The Rules and What That Means

I have used the term “rules of safe movement” many times in discussing bicycle infrastructure. My usual link for it is this excellent essay by Chip Seal: The Steps of the Dance. I will continue to refer to this essay. I have secured permission to reproduce it for Carbon Trace readers — something I plan for the near future. But now comes another essay — approached a bit differently — that takes these rules to a new level of understanding.

Go read Mighk Wilson’s essay China Cups and Butterflies; Options and Ethics right now.

Here’s a taste:

The rules we have are based on the limits of human perception. Our eyes are at the fronts of our heads and we don’t have x-ray vision. They are also based on years of practical experience, first on open waters where boat captains needed to avoid collisions, and then on roads and streets when cart and carriage drivers needed to do the same. It was only when the industrial revolution came that cities got large enough and traffic got thick enough that the rules needed to be formalized into laws. Eventually traffic control devices were created to help manage the movements and reduce delays. For those who think the rules of the road were created for motor vehicles, note that less than 10% of urban traffic was motorized when William Phelps Eno wrote the first formal traffic codes for New York City in 1909. Eno thought cars were a fad and would be gone in a few years. He wrote his code for horse-drawn vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians, with autos, the horse-drawn and bicycles all categorized as vehicles.

The essential fairness of the rules of the road is based on the idea that all people are equal, no matter their mode.

Again, the rules are these (one way among a few they may be expressed):

  1. First come, first served
  2. Travel to the right
  3. Pass on the left

Pretty simple.

As Mighk notes above, these rules are based on much human experience that is necessarily grounded in the kind of critter we are, i.e. how we are built to perceive the world and interact with it.

The beauty of these rules is that they are easily understood and followed because they fit so nicely with who and what we are.

What it means: Violating the rules mucks up the system and leads to, among other things, collisions with other users of the traffic system.

Now imagine the kind of Twilight Zone that’s created when traffic controls are used that require (legally or socially) traffic users to violate the rules of safe movement.

This is what it looks like — you collide with a car because you’re not where the motorist expects you to be. You are where the transportation planners told you to be. Why would they tell you to be there?

I’m still trying to figure that out.

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Comments 6

  1. Khal Spencer wrote:

    One actually would expect cyclists to be in the protected bike lane. Having said that, carelessness is all too common, so one wonders whether it is prudent to place these so called protected facilities where they will put cyclists into the path of very well known human error. One can administratively demand all sorts of things that are unlikely to happen. Expecting drivers to look on their right when they are in the rightmost travel lane making a right turn is one of them.

    Posted 21 Jul 2013 at 4:28 pm
  2. Kevin Love wrote:

    Very interesting. Here in Ontario, the rules are quite different. I suspect that that is one reason why Ontario’s roads are the safest in North America.

    For example, “First come, first served.” Pedestrians are routinely given priority over motorists at crosswalks. It does not matter how long the motorist has been in a queue or if the pedestrian just arrived one second ago. The pedestrian gets priority and is served first.

    Another example, “All people are equal, no matter their mode.”

    Here, the law is that driving is a privilege, not a right. On the other hand, walking and cycling are absolute rights. Definitely not equal.

    Since driving is a privilege, not a right, suspending a motorist’s drivers licence is not a punishment. Therefore there is no right to a trial or any form of hearing before the police or Ministry of Transportation suspends a driver’s licence.

    The police can and do suspend driver’s licences on-the-spot at the roadside for a variety of behaviours. One example is driving in the “warn” zone of blood alcohol from .05 to .08 percent.

    Another example is driving more than 50 km/hr (30 MPH) over the speed limit. That gets a roadside driver’s licence suspension by the police.

    Another example is that every medical doctor is required by law to report to the Ministry of Transportation any medical condition in any of their patients that may impair their ability to drive. This is true even if the patient does not have a driver’s licence – because he could apply for one. This results in an immediate suspension by the Ministry.

    So all road users are not equal. And that is just fine with me.

    Posted 22 Jul 2013 at 6:05 pm
  3. Kevin Love wrote:

    Khal wrote:
    “…carelessness is all too common…”

    Kevin’s comment:
    All too true. Which is why it is important to have Sustainable Safety so that carelessness, errors and bad behaviour do not result in death or injury.

    See, for example:

    Sustainable safety is one of the major reasons why roads in The Netherlands are 17 times safer than roads in the USA.

    Posted 22 Jul 2013 at 6:13 pm
  4. Khal Spencer wrote:

    Hi, Kevin

    When I visited friends in Calgary, Alberta, I often crossed urban streets. The cars parted like the Red Sea as I approached a crosswalk. Its not just Ontario where Canadian drivers exhibit basic human decency.

    That was back in 2005 and I was hobbled by a herniated disk in my back. The decency shown by Calgary drivers was heartfelt by this guy, who for the first time in his life, was seriously disabled.

    Posted 22 Jul 2013 at 8:07 pm
  5. Andy Cline wrote:

    Kevin … The rules of safe movement are exactly the same in the U.S. and Canada. What you’re pointing our are very real cultural and legal differences. And I properly envy some of those differences.

    Posted 24 Jul 2013 at 8:13 pm
  6. Kevin Love wrote:


    What I am trying to say is that the rules here are different. At least different from the ones posted!

    Particularly the “All people are equal, no matter their mode.”

    Another example of how people using different modes are not treated equally by Ontario rules is that in a crash, civil liability is automatically assigned to the car driver. The onus is on the car driver to prove that he was not responsible. And if he cannot so prove, then he has full liability.

    Here is the law, from Section 193 of the Highway Traffic Act at:

    “When loss or damage is sustained by any person by reason of a motor vehicle on a highway, the onus of proof that the loss or damage did not arise through the negligence or improper conduct of the owner, driver, lessee or operator of the motor vehicle is upon the owner, driver, lessee or operator of the motor vehicle.”

    Posted 29 Jul 2013 at 9:12 pm