A whole litany of faults

“Bicyclists are obnoxious.”

That’s how columnist Michael Dresser begins his column today in the Baltimore Sun in which he encourages legislators to vote for a proposed three foot law in Maryland.

Some other colorful words he uses describing people on bikes: infesting, freakish, Spandex (of course), dweeby, smug, elitist, irksome.

But he’s being clever, I think, because he then turns around and writes Maryland state legislators should pass the three foot passing law like some 20 other states have.

Read more in the Sun.

On the topic of cyclist bad behavior, Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt weighs in on the perception and reality of how we ride our bikes.

What do you think? Are we as badly behaved as some people think? Or are people just people: with some jerks out there no matter if they’re on foot, on bike, or in car?

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0 thoughts on “A whole litany of faults”

  1. bryantp says:

    Are we badly behaved? Not usually.

    Are we obnoxious? Often. We are.

    Are we smug? Hell, yes!

    Should we change? Just a little.

    Are drivers resentful? Of course.

    Why? The same reasons we’re smug.

  2. Michael M. says:

    I’ll take “D,” Alex: all of the above.

    Yeah, some people are jerks no matter what, if any, vehicle they’re operating. Yeah, some cyclists are badly behaved. I find it really hard to imagine, though, that many of the cyclists committing their most egregious errors, like riding down a one-way street the wrong way or riding down the wrong side of a two-way street, would engage in the same behavior if they were behind the wheel of a car. There is something about the nature of traveling by bicycle that tends to make people scoff more laws the more experience they have as cyclists, as if perhaps the thinking goes, “I know I can do this illegal thing with minimal risk to myself or others, so I’m going to do it.” And most of the time, they’re correct in their thinking, but it is still irritating and it contributes to the perception of cyclists as obnoxious. And their thinking will be increasingly less correct as the number of cyclists increases. So I say to the cyclist I almost collided with (on my bike) the other night because I couldn’t see him until I was practically on top of him, “Get a damn light already!” It’s the law, it’s sensible, and it’s polite. Too many cyclists don’t seem to care enough about one or all of those things.

  3. anon says:

    The writer does not make a good argument for how the buffer zone will benefit drivers. Instead he focuses on rewarding “bad” cyclists because it’s the right thing to do. I’m sure that most drivers believe that the right thing to do to “bad” cyclists is to punish them, to teach them a lesson. Isn’t the news filled with people upset about rewarding bad behavior, i.e. politicians, bankers, investors, etc? The argument must be made that the buffer zone is the right thing to do because it benefits everyone including drivers.

  4. Folding Bike says:

    Thanks for sharing information and i appreciate it.Looking for more discussion and waiting for new topics here.

  5. Dyreson says:

    I think he has one of his facts wrong but I’m not sure if this is true in Maryland. Near the end of the article he says “… have to stay as far to the right as possible”. Generally that law in other states will say “…as far to the right as practical.” Anybody know about this?

  6. Adam says:

    Oh, Dresser is being very clever indeed! Clearly, when he’s describing the “greener-than-thou elitists” the intent is to grab the attention of both cyclists and motorists. The cyclists will be caught in the stereotypes and read more intently to figure out what else this yahoo has to say. The motorists will get pulled in with the me-to antagonism against rude cyclists.

    All of his prejudiced exclamations are clearly separated from his own voice. When he does speak as himself the tone is balanced and fair. People are seen as people, not cyclists or motorists. Some people are jerks, but groups which contain jerks (that would be both sides) still need basic safety protections.

    Clearly the author is in favor what what is right, a law for a 3 foot buffer between cars and bikes. And rightly so – there’s no reason to NOT have a law like this. It’s for the common good, for the biker’s safety (even if not followed to the letter), costs essentially nothing, and sets precedent for more bike-related initiatives.

  7. Dyreson says:

    I emailed the Dreser about how he incorrectly said “possible” insted of “practical”. Below is my email and the response I got. Feel free to email him and give him a piece of your mind.

    Mr. Dresser,

    Generally in most states the law will read “Cyclists have to stay as far to the right as practical” which is different from what you wrote “” as far to the right as possible.” There is a big difference between the two, and you may want to check this out to see what Maryland’s law actually says.


    Devon Dyreson



    I beg to differ. There is really a small difference between the two — if any at all. If you interpret “possible” as that which is safe and practical, there is really no difference.

    Maybe in a law review article I would split such hairs. But not in a newspaper column.

    Michael Dresser

  8. Dave says:

    “dweeby helmets”? I’ll take my dweeby helmet any day over that rug Dresser appears to be sporting. Bald is beautiful, baby.

  9. siouxgeonz says:

    Here’s what I wrote to the guy:
    THanks for the plug for the 3-foot law inBaltimore. I liked your angle and deeply appreciate providing the cyclist’s perception, especially noticing the hazards of mirrors and that many of us are law-abiding. I almost hate to say anything negative… except it’s important.

    I know you’ve already heard from at least one person about “practicable” vs. “possible.”

    I’m suspecting, that like most motorists and many cyclists (including Adam Berg, it seems), you would have us significantly further to the right than, in truth, is safe. It is counterintuitive… and it means that there is, in fact, a significant difference between “possible” and “practicable.” I may not expect you to “split hairs” with legalities, but I have this wild dream that a few people who write still care about word choice. It is *possible* for me to ride along the edge of the road, but at such significantly greater risk as to be “impracticable.”

