thus, we could now be in an equivalent situation to the people of 2012 and the Leading Pedestrian Intervals. What would you say if a time traveler appeared in front of you and said, “Greetings! I am from DC in 2025! I bet you want to know who's President now, but instead I'm here to say we passed Idaho Stop, everything got safer, and now we all agree that's the best rule.”

Then someone on a bike goes through a stop sign in front of you. What's your reaction?

Traffic police stock photo from Pavel1964/Shutterstock.

Why is “the law” what it is, anyway?

The law is not handed down from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets by an infallible creator, but created by fallible humans in a democratic process which, we know, does not do a great job of safeguarding the needs and interests of a minority. On roads, drivers are the majority and many of the laws are written with their needs and desires in mind.

This is far from unique to bicycling. In a fascinating article on crime and law enforcement generally, civil rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis wrote,

Consider, for example, that it is a “crime” in most of America for the poor to wager in the streets over dice. Wagering over international currencies, entire cities’ worth of mortgages, the global supply of wheat needed to avoid mass starvation, or ownership of public corporations is accepted behavior. Dice-wagerers become bodies to seize, search, confine, and shun. Their private cash is “forfeited” to government ownership. Wheat-wagerers become names on the wings of hospitals and museum galleries. Their cash makes them heroes, and charitable organizations providing legal services to low-income dice-wagerers in criminal prosecutions give them philanthropic awards at banquets.

Karakatsanis also lists example after example about how “law enforcement” chooses to prosecute certain infractions over others, and for some groups of people more than others. In many ways, traffic safety law enforcement is less inequitable than in many other areas of the law. The overarching point, however, is that The Law and its enforcement have never been some Platonic ideal of a law-abiding society but rather a set of political decisions.

Transportation experts know that if we had automatic speed limiters on cars like we've required for scooters, banned anyone driving home from a bar if they had even one drink, build protected bikeways on every semi-major and major street, and prohibited right on red everywhere, we could make roads far safer. Of course, we're not going to do that, but the reasons aren't technical.

Meanwhile, while people should obey laws, we know they all don't, even you and me. This can't be a reason to grieve any less at the deaths of Dave Salovesh and Abdul Seck (who weren't even breaking any laws), or demand changes to make roads safe.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.