Bending The Rules of the Road

RUNNING RED LIGHTS

Most veteran cyclists in New Orleans do not wait for stop-lights to turn green before proceeding across an intersection if the coast is clear. This action is probably the hottest topic amongst motorists and cyclists alike in most cities across the USofA. Keep in mind that many cyclists are also motorists. Also, try to keep an open mind, as you have probably been brainwashed into thinking that operating an agile twenty pound precision machine amongst 3000 pound lumbering behemoths, idling in their own carbon stew, would be safer if you behaved just like them. I can generate half a horse power for a minute or two. Cars can generate 300 horse power for unlimited amounts of time. We are not the same. Do not be fooled by lazy lawmakers that don't even ride a bike.

GOOD REASONS FOR RUNNING RED LIGHTS:

First, let me define "Running" a red light in cyclist terms: Roll up to a red light and be prepared to stop at it. Start looking for pedestrians who might cross in your path. Then look carefully both ways, then again, for crossing traffic. Keep in mind that a bus in the near lane could be hiding a sports car in the far lane that is moving very fast. If there is no cross traffic, and it is to your advantage to proceed on a red light (sometimes it just makes more sense to wait for a green even if the coast is clear), carefully, looking for traffic at all times, proceed.

GOOD REASON #1: LESS EXPOSURE TO VEHICLE TRAFFIC:

If done properly, running a light that just turned red will often allow me to bike on an open, car-free roadway which is always safer than allowing cars to pass. I have the entire roadway - sometimes three lanes - on which I can choose the smoothest, safest line. I use a helmet mounted rear-view mirror to look for traffic over my shoulder. My goal here is to sprint ahead of the traffic rotting at the light I just blew through, and beat them to the next signal where I will "lather-rinse-repeat" the same sequence of events from light to light. I call this technique - "Riding the Gaps"

Signals in New Orleans are not synchronized in a manner that helps cars catch all of the green lights. Cars are pretty much screwed by the lights here. Oddly, if I blow through the signal at Canal Street and Magazine Street heading west, and maintain 20-23 mph, I will catch every signal GREEN light down to the Crescent City Connection bridge (half a dozen signals) WITH NO TRAFFIC! Potentially the most dangerous stretch of my commute through Downtown is reduced to a joke.

There is another form of "riding the gaps" that does not involve running all of the red lights. For example: Eastbound on St. Charles Avenue - if I run the red light at Broadway (the first light on my route) and maintain at least 20 mph - I will be able to follow that gap in traffic for FOUR MILES. I will see a line of cars waiting at every red light on this route, but instead of blowing past them and playing leap frog with them at every light, I adjust my speed a tad to follow the last car through the intersection. I may pass the last car or two if they take forever to get moving, always watching carefully that they do not try to turn right from the left lane. It is not impossible for me to ride the four mile stretch to Lee Circle from Broadway without one single car overtaking me on what may be the most heavily traveled commuter route through Uptown. If I stopped for every red light, and biked a more leisurely pace, I would have to interact with HUNDREDS of vehicles migrating to or from their 9-5 grind.

REASON #2: CYCLISTS DON'T GET TREATED WELL AT RED LIGHTS.

If I rode my bike like a motorcyclist, and stopped at traffic signals behind a line of cars, and let a line of cars build up behind me, I would be obeying the law. I am a pretty good sprinter, and if the line of cars move forward normally, I can keep up with the flow up to about 30 mph. But if the driver just ahead of me (and I can't tell you how many times this used to happen before I gave up stopping for red lights) has his/her head up their ass when the light turns green - then nails the accelerator like a NASCAR driver - guess what? I am left twisting in the wind in front of a line of cars all in a rush to get across that fresh green light. At the least, someone will blow a horn and drive within inches of my rear wheel. At the worst, no matter how I place myself in the lane, they will try to squeeze by me - sometimes with two wheels on the curb or sidewalk!

What often used to happen is the car directly behind me would start blowing their horn before the light even turned green! As if they knew I was going to be in their way when the light changed. I usually just turn around and look at them, keeping my fingers on the handlebars. Often, they would wave an arm frantically for me to move over out of "their way", which I always ignored.

My message here is that cyclists in New Orleans often do not get treated like traffic by motorists. So it is very dangerous to obey many of the traffic laws designed for motor vehicles with no thought of bicycles.

REASON #3: AIR POLLUTION.

I refuse to spend more time than necessary breathing the hydrocarbon soup created by the loathsome traffic.

REASON #4: IT'S NOT THE HEAT - IT'S THE STUPIDITY.

Five of the hottest months of the year in New Orleans are indescribable. "Africa Hot" comes close. It could be 100 degrees F, and 100 percent humidity at the same time ("double-hundreds" as we call it). The temp just BEFORE sunrise is 80 degrees F with 100 percent humidity. By the time one can leave their air-conditioned home, walk to their car in the driveway, and get the car AC cranked up - they will be soaking wet from sweat.

