What’s the cost of roadway ignorance?

Last week, Minnesota Public Radio blogger (and former colleague) Bob Collins acknowledged International Walk to School Day with mixed feelings:

We live two blocks from an elementary and junior high school where my kids went to school and, for the most part, they didn’t walk to school that much. Why? Because it’s not International Stop For People in the Crosswalk Day.

For me, that was a particularly timely post – by the end of the day, I had been run out of crosswalks on three separate occasions by St. Paul motorists. It’s one thing to have traffic laws on the books, it’s quite another to get motorists to obey them, or even understand them in the first place. For those of us who get around frequently by means other than driving a car, the consequences can range from mildly irritating to fatal.

And that’s why a tweet that afternoon by another Twin Cities journalist caught my attention:

Coincidentally, that’s the same Eric Roper who caught some heat from the local bike community a while back for his coverage of the city’s decision to hire a transportation planner to focus solely on bicycle and pedestrian issues while laying off firefighters.

He’s referring to a “bike boulevard” project in Minneapolis on a street that’s too narrow for separated bike lanes. The pavement markings are intended to create a safe, priority route for cyclists, and encourage drivers who find it inconvenient to use the four-lane arterial two blocks over.

But in terms of the letter of the law, the new markings don’t actually change anything. Bicyclists can legally use any roadway (unless specifically prohibited), and a cyclist can take the full lane if it’s too narrow for a car and bicycle to booth squeeze through. A driver coming from behind has to – gasp – slow down until it’s safe to pass.

So, by referring to the roadway as a “car lane,” Roper is showing either ignorance or disregard for the law. But it’s not my intention to single him out – he’s hardly the only one.

If you don't know what this means, maybe you shouldn't be driving a car.

A few weeks earlier, a couple of friends – also journalists, not that it necessarily matters – were puzzling on Facebook over the meaning of new “sharrow” markings in different parts of the city. Once again, the pavement markings weren’t changing the law, only illustrating it. But even well-intentioned people can find these things confusing.

Similarly, one of the people I encountered last week shouted at me for stepping into the crosswalk when she was convinced she had the right-of-way. And I wouldn’t mind having a dollar for every driver who’s insisted I ride on the sidewalk (which is illegal in commercial areas).

This causes me to wonder: How is it that we’re turning people loose on the roadways in cars without knowing this stuff?

Like the crosswalk rules, the law as it pertains to cycling is mentioned, as required by statute, in the Minnesota driver’s manual. But it’s under the heading “bicycle laws,” and is listed as an exception to the general rule that bikes should travel to the right of faster-moving traffic.

It’s an easy thing to overlook. And because you only need to get 80 percent of the questions right (a B-minus) on the exam, you can easily get a driver’s license without knowing that the cyclist in front of you has every right to be there, you know, in the “car lane.”

So instead of people knowing the law in the first place, we have to spend a bunch of money drawing pictures on the asphalt for them.

Yes, I know that lots of cyclists flout the law, and they don’t even have to have a license to use the road. I get it. But let me assure you that being a law-abiding cyclist is no protection from harassment on the roadways.

Cities like Minneapolis aren’t spending money on bicycle infrastructure to be cute. There are economic and energy benefits to walking and cycling, but they can only be realized if people feel reasonably safe making that choice.

Is it possible that we could avoid some of this expense by limiting the privilege of driving a car to people who demonstrate knowledge of the law in the first place? What if we had a set of questions about cyclists’ and pedestrians’ rights on the roadway that you had to get right in order to pass the license exam?

I can dream, can’t I?

Photo by Eric Gilliland via Creative Commons

5 thoughts on “What’s the cost of roadway ignorance?

  1. Nobody ever got rich betting on the success of an educational project to promote the public interest. How about California’s model? The first time you hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk, it’s a minimum fine of $220. You should see the way California drivers stand on the brake the second you dangle a foot off the curb.

  2. Chicago is, if anything, worse. Drivers actually speed up to go through the crosswalk if they see you standing there waiting to cross. They don’t even stop when I’m pushing a baby stroller, for pete’s sake.

    It would help a lot, I think, if we got tougher on jaywalking so that every pedestrian actually used the crosswalk (and stayed in the lines too – in Honolulu you can get a $130 ticket if you stray outside of the crosswalk). And got tougher on motorists who run red lights, don’t stop behind the line, don’t stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, park or drive in the non-shared bike lane, etc. And bicyclists too. If we were equally tougher on everybody, we would all end up a whole lot safer and could jointly feel put-upon by The Man instead of picking at each other because of our transportation mode differences.

  3. Greg makes a good point. Fortunately, I hear more and more bicyclists saying that its important to obey traffic laws, like stop signs and stop lights and turn signals, as a way to demonstrate that bicyclists are traffic too, and that the rules apply.

  4. Agree, Carrie. In MI we have signs advertising the fine and prison time for hitting a road worker. Maybe the same type of sign could line our bike lanes as a reminder, assuming the legislation to enact those fines and/or prison terms could be passed.

  5. We had 6 project openings in the last 3 weeks—-of new bike routes and a new bike center at the U of M. And these federally-funded projects are not the only new lanes. It’s clear that motorists have taken note. We get a lot of comments about how cyclists break the rules—and it’s true that this is a problem—but it is great to see a piece that reaffirms the rights of bicycles and pedestrians.

    We discussed here at Transit for Livable Communities the other day whether it would be possible to alter the driver’s manual to include more learning about bicycling, walking, and transit—from a safety point of view and also so motorists know they don’t have to drive all the time. The question of whether the full state would see this as a priority was raised. Your article, in a regional forum, helps raise the profile of the issue.