Comment of the Day: “Randy Cohen’s Scofflaw Cycling: How Did THIS Guy Ever Get To Be Called ‘The Ethicist’?”

Reader Lance Jacobs, a New York bicycle instructor, was moved by last month’s Ethics Alarms Post “Randy Cohen’s Scofflaw Cycling: How Did THIS Guy Ever Get To Be Called ‘The Ethicist’?” to write the New York Times about their scofflaw, erstwhile “Ethicist,” who had proudly confessed in a an essay that he routinely broke the law while cycling, and believed that he was right to do so. The Times didn’t print Lance’s letter, an open letter to Randy, and sadly, this blog does not (Yet! Yet!) have the circulation of the Times, but it is an excellent rebuff to Cohen, and a most deserving “Comment of the Day.”

Here it is:

“Dear Mr Cohen,

“Unlike you, I stop my bicycle at every red. I wait in line with the cars until the light turns green. Drivers who see this odd behavior immediately understand what I am – I’m a vehicle on the road. I’m not a car, but I behave just as predictably. By using the street in the same way as other road users, I project a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect. I am never forced off the road, I am never honked at. Most days, after a successful interaction with another vehicle such as a lane change negotiation, we part, with a thumbs-up or a nod, as friends.

“The smooth flow of traffic is enabled by the concept of predictability. In traffic, drivers quickly incur the wrath, if not the front ends of other vehicles if they; stop without warning, make turns from the wrong lane, make rights-on-reds in NYC (also legal in Idaho). Why the anger? Because these unpredictable behaviors violate the contract, they announce a sense of disregard, and because they off-load responsibility for avoiding a collision onto others.

“You state that you’re okay with rolling through red lights if it will not endanger yourself or anyone else. I don’t trust your ability to make that judgment. Cars, who you may not perceive as being “in the intersection”, may unexpectedly pull away from the curb. Pedestrians run to cross when the light is about to change. Stealth-colored urban cyclists fly into the intersection. Things happen suddenly and without warning. And there you are, doing something unexpected and unpredictable too. After the collision – what will you do, apologize?

“You started your essay stating that you routinely run red lights. You wrongly assume that I do too. So clearly, your essay is not speaking to me, as I do not run reds. So in response, let me speak not to you, but to other NYC cyclists; to beginners who are considering cycling but are unsure of just what rules, if any, they are to follow. Let me address even those who bike routinely, but start each ride as if preparing to enter a war-zone. Bikers – it doesn’t have to be that way! You can earn the respect you deserve as a legitimate roadway participant. Drivers do not hate us. But they do resent our unpredictable behaviors. They didn’t ask for, nor do they accept the burden of responsibility for our safety.

“Cyclists – You should not ride like Mr Cohen, in spite of his admonishment that you do so. When riding amongst roadway users you should behave as a full member of that community. Assert your legal rights. Work within the flow of traffic to reduce friction. Signal to, and thank drivers who let you move into their lane. Respect your fellow road users and the respect will be returned to you. Your daily ride will become 5 minutes longer, stress-free, and truly ethical.”

______________________________

Graphic: Bike Jax

4 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Randy Cohen’s Scofflaw Cycling: How Did THIS Guy Ever Get To Be Called ‘The Ethicist’?”

  1. I agree with most of what Lance Jacobs writes. I would assume that breaking the law is an ethics breach and we should all do our part to create safer roads. However, ethics are not as black and white (or red and green?) as Lance suggests. Consider the following questions that I find myself dealing with quite often:
    If a bicycle is truly a vehicle then why won’t the government time lights (even yellow lights) to account for the slower speeds (under the “speed limit”) of cyclists?
    Why are some traffic lights only triggered by the weight or metal content of cars and trucks? When this scenario occurs would you “run” a red light after sitting there for five minutes? Or would you wait for one of the privileged elites in a car to trigger the light change?
    Why are bike lanes more appropriate for trash, debree and an occaisional car door opening than a bicylce?
    Why do stand-alone bike lanes have more stop signs than road ways? (these bike lanes are usually off the road a few feet and have stop signs at intersections that cars do not)
    If you want to be “truly ethical” you should answer these questions as well as your “life is perfect” scenario.

    • Here are your answers:

      “If a bicycle is truly a vehicle then why won’t the government time lights (even yellow lights) to account for the slower speeds (under the “speed limit”) of cyclists?”

      That’s policy and practicalities, not ethics. If cycles were the majority form of transportation, then perhaps your suggestion would have merit. As it is, it has none. What’s your point? Different lights for each vehicle? That traffic lights should be calibrated for the minority? Minorities never have the right to ignore laws passed by the majority.

      “Why are some traffic lights only triggered by the weight or metal content of cars and trucks? When this scenario occurs would you “run” a red light after sitting there for five minutes? Or would you wait for one of the privileged elites in a car to trigger the light change?”

      What’s the “privileged elite” nonsense? The term is “predominant form of transportation”—the roads were built for them; be grateful. As a cycle, you can act like a pedestrian and walk the bike where you need to go. Gee, sorry for the inconvenience.

      Why are bike lanes more appropriate for trash, debris and an occasional car door opening than a bicycle?

      So you think this justifies running lights? How?

      Why do stand-alone bike lanes have more stop signs than road ways? (these bike lanes are usually off the road a few feet and have stop signs at intersections that cars do not)

      Because cyclists who get hit by cars tend to die. You’re absurd.


      If you want to be “truly ethical” you should answer these questions as well as your “life is perfect” scenario.

      The questions are just foundations for rationalizations, and not especially strong ones, either.

  2. If a bicycle is truly a vehicle then why won’t the government time lights (even yellow lights) to account for the slower speeds (under the “speed limit”) of cyclists?

    Because the lights are based on the speed limit. Also, going under teh speed limit gives you MORE TIME TO STOP. This is a benefit to bike riders.

    Why are some traffic lights only triggered by the weight or metal content of cars and trucks? When this scenario occurs would you “run” a red light after sitting there for five minutes? Or would you wait for one of the privileged elites in a car to trigger the light change?

    That’s a known problem that also exists for motorcycles. Laws that allow for treating the intersection like a flashing red have begun coming into favor.

    Why are bike lanes more appropriate for trash, debris and an occasional car door opening than a bicycle?

    Why are some roads more appropriate for potholes, uneven pavement, and randomly swerving lines than a car?

    There are badly maintained roadways and bike lanes. How does that make a bicycle not a vehicle?

    Why do stand-alone bike lanes have more stop signs than road ways? (these bike lanes are usually off the road a few feet and have stop signs at intersections that cars do not)

    Because they cross other roads and sections of expected traffic. There are stop signs for safety.

    If you want to be “truly ethical” you should answer these questions as well as your “life is perfect” scenario.

    I answered them, and there was no life is perfect scenario, so I guess I’m truly ethical.

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