OK...the point is: Stopping for a long red light after biking hard enough to stay with traffic will cause heat stroke. Especially if you stop in direct sunlight anytime between 9 am and 5 pm. You will heat up like the surface of Mercury within ten seconds. If you stop next to a public bus or large vehicle, the heat off of the motor will roast your eyeballs in their sockets. A solution of course is to take the shaded back streets and bike a reasonable speed if time permits.

REASON #5: OBEYING THE LIGHT CAN KILL YOU

Getting in the habit of watching what the traffic is doing i.e., reacting to the physical facts on the ground instead of cultivating a Pavlovian response to colored lights can actually save your life.

Just today I was cycling out of a neighborhood and had to cross a four-lane road loaded with morning commuter traffic. From a distance I looked at the light and it was red. Normally I would begin to formulate a procedure for beating the intersection but I knew it would be full of cross traffic and I resigned myself to just stop and wait for a green light. But as I neared the cross street, I discontinued looking at the light (out of sheer habit) and started looking left for a break in traffic - the actual facts on the ground. What I saw was a solid wall of cars a block long in both lanes roaring toward my intersection. It was obvious I would not be going anywhere until I got a green light, but I continued looking for a gap in the traffic or the last car to pass.

What was actually happening at the time was the entire line of traffic was roaring up to a red light. My light had turned green unnoticed by me because I was looking at the physical facts of life and death bearing down from my left. A middle aged man on a Harley Davidson completely spaced out and rolled through that red light at 40 mph in the nearest lane to me while all of the cars behind him stopped. It was not until then that I noticed my signal was green. Had I focused on the pretty colored light and proceeded to cross when it turned green, it is very likely I would have met that Harley dude center intersection. My habit, actually - part of my soul that has ignored traffic signals for decades - had saved my life again.

The moral of this story: No matter what vehicle you ride or drive, even if you stop at red lights, pay attention to the physical facts on the ground closely, or in my case out of sheer habit. A green light in no way indicates any amount of safety. Every accident at an intersection with a signal is caused by two things: The vehicle running the red, and the vehicle proceeding at a green without checking the facts on the ground. Both parties are wrong, just to different degrees.

REASON #6: BECAUSE I CAN.

It just makes sense to get where I am going as fast as I can without being killed or injured. I always grant right of way to those who have it. Other than watching me ride past, no motorist or pedestrian acting lawfully will be affected by my riding style.

GOOD REASONS FOR RUNNING STOP SIGNS:

REASON #1: MOMENTUM.

It hurts to lose momentum on a bicycle. That's that.

REASON #2: IT SAVES TIME AND WEAR ON YOUR JOINTS.

Obviously, riding through thirty stop signs during a commute will save some time. Not starting from a dead stop over and over saves one's joints from wear and tear.

REASON #3: LESS TRAFFIC.

Less numbers of cars will overtake you from behind if you run the signs.

Here are a few tips for safely running stop signs:

TIP #1:
Treat stop signs as yield signs. Always yield right of way to pedestrians and cars.

TIP #2: Look both ways, even on one-way streets! Look left-right-left, or right-left-right (depending on the obvious lines of sight) at every crossing. Someone on a bike or even in a car could be coming down a one-way the wrong way.

TIP #3: Listen both ways too! No iPod! Turn your head slightly when you look both ways so the sound of the wind gets "dumped" our of your ears. When you look to the right, you will listen to the left, and visa-verse. If you hear so much as a twig snap, or a weed-eater in the next block - hit the brakes!

TIP #4: If you are crossing a huge intersection with 4-way stop signs, you can blow through at a faster rate of speed as long as your sight line is adequate.

TIP #5: This is a very important observation of mine. At any intersection where you encounter a vehicle at the crossing either from your left or right, do one of the following two things only: 1. If you decide to go first and take the right of way - STAND UP ON THE PEDALS to communicate clearly that you are accelerating! 2. If you intend to stop, STOP PEDALING! (You fixie folks are screwed here). If you stop pedaling, most drivers will assume that you are yielding to them and pull right out in front of you. It's not their fault. Do not stop pedaling if you intend to proceed in front of any motor vehicle!

TIP #6: If there is time, I usually signal for the motorist to proceed across the intersection in front of me by a sideways motion of my head (as if I were shaking the bangs I don't have out of my eyes). If I am breaking with both hands or on a bad surface, I do not like taking a hand off of the bars to wave a car to "go ahead".

By signaling to the driver, he/she proceeds that much faster and I don't have to lose all of my momentum. And, at least for awhile, that motorist will appreciate cyclists a little more for yielding right of way and using signals.

