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Oakton Opinion: Cyclists Should Obey Laws

A famous ethicist says cyclists can be selective about obeying laws. He's wrong.

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.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Cindy Harrison Reilly August 11, 2012 at 05:21 PM
At the very least cyclists should be *required* to obey ALL traffic laws since they are allowed to share the roads and sidewalks with cars and pedestrians respectively. One of the most egregious things I see during rush hour is they cyclist in the middle of the road in the turn lane. Under no circumstances should a cyclist be there. It frankly scares the crap out of me. When I was a kid, back in the dark ages, not only were we taught to obey all the traffic signs, lights, etc. just like a vehicle has to but we were also taught that a cyclist must cross the street at the crosswalk. If the police would hand out a few citations for traffic infractions perpetrated by cyclists that might help them realize that these laws apply to them too!
J Anderson August 17, 2012 at 10:15 PM
A much more civil opinion piece Mr Dorr. Just so everyone knows, cyclists are subject to both pedestrian and vehicle law and it is important that everyone take the time to understand these laws as that should help alleviate the disdain for cyclists. Cyclists should obey these laws w/o a doubt but much to many a drivers dismay, cyclists won't be banned from using roadways and in fact more than likely one will see a rise in cyclists as many realize it's a much more civil way of traveling. And drivers need to stop texting and turning right on red when the sign prohibits such. Oh ... slow down too. http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+46.2-800 - Bikes as vehicles http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?000+cod+46.2-904 - Bikes as pedestrians FWIW....Idaho has passed some legislation that actually legalizes Mr Cohen's practices. Bob Mionske wrote about this in a piece in Bicycling Magazine. http://bicycling.com/blogs/roadrights/2009/09/01/making-better-laws/ Personally, I feel drivers need better education on what they will run into on while driving day to day - be at when they renew their license, get a ticket or via PSAs..... And at the same time, bicycling clubs, racing teams, etc need to better educate their members to behave and aid in gaining respect. BTW - I always slow down when passing a dog or child - as they are as vulnerable to me as I am to cars. Be safe.

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