Road Rage: Bikes and Cars Battle

by Ron Georg

Traffic laws were not written for bicycles.

That’s not just a mantra for militant bicycle advocates. It’s a basic fact. Bicycles are tacked to the vehicle code as an afterthought. The law reads, “Every person riding a bicycle upon a public way is subject to the provisions applicable to and has the same rights and duties as the driver of any other vehicle.”

That sounds pretty simple, but the first exception to the rule reveals the law’s poor fit on bicycles:

“[Except] those provisions which by their very nature can have no application.”

To a cyclist, those provisions are all around, posted boldly on street signs. “No Passing” is pretty much a moot point to someone on a bicycle, and for most riders a posted speed of even 25 miles per hour is more of a hopeful goal than a reality.

So the very nature of vehicular law feels unnatural to many cyclists. That often even extends to one thing a bicycle can do fairly easily: stopping at stop signs.

Local cyclist and advocate Vernon Huffman firmly believes that the safest way to approach an intersection on a bicycle is rolling slowly, ready to stop for hazards but also ready to move if that’s the better option.

“I figure my optimum maneuverability is around seven miles an hour,” Huffman said.  “And that is my primary way to stay out of trouble. Because let’s face it, I can’t count on a car to follow the rules. They’re going to take my right of way whenever they can.”

Huffman was exercising that philosophy when he went through a five-way stop while another vehicle was approaching. The car was far enough away that he knew he could make it through safely, without forcing the other vehicle to slow. He also knew that if he did stop, the other vehicle would reach the intersection about the same time he was starting up again, and he’d be wobbling along at low speed in front of a car he had to trust to stop at a stop sign.

So Huffman says he was exercising due care, taking the safest option, by rolling through the stop sign. But in this case, he might have placed a little more trust in the approaching vehicle, a Corvallis Police Department cruiser driven by officer Lee McColly.

According to CPD spokesman Lieutenant Tim Brewer, Huffman’s interpretation of the law wouldn’t have much relevance at that moment. “If it violates the Oregon traffic laws, whether they’re driving a car, riding a scooter, riding a bicycle, or even a pedestrian, if they violate the law they’re subject to enforcement,” Brewer said, commenting on the situation rather than the specifics of the case.

From an officer’s perspective, even violators with the best of intentions can cause dangerous confusion. “The officer has no idea what that person’s intent is, and, in fact, neither do any motorists that may have the right of way over the bicyclist who fails to stop,” Brewer said. “No one knows what is in the mind of the person riding a bicycle when they fail to stop at a stop sign.”

If Officer McColly did delve into Huffman’s intent, he would have found the rider unrepentant. That could be part of the reason he issued a citation for failure to obey a traffic control device.

According to Oregon traffic code, bicyclists are considered vulnerable users of the roadways. With that in mind, Huffman believes traffic enforcement against cyclists should be limited to the most egregious offenses, like when a rider causes an accident or hits a pedestrian. Not only are drivers more likely to be at fault in fatal collisions, cyclists get the short end of the stick in any incident with a car.

So he wasn’t going to enter a guilty plea and accept a diversion to bicycle safety class in lieu of a fine. “We’re blaming the victims,” Huffman said. “We’re sending them to a class so they can learn how not to be hit by a car, but it’s the car that’s the problem.”

That meant Huffman was going to have to go before a judge and explain how the entire traffic code as it applies to cyclists is subject to challenge, because cyclists are vulnerable users exercising due care in their own self-interest, and the purpose of enforcement, according the intent of the code, is to control motor vehicle operators in the interest of general public safety.

He does have a point, even if it makes for an unwieldy sentence.  Under “Intent of the Vehicle Code”, it’s pretty clear that the laws were written to keep people from doing dangerous things with motor vehicles.

But Lt. Brewer also has a point. Confusion in traffic can have unintended consequences. Anyone behaving unpredictably in traffic can be a hazard.

Of course, running a stop sign isn’t all that unpredictable. Most of us, driving or riding, coast through them when there’s no other traffic. If it seems more blatant when a cyclist does it, Huffman says that’s a matter of perception.  “When a bicyclist goes by at ten miles an hour, and just keeps going ten miles an hour, he zipped right by,” he said. “On the other hand, if you see a car going by at ten miles an hour, whoa, he slowed way down, because he normally operates at 30 miles an hour.”

In Idaho, they decided it’s not even a crime when a cyclist does it. Bicycle advocates are all familiar with the “Idaho Stop”, a law which allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yields, and stop lights as stop signs. Bicycles can coast through stop signs, and proceed through red lights after coming to a complete stop. It’s been that way since 1982, with no appreciable change in the accident rate.

None of this made it to the judge. He ruled on the basic facts of the case, and Huffman received a $260 fine. He has declined to appeal, since that would cost another $240 if he loses, which is a strong possibility.

After all, most judges will likely remember that the legislature rejected a move to institute the Idaho Stop in Oregon a couple of years ago, bolstering the applicability of the stop sign law for cyclists. That was a big loss for bicycle advocates, including Portland’s Bicycle Transportation Alliance.

However, the BTA is considering a solution which would recognize that a bicycle running a stop sign isn’t a threat to public safety. “Sometime in the future we might push for converting the offense of failure to stop at a stop sign to a secondary offense,” BTA Executive Director Rob Sadowsky said. “What that would mean is it is still illegal, but you’d have to break a second law in order to get a ticket.”

In other words, no harm, no foul. If a cyclist blows through a stop sign and hits a pedestrian, that’s a citation. But if a cyclists blows through a completely empty intersection, that’s more of a “if a tree falls in the woods” situation.

For now though, Sadowsky says civil disobedience will only get you so far. “We should be taking that risk knowing that if we fail to stop at a stop sign, we should be responsible for getting a ticket.”

Vernon Huffman insists that he’s not a scofflaw, rather, that he’s a staunch defender of cyclists’ rights and responsibilities. He lives a car-free existence, and he often finds our autocentric transportation grid an absurd place for a bicycle rider.

“You know what’s ironic about this?” he asked. “If I don’t pay this fine, do you know what they’re going to do to punish me? Take away my driver’s license.”