What to do here? Photo by the author.

On a recent Saturday night, about 11 pm, I was biking home while the wind-chill whipped at 10 degrees. Despite the “No Turn on Red” sign at 15th and New Hampshire and Florida and W Streets, I turned. There was no traffic, I couldn’t feel my face, and I just wanted to get home.

Half a block later a policeman pulled me over. “There was no turn on red at that last intersection,” he said.  “Bikes are vehicles and you’re required to stop and wait for the green arrow, just like cars.”

For a moment I was enjoying the heat coming out of his squad car, which further drove the point that we were in completely separate worlds.

But what could I say? He was right.

DCMR Title 18 Section 1201 states, “Every person who propels a vehicles by human power or who rides a bicycle on a highway shall have the same duties as any other vehicle operator under this title, except as otherwise expressly provided in this chapter.”

There it is. It’s the law.

However, bikes aren’t vehicles — not really. They’re not cars; they’re not motorcycles.  There’s a lot that separates bikes from cars, and that’s why many cyclists act differently than drivers.

Bikes don’t have heaters on them, which may have led to my haste last Saturday, and perhaps the lack of sympathy from our toasty friend with the badge.  They don’t offer the same amount of protection as a car does, so cyclists behave differently.

Bikes are smaller. They’re thinner, they’re lightweight. Bikes need less room, which is why bike lanes are five feet as opposed to the 10-12 feet required for auto lanes. And even when there’s no bike lane, that’s why people on bikes can squeeze through traffic at red lights.

Another distinction is that if you get hit by a bike, it might hurt, but you probably won’t die. And I say this with all seriousness, because DDOT installed the right turn signals and the “No Turn on Red” restriction because a pedestrian was killed by someone driving an SUV and making that same turn I did.

Bikes don’t go as fast as vehicles. The top speed most cyclists can get up to in the District on streets is maybe 10-15, perhaps a little faster on a hill. Because people go slower when they ride bikes, they can see more and react more quickly. This also makes bikes safer to other people.

Riding a bike uses a lot of momentum. It takes effort to get up to 10 mph. So when there’s a stop sign with no cars at the intersection, only those determined to obey the laws actually will. Like when pedestrians cross when the light clearly says “Don’t Walk. Which brings me to my next point.

People have better visibility when they ride a bike. They can see how close a car or pedestrian is. They understand exactly where their bike is, and how much space it’s taking up. And because cyclists are closer to the intersection, not set back behind a hood, they can see the cross traffic a lot better.

When I worked at DDOT, a colleague was telling me how bikers shouldn’t cross when it’s red. I replied that if it’s safe, I did so. She asked, “Well, how do you know if it’s safe?” I was confused and just said, “You look.” It took a couple of days to dawn on me that when someone drives almost exclusively, they forget that it’s pretty easy to see if a car’s coming. If parents feel safe telling their kids to look both ways, I’m confident I can pull it off, too.

As a policy decision, there’s a lot of reasons to make it safer and easier to ride a bike. There are health benefits, fewer accidents, reduced congestion, and so on.

With more people biking, we have a responsibility to make it safe, just like we did when more people started driving.

However, there are barely 2 pages in the DCMR reserved for bicycle operations, and 20 pages reserved for vehicle moving violations. DC needs to update the DCMR to stop treating bicycles like vehicles, similar to what Arizona, California, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, and Vermont have done.

There are a lot of examples of good bicycle-specific policies. One example is the Idaho Stop, which allows people who are riding a bike to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs.

People break the rules when they ride a bike not because they’re bad people or because they like live outside the law. They understand that almost all of the traffic control in the city is directed at people driving machines that weigh at least 3,000 lbs. and can get up to 100 mph. They don’t really make sense if you’re on a bike.

The best way to get people to obey the rules when they ride bikes is to write the rules for people who ride bikes.

These updated rules should provide better clarity about situations that didn’t really exist 10 years ago. For example, vehicles turning right when there’s a bike lane. Is the person driving supposed to wait for the bike? Or is the person on the bike supposed to overtake the car as the driver waits in the bike lane to turn right? What if someone double-parked their car in a bike lane, what is the correct action for the cyclist?

The new rules should then be presented comprehensively to the Metropolitan Police Department, in drivers education classes, and show up on drivers license exams. It would also be helpful to have them distributed to new bike owners.

More cyclists will follow the rules when they ride bikes because the rules would finally make sense.

Chris Ziemann moved to Washington after a 7-week, multi-modal hitchhiking trip from Lisbon to Berlin. He has a masters degree in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, and is currently working for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, promoting sustainable transportation in developing countries. Chris worked for almost four years with DDOT to improve the quality of life and equality of transportation options for residents and visitors.