Thursday, December 13, 2007

Smugness and Safety

So I've taken to obeying traffic laws on my bike, as sort of a hobby. I'm coming to a dead stop at every stop sign, stopping and waiting for red lights, even if there's no crossing traffic, those are the particular ones I'm thinking of. And it's had some salutary effects, I think. I'm trying not to piss off drivers ("those %$#@*ing bikers, always breaking the law") and ride more predictably, i.e., more safely, and I'm also trying to slow down a bit. Part of the pleasure of riding is the slowness of it--you have a little time to think, or not think, and you force yourself to take a break from hurryhurryhurry of work, etc.

However, there are downsides to obeying all the rules. First off, I've become less tolerant of others' (e.g. automobile drivers') rolling through stop signs, and hurtling through lights after they've turned red. Bike Snob NYC hits the nail on the head (as crudely and intelligently as ever) in his Holiday Gift Guide. "Commuting by bicycle is all about two things: smugness and safety." The two things are tied together pretty tightly. Unless you're willing to adopt an "all the cagers [people in iron cages, i.e. cars] are evil petrocrats out to destroy the earth, starting with me" outlook, and the concomitant defensive war policy (they have no concern for anything, I have no need to obey any rules in my interaction with them), the alternatives are either "Oh, I'll just stay out of their way, and maybe they won't hurt me" or, "Alrighty, people, we're all on the road together. I'm going to take my share of the road, we'll all obey the rules, and nobody gets hurt."

All this means that offenses against the commonweal can be taken very personally; that might be a good thing. There's too rarely a cop present when someone screams through a red light and my helpful reminders of the illegality of such practices remind drivers that someone, at least, is standing up for the rule of law. But, aside from shading into vigilantism, it may just piss people off to have someone ostentatiously stopping at the stop signs, and taking my turn like any other vehicle--especially when I'd clear the intersection quicker by rolling through at speed! (Not to mention that my idea of predictability is to obey the law, and since that's pretty uncommon, it might in fact be the unexpected behavior!)

Aside from the social effects of this habit, I also wonder about the habits of thought it is inculcating in myself: Am I outsourcing my safety to the rules of the road (which are poorly known and even less respected?)? Should I not ride aggressively, saying to myself, "No one is responsible for me, but me!"?

On balance, taking responsibility for my polity (to borrow, with alteration, the title of a current book) encompasses responsibility for my person. As the Cub Scouts taught, "God, Country, Family, Self."

1 comment:

cafiend said...

Rules of the road do not constitute government oppression or motorist domination. They're just a way to impose some degree of predictability on situations in which vessels or vehicles meet. By and large they work pretty well and are not really esoteric except when four streams of traffic are converging into a four-way stop at slightly staggered intervals. Then the standard "first in-first out or give way to the vehicle on your right if 2 or more arrive simultaneously" gets balled up.

Rolling stops aren't so bad. Clearing intersections quickly can also be good. Just don't bitch if you get peened when you don't officially have the right of way. Managing risk starts with acknowledging risk and the responsibilities that go with any activity. Too many cyclists act as if they had no responsibility as soon as they did away with the motor.