Hey Grumbling Drivers: a little thing called Civil Disobedience

Yesterday evening, I confess, I rode my bike through a four-way redlight.  And the grumbling driver who delayed traffic when the light turned green to roll down her window and issue a colorful reprimand was correct in at least one of her accusations: I was in the wrong.

But as with all stories, there’s more to this one than a flagrant violation of rules.  I was riding on Onepu Road, toward Kilbirnie, when the light at Coutts Street turned red.  I slowed to a stop as did a large diesel truck behind me.  Pedestrians also waited, which told me that before our light would turn green, they would get the little green man to cross in all directions.  Soon enough, they did.  Unfortunately, the driver of the diesel truck beside me may not have been familiar with the intersection, and he started moving.  I yelled at him to stop and he (thankfully) slowed to let pedestrians pass. He then proceeded through the intersection against the red light.  When the pedestrians cleared and the little red man was blinking, I also started across the intersection, which is my daily practice– my daily road code vio, I suppose– as I like to get in front of the cars who inevitably race in front of me if I don’t and then make quick left turns across my path into the Woolworth’s parking lot.

Yet another violator.

Unlike every other day, however, yesterday, a woman in her car took particular offense at my headstart.  Although cleared to pass the intersection, she took a moment to give a verbal (and loud) wag of the finger at me, to which I could only nod and say quietly, “I’m on a bike.”  I know she didn’t hear me.  She wasn’t supposed to.

I thought I’d share the story not because I think I was right and she was wrong.  In fact, if we were all to climb on the scales of justice, she would perch prettily on the uplifted right and I would sit among the rubble of wrong, choking on the fumes of the big ol’ red-light running truck.  I share it because I think all of us cyclists have a responsibility to acknowledge ourselves as occasional (or frequent) scofflaws and to consider and discuss the reasons we decide to flout the rules.

In a previous post, Lesley confessed to taking to the pavement and provided her justifications for doing so.  Commenters have contributed their myriad anecdotes about navigating the CBD or riding around Evans Bay, many of which included quick trips onto the footpath and brief moments against traffic.  These behaviors, none of which I would consider malum in se, are understandable reactions to the vulnerability we face on the road.  Because as much as we want to ride the road, we are not blanketed in protective steel.  And our safe passage is often tenuous.  Therefore, we sometimes do things (or even make habits of it) that will give us a survivor’s step up.

All of which makes me realize that a touch of subversion is an inherent part of every ride because the bike remains a little countercultural. A bike ride is resistance.  Maybe every trip biked is a small act of civil disobedience.  And I got to be honest, I kind of like that.  So long as it’s cautious, safe and polite.  And includes a bit of bell-ringing.

And to drivers who would insist that I follow their laws with precision, I say, “Enjoy my backside, folks, because I’ll be in the middle of the lane, thank you.”

How about you? Are you raising your fist with me?

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4 thoughts on “Hey Grumbling Drivers: a little thing called Civil Disobedience

  1. atom

    “One may well ask: How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others? The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” – Rev. Dr Martin Luther King, Jr

    there’s a traffic light near my place that either doesn’t sense bicycles, or i haven’t yet found where to stop so i can trigger the sensor. if i’m riding home at night, i could wait there looking at a red-light until the morning rush-hour. the only sensible thing to do there late at night, is cross CAREFULLY against the light.

    manners st and willis st “bus only” sections during off-peak hours. ’nuff said there.

    going up the hill on newtown’s constable st, especially with moderate or heavy traffic is just plain dumb. there’s barely room for cars, let alone for cars and buses to safely pass a bike. even though it’s technically illegal to ride on the sidewalk, it’s the SAFEST option for getting up that hill. i had a conversation with a local cop about the law having the intent of promoting safety, but sometimes it does the opposite. constable st was the perfect example. this cop almost took a “hear no evil” attitude, but finally seemed to concede that cyclists do need to be allowed a fair degree of space to maneuver around the law (get it? maneuver? nevermind) in the interest of balancing self-preservation with the reasonable flow of motor vehicle traffic. going down constable st i will take the lane with absolute confidence. going up constable st i will take the sidewalk with due caution, or take wilson st, one block over.

    maybe after someone gets killed on constable st we’ll see on-the-street parking replaced with bike-lanes (as happened with with auckland’s tamaki dr, after local cyclists had been complaining for years that someone would get killed there). what would it take to fix that *before* someone gets killed?

    what would it take to implement “idaho stop” laws in NZ?

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  2. Pip

    As a cyclist I’m also prepared to bend a few rules here and there but as a runner cyclists on that particular stretch of footpath shown above annoy me no end. There is a marked space for cyclists on the other side of the road and few parked cars to negotiate. The footpath is narrow and at times quite congested. Stick to the road!

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  3. Lesley

    Part of the frustration we receive from car drivers is fuelled by the myth of limitless personal freedom that has been pedalled by car manufacturers. Those empty roads to swish through just don’t exist. Motorists have been duped by the advertisers, and they’re pissed off that the streets they drive through are clogged with other peoples cars. They see us cyclists whizz by on the inside lane, hopping on and off the pavement and over the pedestrian crossings. We have the freedom they were conned into paying tens of thousands of dollars for, but which cannot be acheived in a private motor car in the city.

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  4. I tend to agree with Lesley, auto drivers are ticked due to the lack of freedom. I don’t get that upset with runners or cyclists, but I do get upset with motorcycle drivers that fail to adhere to stop signs, red lights, or cross walks. Just a little too much power on those two wheels as compared to our bikes.

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