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All city cyclist wants for Christmas: A ticket

Bike riders won't follow laws if they aren't enforced.

By Bernard Brown

Why haven't I gotten a ticket?

I know this sounds crazy, but I would very much like a cop to stop me and write me up. Self-control can only go so far, and the peer pressure is really getting to me.

You see, I'm a cyclist in Philadelphia. I use my bike to commute from West Philly to Center City and for other routine transportation. And no matter what traffic laws I violate while I am on my bike, I will suffer no legal consequences.

I have thoroughly tested this principle, albeit unintentionally. I'm not the type to plow through crowded crosswalks. But let's say I coast up to a red light and see no movement along the cross street. In many cases, I know that pedaling on through will help me hit a green light at the next intersection. Or maybe I'm facing a hill and hate to sacrifice my inertia for a useless stop. Or maybe I'm just itching to get home.

More than once, I have slipped through such a light only to notice a police cruiser idling in plain sight. All motorists know the sinking feeling of bracing for the lights, the siren, and the fine. But if you're on a bike, they never come.

At times, I've waited for red lights where officers are directing traffic and watched them ignore other cyclists as they breeze through the intersection or commit other violations.

Plenty of cyclists do the right thing, but only voluntarily. We all know that whether we run a light, ride the wrong way, or hop onto the sidewalk, the police will almost certainly let us get away with it. I'm not sure if they think ticketing cyclists is not worth the effort or not real police work, but I've seen enough to assume they won't do it.

I've heard motorists complain about cyclists who brazenly flout the laws that drivers have to obey, and I empathize. (I also drive a car.) But I ask these non-cyclists to imagine a scenario in which the traffic laws go completely unenforced for motor vehicles (not just Philly-style under-enforced). Speed limits? What speed limits? Stop? It's up to you!

In that scenario, a few strong-willed drivers would obey the rules anyhow, and a small reckless segment would ignore them completely. The big group in the middle, meanwhile, would try really hard to be good. But when it feels as if everyone else is getting away with it, and you're the only sucker who thinks the laws matter, the honor system isn't enough to keep you in line.

Unfortunately, this is not just a question of civic virtue. Lawless bike-riding is probably more dangerous for cyclists than it is for anyone else. And cyclists who break the law have also injured and killed pedestrians, and I'm sure they have caused accidents with cars as well (though certainly far fewer than motorists have caused).

I'm willing to bet that enforcement of traffic laws would decrease violations by cyclists. I'm also willing to bet that a safer, more law-abiding cycling community would do a better job of winning over drivers and pedestrians.

Lately, I've been trying hard to be good (with a few exceptions: You try to make a legal left turn onto 46th Street from the Walnut Street bike lane during rush hour). I exert considerable mental force to make myself squeeze the brakes at every red light and stop sign. I congratulate myself on my righteous will power.

But then I feel it evaporate each time another cyclist rides around me and through the intersection. I could use some help.