Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Driving in Boise, Idaho

Yes indeed there are many traffic snafus here in Treasure Valley land. As a cyclist, pedestrian, motorcyclist and automobile driver, I have to say that I sympathize to some degree with all parties. When I am in a car, I am constantly watching out for pedestrians, while often being upset that they are in my way and slowing me down. When I am walking I get frustrated at people who pull up to crosswalks and never fully stop while I am trying to cross. While on my bicycle riding in traffic I get frustrated at the few a--holes who try to run me off the road or do other things they feel are intimidating, yet in my car I get frustrated at cyclists when I don't feel I know what they are going to do. On my motorcycle I am always trying to spot people doing stupid things, just so I can avoid deathtrap situations, but I am often annoyed by motorcyclists who act as if they own the road, or who speed past me to make sure I understand they are faster.

The trouble for me is to keep in mind what I feel as a pedestrian when I am driving, or trying to remember all the cycling laws while I am in a car. The fact is that each member of the traffic community, whether ped, cycle, motorcycle, or car, and we all have an equal responsibility to know the rights, privileges, responsibilities and rules for the other members. It may seem like a lot to keep in mind while on the road, but I think that if people would focus on making the rules of driving a priority when they were driving rather than the hoard of other things that take over (i.e. cellphones, texting, eating, kids fighting in the back seat, the scenery, your partner, smoking, the radio, et cetera), they would find that the rules and laws are not so difficult to understand or remember, nor are they difficult to adhere to. The fact is, most everyone--walkers, riders, drivers--has somewhere to be, and they are all trying to figure out what corners to cut to make it there a little faster. Usually it is at the intersection of cutting corners and being distracted where bad things happen.
Now that I have said all of that, there are some basic rules to keep in mind that govern most situations.

1) The bigger the rig, the fewer the rights
Contrary to what many drivers of large vehicles would have us believe, they neither own the road nor have the most rights on the road. In fact, the larger the vehicle, the fewer the rights and greater the responsibility to vehicles that are smaller and pedestrians. The greatest privileges accorded to any traffic participant are those possessed by the pedestrian. Larger vehicles can inflict more damage quicker, and are feared because of that. Many who drive large vehicles use that fear to their advantage, intimidating smaller cars and pedestrians. Yet as the vehicle grows in size, because of the damage it can inflict, the responsibility to drive slower and safer grows. For if the intimidation fails to move someone out of the way in time, the driver of the large vehicle can suddenly find himself serving hard time for manslaughter and reckless driving. Similarly, these larger vehicles are more likely to be accused of fault in an accident, and the liability in an at-fault accident is greater because they inflict greater damage. Large vehicles are granted only the basic rights of any traffic participant, and they must adhere to a greater number of laws (weight, height, width, covers over loads, slowing or stopping for railroads, etc).

2) Be assertive, not stupid
I am not condoning aggressive driving, but if we want people to be more careful around pedestrians, as pedestrians we need to assert ourselves and own our rights. A great part of this is embracing the rights we have and using them to our advantage rather than behaving illegally and irresponsibly. A good way to be assertive as a pedestrian would be to use the crosswalk. What I mean is that in order for vehicles to stop, the pedestrian must be in the crosswalk. This means taking a step off of that curb when the vehicle has adequate time to stop, making eye contact with the driver in such a way as to convey the message that you intend to step in front of him. Stare him down until he stop or slows enough to let you walk, then walk in front of him. Another way is to use unmarked crosswalks. every intersection has a crosswalk, whether it is marked or otherwise, and every pedestrian is accorded the rights to using that crosswalk. Only in cases where there is a sign indicating otherwise does a pedestrian have to go elsewhere. Every intersection has a crosswalk that runs perpendicular to the traffic lanes, or the shortest route across one road at a time. (for instance, those funky intersections where the cross street is offset by a few feet, or comes in diagonally). This means that once the pedestrian steps off the sidewalk onto the intersection, he is in a crosswalk and traffic must stop. I encourage pedestrians to reasonably assert their rights in this area, drivers are oblivious to the law that requires this, and until pedestrians start participating in their rights, it won't change. (disclaimer: I do not advocate running in front of traffic randomly, a person has to give cars time to stop, etc and if the cars are not stopping, then the pedestrian obviously should wait).

