Monday 13 May 2013

Does obeying the rules matter?

I think I should clarify something in this blog, something that may not be apparent from either the tone or content of what I've been writing - mostly I don't care if people obey the rules of the road.

I mean, I DO care if folk endanger others - or themselves, for that matter. And I care very much when people are quite obviously lying about what is or is not safe. And I do care if people are breaking the rules in a way in which they increase the risk of causing harm.

But if you're on a motorway, at night, alone, with good visibility, and you want to speed, I really don't care. Thats your business and, frankly, whether you get home at 60mph or 80mph, just don't ask me to have any opinion on the finer details of what you're doing. I haven't got one. Likewise, if you want to ride your bike downhill with your hands off the bars, fiddling with your earbuds, its not my business. If you have an accident doing either of these things, thats your own problem. I'd rather you didn't, but hey, its up to you. Your choice.

I guess what I'm saying is that I don't get why folk get angry about some breaches of the rules but not others - I have never heard anyone who drives making sweeping generalisations about other motorists always speeding, always parking on the pavements, etc. even though the overwhelming evidence is that such crimes are so common places as to be ubiquitous. Yet I frequently (every day, in fact) encounter such generalisations regarding cyclists. About us going through red lights or going on the pavement or whatever else we all do all the time (apparently).

I could spend yet more time 'putting things in perspective' by reciting yet more data showing that the proportion of cyclists who break the law isn't that great, and certainly isn't as great as the proportion of motorists who speed, drive on the mobile phone, etc. But that isn't the point.

I could bleat on yet again about how this portrayal of cyclists as law breakers demonstrates that motorists are for the most part delusional in their prejudice against us. But thats also not the point.

My question here is a simpler one; does it matter if we break the rules of the road? It doesn't matter, to me, when done in a responsible context. But thats my subjective judgement call; it actually will matter to other people that someone is doing 90mph on the motorway at night. And, to many, doing 40mph past a school is considered okay, while others would happily shoot you through both lungs with their rifles of parental rage. Before impaling you on their nimby bayonets.

Lets take this to the extreme. You see a child molester crossing the road. You know they're a child molester, they've escaped from jail having been convicted for it, you know them personally, they're right there. No one could argue that this person is of any value or worth; they're a bad person who deserves to be punished. Now it would be absurd to suggest that you can validly drive your car over this person, because murdering people is wrong. The rules of the road do not suddenly get suspended because someone deserves, from your perspective to get run over. Or, in other words, the law is not subjective - we've got a set of rules that matter because if we all obey them we'll get along just fine.

I'm not going to argue that all law-breaking is the same - thats clearly stupid. But thinking this through, I can't make a case that we should further the cause of endemic lawbreaking by furthering the attitude that its okay so long as we're not doing much harm. Surely as mature adults we must accpt that with our right to criticise those who break the law because, in their subjective judgement its okay, we must just accept the same criticism when we've done similar? We can fairly suggest that the level of critisim, the severity of the action, may not be the same, but we have to accept that the concept of said criticism is fair.

Which brings us back to the criticisms regularly levelled at cyclists. We all jump red lights, we all go on the pavement, we all ride around at night without lights on... Even were these assertions true (and of course they're not) there is an inherent hypocrisy at play here. But its an hypocrisy so common as to be entirely un-noticed; its such a commonly shared anti-cyclist stance as to be one that most are blind to. 

Does it therefore matter if people break the rules of the road? Of course it does. Does it matter which rules they break? Clearly. Does it matter what vehicles they're using at the time? Well the bigger and faster the vehicle, the more it matters (or so it seems to me). No other way of prioritising road user infringements makes a great deal of sense; base it on harm caused, or you're pissing in the wind.

Make no mistake - you don't care either. You don't believe everyone should slavishly follow the letter of every law. You don't want that any more than I do. But I hope you DO care about the potential each of us has to cause harm - so why do we blandly stand by when those with least capacity to harm others are the ones so regularly demonised for breaking rules that carry the lowest risk to others?


  1. I care when other cyclists break the rules because I think it adds fuel the the fire of people who are anti-cyclist.

    Mind you, one of the problems with this approach is that often the anti-cyclist doesn't actually know the rules. I get people shouting at me when I take the lane, and they are the ones who are ignorant of the fact that this is not only legal, but advised by cycle training. How often do cyclists get withering looks for cycling in areas which are legitimately shared-use, or for cycling on the road when there are cycle facilities, or for using contra-flow or cycling two abreast?

    I see very little law-breaking by cyclists which I think is actually dangerous.

    In some cases I think the problem of cyclist law-breaking would be happily solved by changing the law, because the type of law-breaking is that inconsequential. Such as those bits of the town centre which are still one-way to cyclists, while other equally narrow streets function fine with two-way cycling.

    1. If I thought that the issues we get on the road are due to cyclists breaking the rules I'd be right there with you, but as you say we get just as much aggro for riding legally - the problem is not, I think, the 'laws' that we break, its that we constantly break the unwritten codes about complying with how everyone else behaves.

      I agree that changing the laws such that they're more appropriate for cycling make sense; as things stand we're asked to comply with laws that so often put us at risk when the safer option may be to break the rules. Its almost like the laws were written in response to mass law breaking by motorists rather than cyclists...