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Must we virtuous cyclists obey the rules of the road?

So I'm riding my bike to work and a guy pulls up beside me at a stop light and rolls down his window. "Let me ask you a question," he says. "Why don't cyclists obey the rules of the road?"

From the look in his eye I concluded that the question was rhetorical, so I shot back with something devilishly clever like: "Why do motorists act as if cyclists don't exist?"

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He claimed that he had seen me go right through a stop sign. I didn't deny it. He was an unpleasant old mollusk and we parted on less than civil terms, but as I thought about it later, it struck me that he was probably right.

Many cyclists, me included, completely disregard the rules of the road. We sail blithely through stop signs. We turn without signalling. We climb onto the sidewalk if the road is blocked. We go the wrong way on one-way streets. We even ignore red lights when there is no traffic coming. We want it both ways. We claim to be the equal of motorists, entitled to our equal share of the road. Yet we refuse to obey the traffic laws.

Cycling is a great way to get around. It beats the heck out of stuttering along in a sullen line of cars. And every cyclist on the road means one less car. But with rights come responsibilities. Cyclists have to make up their minds. Are they co-owners of the road, obliged to follow its rules? Or are they free spirits, obeying no rules and claiming no privileges?

I was musing about all this while cycling to work again earlier this week. Coming south on St. George Street on my way to City Hall, I recalled my encounter with the motorist and thought what a good beginning it would make for a column.

As I mused, I sailed once again through that stop sign - the very stop sign that Mr. Mollusk had chewed me out for disregarding a couple of weeks earlier. Holding a belief is one thing. Acting on it is another. After years of ignoring the rules of road, I find it next to impossible to come to a full stop at an intersection when no one is coming. At this particular intersection, there is a stop sign on the cross street too, so there is little danger some car will come flying through and mow me down. To stop would seem so pointless. So I didn't.

Tempting fate. As I crossed the intersection I noticed a policeman standing by the road, beckoning me to pull over. Who me, a cyclist? Surely not. But, yes sir, I was busted! A polite young officer explained that the police were conducting a campaign to get cyclists to obey the traffic laws.

In the "Safe Cycling: Share the Responsibility" drive this week, the police issued 1,373 tickets to cyclists for moving violations, including disobeying traffic signals and failing to yield to pedestrians. They gave out another 747 tickets for bicycle-equipment offences (it's mandatory to have a bell or horn, for instance) and a further 84 to people under the age of 18 for not wearing helmets. To spread the pain, they also handed out 3,502 tickets to motorists for things such as failing to yield to cyclists or opening doors without looking for cyclists. Another 198 were ticketed for parking in bike lanes. Take that, Mr. M! There is blame on both sides in the war between two wheels and four, but frankly we two-wheelers break far more rules day by day.

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My friendly cop stopped one stop-sign runner before me and another right after me. Two more sped through the sign regardless while he was busy writing out our tickets. Nabbing us was like scooping flying fish off a boat deck. Nobody obeys that stop sign - no cyclist anyway.

My yellow ticket explained that I was violating Section 136 of the Highway Traffic Act. The cost: $110. The officer suggested that I could challenge the ticket in court and get off when he failed to show up to testify (he couldn't appear for them all, he helpfully explained), but it stung a bit all the same. After all, I am a cyclist. As one of my fellow sign jumpers pointed out as we waited for our tickets, we aren't sitting in two tonnes of deadly flying metal. Shouldn't there be different rules for us, morally superior beings on environmentally superior vehicles?

There aren't, of course. Nor should there be. Under the law, bicycles are just like motor vehicles - no better, no worse.

If we want our rightful share of the road, we can't go on pretending we're above its laws. That's my position and I'm sticking to it - at least until I come to the next deserted intersection on my bike.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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