3) Cyclists are cars…sort of
Okay, cyclists, this one is for you. You have all of the responsibilities of a car, but without a guaranteed designated lane of traffic. On the other hand, you can roll through stop signs and lighted right hand turns. After stopping for a red light and determining that it is safe to proceed, you can go through the intersection. You can be a car, or a pedestrian with the rights and privileges of each in specific instances. But you are also responsible, as would be a car on the road, to yield to pedestrians when on the sidewalk. Cyclists, you have the right to the shoulder of any road, and when the shoulder is not navigable you have a right to the rightmost lane of traffic (or the left if a multi-lane one way). Cars are required to yield to you if they cannot safely pass you on the left with reasonable distance. And you can pass cars on the left if they are not moving fast enough and you need to get by. Yet it’s not all fun and games. Cyclists are required to have a headlight and taillight (or reflector) when riding on roadways after sunset and before sunrise, or when conditions are dark enough they could not be easily seen from 500 feet. Like cars, cyclists are required to stop for peds in crosswalks or sidewalks. Cyclists also are required, when on roadways, to behave like a motorized vehicle (with the exceptions of stop signs and lights, which allow some freedom). Cyclists are also required, by law, to exercise "due care" and not cause traffic problems. This means that negligence on the part of the cyclist can end up very, very badly.

4) Cars, cars, and more cars
So here’s the deal with passenger cars and pickups, the largest population on the road: they feel the most suppressed. As a car owner and driver, I feel like big vehicles are trying to crush me and the laws don’t allow me any real privileges to offset that feeling. I feel like I am supposed to be looking out for everyone on the road and no one is looking out for me. It’s brutal out there. Even the cops have it out for me. Because the standard set of motor vehicle laws are all written based on passenger cars, there are a whole lot of laws to obey and really no breaks. The passenger car (or pickup) must stop for pedestrians, yield to cyclists, watch out for big rigs, signal every lane change, watch the speed, but don’t take eyes off the road. The payoff for all of this work is that it is the group most likely to be at fault in an accident. Sadly, for the passenger car, there is very little reprieve. The passenger car’s only hope is that in an accident, the other guy did something stupid or illegal.
As far as tips go for the driver of passenger cars, just because you own popular power doesn't make you right. Don't abuse your responsibility to other members of the traffic community. You do have a responsibility to stop for pedestrians, whether in a marked or unmarked crosswalk. You can’t pass a cyclist who for whatever reason is riding in the lane of traffic, unless oncoming traffic is clear and you can go around him like you would another car. Don’t do dumb stuff like try and figure out Google Maps on your smartphone while driving. Don’t slow to a crawl because you don’t want to miss your turn, you will cause an accident. In that case, if you pass your turn, go around the block and come back to it. If you are mapping a route on your phone, or texting, or even talking, please, PLEASE, pull over.

5) Those darned bikers…
Motorcyclists have only one extra privilege that I am aware of beyond the rights of automobiles and that is that they are allowed, after waiting an entire light cycle without being signaled, due to a malfunction of the sensor because it didn’t detect the motorcycle, to proceed through the intersection when it is safe, even on a red light. Whoopee! But the reality for the motorcyclist is that he knows that his life is at risk every time he enters the road. The only real advantage that the motorcyclist has is that the removal of all of the distractions that would be normal in a car allow him to be more focused; and hee needs every ounce of that focus to stay alive. The motorcycle rider has to be expecting, at every moment, the most hazardous potential situation. For motorcycles it doesn’t stop with watching speed, direction, and a few other cars, he has to also watch for sand, water and other slippery hazards on the road surface, he has to have a plan for safely ditching off the road if someone doesn’t see him. He has to be conscious of the blind spots of other vehicles and not ride into them. He has to behave as if everyone doesn’t see him, while riding confidently and assertively so that people will see him. And he has to do all of this while being pelted by road crud from the car in front of him and keeping his bike upright. I don’t know how motorcyclists would stay alive at all if they figured out a way to text and motorcycle.
There is really only one reason that anyone would be insane enough to ride a motorcycle, and that is that they love to ride a motorcycle. It isn’t worth the risk or the trouble for any other reason.

So this is really, really long. I put it in story form, however, because it is more memorable than quoting title, chapter and section of state code. The facts, however, are all accurate to what state code says in Idaho. If you don’t believe me, you can read it yourself: Title 49 – Motor Vehicles

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