For the second time in a year, I have gone to the experts for their perspective on whether bike riders are legally, morally bound to obey all the traffic laws and signage designed for drivers of automobiles.
A debate on this increasingly relevant issue is brewing in our letters pages. Last week was a good one for the strict constructionists who believe that stop means stop whether you are on two wheels or four. This week the pedalers make a comeback including a cogent comment by reader Mary Vostal, who writes, “My suspicion is that these protest letters are written by my fellow citizens who have not enjoyed a good bike ride since the third grade.”
Mary goes on to say that, especially for bike riders who have knees that have outlived their warranties (count me in, Mary), they don’t cotton to repeated stops and relaunchings. And then, of course, there is the reality that it makes no common sense for a person on a bike to stop at every danged stop sign littering every two-bit intersection in the village.
Those of you who might want the cops to start issuing tickets for bikers coasting through the intersection of, say, Fillmore and Wenonah, consider that Police Chief Rick Tanksley is among the commonsense coasters. He rides a bike safely. He doesn’t claim to stop at every marked intersection.
Neither do I. I slow down at every intersection and assess the immediate chances I am about to die. I look for cars. I look for kids. I look for pedestrians texting while crossing the street. More and more I look for other bikers because we are breeding quickly these days. Then I look more closely at the cars to see which drivers are on their cells, or which ones are bending over to pick up the Snickers bar they just dropped. I try to make eye contact with the driver and I am grateful when they signal that they are giving me the right of way. I stop my bike completely most every time at the major cross streets — though it always feels like it is going to be a good day when at 6:30 a.m. I can easily cross Ridgeland.
After last week’s wave of letters from the anti-biking crowd, I called fellow Oak Parker Ron Burke. A few weeks ago we profiled Burke as he became executive director of the Active Transportation Alliance. I asked him if he stopped at every stop sign. He was too smart to answer that directly but said, “The best practice for cycling safety is to always come to a stop, or a near stop, when there are pedestrians or cars or other bikes at or near the stop sign.”
Yeah. Like I said.
“It is incumbent on the cyclist to see the whole picture. You slow down but proceed,” said Burke. “You have to be very, very attentive and apply good judgment.”
Burke also said in an e-mail Monday that his group believes progress is being made in the sharing of roadways in Chicago and places like Oak Park, but that 4,000-pound cars still predominate. “Cars so monopolize our streets that we have normalized bad driving, and bikes are rare enough that they are viewed as an annoyance by some drivers,” Burke wrote.
Look at the bikes locked near any Oak Park el stop, or behind Wednesday Journal, and you know this is not a passing fad. Watching out respectfully for each other as we share the streets is the real commonsense approach.