Since 2006, motorists in Ohio are required by law to give cyclists a minimum 3 feet clearance when overtaking

Earlier this week I noted some commentators are arguing that cycling is now mainstream so cyclists should start playing by the rules.

The proposition is cyclists who disobey road rules – the exemplary case is ignoring red lights – alienate motorists. Better compliance would foster acceptance and respect from drivers.

Getting on-road cyclists to abandon their ‘lawless ways’ strikes me as a tall order. As I noted the other day, there are structural reasons why some don’t obey all road rules all the time.

Yet even if cyclists could be induced en masse to strictly comply with red lights, it’s not clear to me that it would make much difference to how they’re treated by motorists. The idea that it would improve the lot of riders via some sort of demonstration effect strikes me as questionable.

The fundamental problem motorists have with cyclists using streets is they’re too slow – they hold drivers up. That’s got nothing to do with breaking the rules.

Drivers implicitly see the streets as belonging to motorised vehicles like cars, trucks, buses and motor cycles that can easily accelerate to 50 kph plus and go up grades without slowing.

They see the key function of streets as providing transport. Most expect to travel at or close to the maximum permitted speed. It’s regarded as the appropriate speed and anything less is an imposition.

Hardly anyone driving today has known a time when Australian roads weren’t the exclusive preserve of motorised vehicles. It’s the way it’s always been.

Cyclists are a problem for motorists because they require them to slow down, however briefly, and take extra care. As far as many drivers are concerned, it’s as if pedestrians have taken to using the streets instead of the sidewalk.

I acknowledge motorists aren’t generally looking to cause cyclists grief, but most instinctively begrudge them road space. They’re doing cyclists a favour if they wait patiently for an opportunity to overtake safely.

The irony is adult cyclists have more to fear from motorists who break the road rules than they do from their own riding behaviour. Most collisions between the modes are caused by errant drivers.

In fact motorists routinely flout the letter of the law by, for example, driving 5-10 kph above the speed limit for a few seconds when conditions are good, or rolling through stop signs without coming to a halt. I doubt that cyclists flout the road rules anymore than drivers do, probably less (if only because there’re more rules that apply to motorists). Riders just flout different ones.

Cyclists who ignore traffic lights seem to especially antagonise motorists. I suspect that’s partly because signalised intersections assume a high level of trust between drivers and so for them are regarded as non-negotiable, almost ‘sacred’.

Yet those cyclists rarely disadvantage motorists when they negotiate red lights. On the contrary, by clearing the intersection early they might well do drivers a favour.

I’m neither advocating cyclists ignore red lights nor condoning the practice (although if the lights won’t trigger, what else can one do?). I’m saying complying with red lights shouldn’t be a major objective of policy because it would deliver little practical benefit to drivers and it wouldn’t achieve much for cyclists in terms of better riding conditions.

It also smacks a bit of cyclists being ‘the problem’. It’s a bit like the argument that registration of bicycles is ‘the solution’.

Most of the problems caused by (some) cyclists ignoring the rules impact on pedestrians, not motorists. It’s probably only a minority of cyclists, but there’s a high and growing level of resentment about the way some riders ignore the welfare of other users of sidewalks, zebra crossings and, especially, shared off-road paths

The conflict between these two groups is a serious and growing issue. It really does demand that inconsiderate cyclists (hopefully a minority) change their ways (e.g. see here and here), although how to go about that is a serious challenge.