What if your neighbor, who drives an SUV, told you that stopping at a red light ought to be optional? Suppose no one is coming, either way? Why should your neighbor delay crossing the intersection just because of that pesky stoplight?
Now, consider this quote:
"I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else."
No, that's not your neighbor with the SUV. That's Randy Cohen in an opinion piece in the August 4 New York Times. And Cohen's vehicle is not an SUV but a bicycle.
Cohen is more than a cyclist. He is an ethicist. For more than a decade, Cohen's judgments on ethical issues appeared in a weekly feature in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He was removed from that assignment in February 2011, apparently as an economy move.
I'm a big fan of Cohen's writings on ethics. I think the Times made a mistake when it turned his weekly feature over to a series of lesser talents. But I disagree with his view that it's ethical to violate a traffic law requiring a stop at a red light. Your neighbor with the SUV wouldn't say that. Cohen shouldn't write it.
We all say or write things we shouldn't. In this space on July 11, my opinion piece ("Don't Ride Into Autumn") criticized cyclists and questioned whether bicycles belong on the same streets as cars and pedestrians.
I don't regret a word of the commentary. However, the adjacent Comments section — usually, when used a lot, a sign of a healthy and vigorous debate — deteriorated into an unpleasant sideshow and I contributed. I regret that and don't plan to respond to any comments on this piece, which is focused only on whether cyclists should obey traffic laws.
Unlike me, Cohen clearly believes they can be selective about compliance.
"My behavior vexes pedestrians, drivers and even some of my fellow cyclists," Cohen wrote. "Similar conduct has stuck cyclists with tickets and court-ordered biking education classes."
But it's okay, he insisted. "A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others," Cohen wrote. "My actions harm no one." He cited a complex concept called "categorical behavior" from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, which apparently holds that right and wrong are not absolutes but are conditional.
My opinion is that the traffic laws permitting cyclists to share the road are out of date and that every advantage offered by cycling is offset by some danger to our larger society.
I don't expect to get what I want, which is to forbid cyclists from using our streets and sidewalks. But I don't want things to go in the other direction, either. As much as I admire Cohen and wish the New York Times Sunday Magazine would restore his weekly feature, he's just plain wrong here.
I have discussed this issue with my 65-pound yellow Labrador retriever, Autumn, who has nearly been hit by a cyclist more than once. Autumn sometimes talks to me when no one else is around. "I think they should stop at the stop sign," she told me. Autumn is sometimes selective in obeying the law but she's a dog, not an ethicist.
When you're on a bicycle, this isn't something you should have a choice about.
About me: I'm a longtime Oakton resident and author of books magazine articles, and newspaper columns about military topics. My current book is "Mission to Berlin," a history of American bomber crews in World War II. I live near a four-way stop at Wayland and Valewood Streets that I hope cyclists will respect.