Drivers are from Mars, cyclists are from Venus
Perhaps Drivers Are from Mars, Cyclists Are from Venus should be our approach to the seemingly never-ending conflicts between these two groups as they duke it out on city streets. Sadly these confrontations often result in more than just the wagging of fingers of accusation. They can be tragic.
In an attempt to create a safe urban cycling experience, many cities have adopted bike boxes at busy intersections. These areas in front of the car stop line at the red light give cyclists a head start so they can gain momentum. An advanced green light ensures they get away from vehicles and get up to speed without cars nipping at their heels. Is it time for a similar alteration to the stop sign law?
Recently, as a pedestrian observer, it became clear to me that drivers and cyclists are on totally different wavelengths. The setting: a three-way stop sign at a T intersection. The driver arrived at his stop sign, came to a full and complete stop, looked to his left, saw nothing, looked to his right and noticed a cyclist slowing down while approaching his stop sign. The driver, incorrectly assuming the cyclist was coming to a stop, entered the intersection to turn left, only to encounter the cyclist already halfway through.
The cyclist had in fact not come to a full stop, but merely slowed down, thus giving the driver — and this pedestrian — the impression he was going to stop, as it was the driver’s turn to go. However he then accelerated once again and proceeded into the intersection, evidently thinking the driver had deferred to him. This time we were lucky: A few toots of the car horn and a couple of angry epithets hurled by the cyclist and everyone was on their way again. What struck me was that I believe both thought they were doing the right thing. How could that be?
Drivers understand that they are required to come to a full stop at a stop sign — even if many don’t — check for cars, make eye contact with any other drivers, cyclists or pedestrians so everyone knows where they stand, then continue on their way when it is their turn. Cyclists apparently have a different concept of what takes place at stop signs: they seem to believe they are required to slow down as they near the intersection, make eye contact with any stopped drivers, but then continue through the intersection in an attempt to maintain their momentum, much like at a yield sign.
To motorists, the eye contact indicates: “I see you slowing down, you’re going to stop, so it’s my turn to go.” For cyclists, eye contact means: “I see you and I know you see me; now you’re supposed to let me pass through the intersection so I don’t lose my momentum.” Venus and Mars writ large! This is a recipe for absolute disaster; two groups of road users with virtually opposite understandings of what should happen at a stop sign.
Is there a realistic solution to this potentially deadly problem? I believe so. Placing police officers at all intersections to enforce the law might work, but I did note we need a realistic solution. It is my hunch that cyclists, regardless of the law, are not going to desist from coasting through stop signs. So in the interest of public safety, let’s make certain that all motorists — and pedestrians for that matter — are well aware of this.
In keeping with the adoption of bike boxes, I suggest we alter the Highway Code to make this “bicycle stop sign slide” legal, then most importantly educate the public through ad campaigns and road signs. Clearly informing all that cyclists are required to cautiously slow down at stop signs, then proceed without stopping when safe. I know, it’s a crazy concept, but let’s face it, cyclists are going to do this anyway. By alerting drivers to that fact, and having them expect the cyclist to pass through, these potentially fatal altercations can be reduced, if not eliminated.
It only takes an extra second at the stop sign for a driver to let a bike pass, and everyone comes out alive. In fact, many drivers already do this. Think of it like the right of way accorded to public transit buses as they pull into traffic. But everyone has to understand what is expected, be on the same page, sing from the same hymnal, whatever. These different takes on stop signs can be deadly. To cite another bestseller, we could call it the “I’m OK, You’re OK” approach to stop signs.