GOOD REASONS FOR SPEEDING?

I drive a car like a grandma. I don't speed and I always use turn signals. I do not use a cell phone while driving. Since I do not own a car (almost 20 years), if I am driving one, it is because some wonderful person has lent their vehicle to me. Or I am taking my turn on a road trip. Whatever - I do not want to damage their car or another car filled with people. I obey all rules of the road behind the steering wheel. ALL of them.

Speeding on a bike? You should be looking at everything that will kill you while cycling in traffic - road surface, crossing vehicles, overtaking vehicles, parked cars, pedestrians, etc. Looking at your cycle computer at speed is risky. Better to not even have the distraction on your bike.

My official position on speeding? If it makes you safer, and you can do it, let 'er rip!

PASSING ON THE RIGHT - IS IT WRONG?

Given the law that states bikes need to be as far right as safety permits, you would think that passing on the right would be correct. Here is the Catch22 about that. If there is room to avoid "winning the door prize", being hit from behind, or turned into by the very cars you are passing, then by all means...pass on the right WITH EXTREME CARE. For me, "as far right as safety permits" is often the double-yellow line painted down the center of a six-lane highway. Unfortunately, this appears freakin' CRAZY to motorists. Here is why it is often the safest place to be:

1: No motorist will make a right-hand turn across your path because you are on every one's left side.

2: No one can turn left in front of you without crossing the double-yellow.

3: You won't get doored, because neither the driver nor the passenger behind him is going to fling the door open and jump out on the double-yellow.

4: No one is going to change lanes without a turn signal and crush you without causing a head-on collision and killing their own stupid ass. Also, if a motorist hits you on the double-yellow, your bicycle and body will go through the windshield on the driver's side. Subconscious self preservation response of the vehicle operators causes oncoming traffic to give you a few extra inches.

5: The double-yellow positions you on the DRIVER'S side of overtaking vehicles as well as oncoming vehicles. Most motorists judge distance much better on the driver's side.

6: If a pedestrian decides to sprint out into traffic for no apparent reason, they have to go a loooong way before finding their way into your path. Normally I have time to yell at them THREE TIMES I am on the double-yellow line. If I was biking far right against the parked cars and a pedestrian bolted out from between the cars I would have no time to act, much less cuss them out.

7: If you want to be visible to cars, ride where a car would be. Bike lanes next to parked cars on the right curb serve only to hide a cyclist from all traffic and pedestrians entering from the right side. Then, if a situation arises, no one has time to react.

8: The double-yellow line gives me at least three times the space to ride as say riding between lanes on the dotted white lines. Cars changing lanes could also become an issue from that "apparently" safer place.

9: If you look crazy, you generally are given a wider berth. People want to avoid you.

WHAT ABOUT RECKLESS OPERATION OF A VEHICLE - AM I GUILTY?

Review the above section about riding on the double-yellow line. What appears reckless as hell to a novice or non-cyclist is actually the safest place to be. If it gets me home in one piece, you may call me anything you want including "reckless". Just don't call me late to supper.

TURNING WITHOUT A SIGNAL?

I want to give turn signals without fail. I might succeed if the roads were pristine in New Orleans. There are many times when I just cannot take even one finger from my handlebars. All the rest of the time, I give hand signals.

RIDING AGAINST TRAFFIC GO AGAINST YOUR GRAIN?

Without going into great detail (which I could) about this, let me just say that riding against traffic on almost any type of street or roadway is the single most dangerous thing you can do on a bicycle.

That being said, when I leave one of my jobs, I push my bike out the front door, turn right, and ride two blocks against traffic on a one-way one-lane road. Every day! It saves me a five block loop. I could list fifty bad things that could happen to me in those two blocks, including a piece of NASA space debris falling from orbit and smashing me, but I won't. Just this: If you ride against traffic without regard for anything, daydreaming, and looking at the sky for falling space debris - you will be killed. If you understand the situation, concentrate, keep your speed down, and keep your eyes moving, it can be done on a limited basis.

RIDING ON THE sideWALK - DON'T RIDE - WALK!

I ride on a sidewalk on rare occasions. If the road is closed, under construction, or just not there, I may use a sidewalk briefly to get past that. Also, in the nearby suburb of Metairie, there are a few areas near major highways where I make good use of sidewalks. No one actually walks on them anyway in Metairie. In New Orleans the sidewalks are almost always too dilapidated or too crowded with pedestrians to cycle on them.

In conclusion: Do what makes you feel safe, if it really IS safe. Yield when you have to. Do not give motorists or pedestrians the chance to kill you. If you must ride on sidewalks or against traffic - be careful, humble, and brief. If you decide to ride like an outlaw, then die like an outlaw. Do not blame anyone else if you get creamed!