    This misconception is part of the reason why cyclists are assumed to be being arrogant, when I’m simply trying to be visible and alive. Believe me, I’d rather be a gutter bunny and stay out of the way – except that when I do that, cars buzz me. On a lengthy ride, my companion noted that drivers were awful on that road – passing us ‘way too closely – and I realized that this might be what all those pamphlets were talking about when they said it was safer to “take your lane.” We moved out to the right tire track, and the drivers improved. None were even hostile; they simply saw us sooner and went into the other lane to get by us, generally without delay. We stopped to eat, came out… and noticed that drivers were buzzing us again… and that we were hugging the line. Amazingly, when we moved further out, the better drivers came out… and I’ve since heard similar stories from others.
    So, Adam Berg is *not,* in fact, riding as far to the right as “practicable.” If he were to ease out a bit, he might find out that these drivers who had been passing him closely mysteriously become more polite.

    Just a very few of the sources that explain this:

    http://www.labreform.org/education/passbikes.html (pictures at http://www.labreform.org/education/photos/index.html )

    Now, lest you say “but are these unbiased sources?” let me ask why on earth cyclists would *want* to ride further out. There’s really no advantage to it … except saving our lives.

    (and while I’m currently in Illinois, I spend a fair amount of time Baltimore way and may move back one of these years…)

  10. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    He reminds me of the Fort Oglethorpe, GA. Police chief. I would take those narrow lanes and he called it riding in the middle of the road and he was going to have me arrested for it. I was told by the department of safty to let him arrest me, but the fat belly cop never did… : (
    It is a shame I do not live in the same area as Michael Dresser , and commute on the same streets,too.

  11. Juan says:

    I liked that article….I took it as a very tounge in cheek look at why this bill needs to be passed.

  12. siouxgeonz says:

    I kinda hope he hears from people who like it, too, so he doesn’t think we’re all whiners like me 😉

  13. ohio biker says:

    When you realize the article is NOT written
    for cyclists to read, but by motorists, you
    may better appreciate the writing.

    The initial mocking, is to get attention
    and agreement from those who drive gas
    guzzlers. Don’t take it too personally.

    While certain rules may seem arbitrary to
    cyclists (such as slowing down at stop signs)
    if we wish to enjoy the protection of the law,
    it is important for us to follow the law.

  14. siouxgeonz says:

    I didn’t take it personally at all – I, too, thought it was an inspired way of bringing readers in.
    I did not, however, appreciate the reinforcement of the idea that cyclists should be gutter bunnies – especially since his “expert source” cyclist seems to be of that ilk, too. He answered me and perceives it as a theological debate and repeated his “splitting hairs,” and referred to riders moving out because of glass, showing that he still didn’t understand the point about lane position. I suggested that rather many hairs could fit in the several feet of difference between honestly possible and honestly safer – even on a glass-free road, but told him I wouldn’t bug him again… unless you ride, it’s awfully hard to understand but I think it’s worth bringing up, at least.

  15. kit says:

    On the subject of “bad cyclists” it is perfectly reasonable behavior for a number of reasons. Cyclists are a roadway minority group at a significant disadvantage. Because of this they are more apt to be aggressive, even with each other, but more usually against other groups, like cars, and unfortunately, pedestrians.

  16. Dave says:

    I am a bicyclist. I love bicycling. I live in a rural area, so I’m not familiar with the sins of urban cyclists, although I have certainly heard of them.
    I have observed side by side cycling on narrow 2 lane roads that
    predominate in my area (rural Vermont). I have also see pelotons of local bicycle clubs completely disrupting traffic in both lanes. We’re not talking the Tour de France here, this is a local bike club.
    It’s bad for the image of cyclists. It could lead to someone getting
    hit by an impatient motorist.
    Several years ago when I lived in Tucson, AZ a weekly peloton group
    was mass arrested by local police on the outskirts of town (east side near the national monument) after several complaints. Public
    urination was involved, so this was an extreme case, but the main complaint here was the disruption of traffic. The names and vocations of the people arrested (about 50) were published in the local paper.
    Much to everyones surprise, these were not rebellious teenagers, but
    the arrestees included police officers, lawyers and at least one judge.
    While there will always be unreasonable motorists who think bicycles do not belong on the road, we bicyclists are often our
    our worst enemy in terms of public relations.

  17. kit says:

    The single-file curb-hugging versus clumps of take-the-roaders is a real hot button I’ve been seeing a lot about on blogs, and with a lot of law enforcement. But all the “data” I’ve seen is strictly anecdotal.

    If this debate has any hope of being resolved, it needs to be resolved with some solid data on fatalities relating to riding the line versus riding two-wide, and it probably needs to be data compared separately based on the two lane rural road versus the multi-lane city road.

    We’ve all got opinions on this but without concrete data it’s pretty much senseless noise.

  18. kit says:

    I apologize, where I was going with that was: If this data exists, LET’S SEE IT!!

  19. siouxgeonz says:

    Good idea —
    but group vs. individual are different buttons, too… and with a dearth of data, it is still worthy of discussion.

  20. siouxgeonz says:

    Perhaps not quite a dearth of data. Check out the U of Illinois attention research: http://viscog.beckman.illinois.edu/djs_lab/demos.html – both the more famous “passing the basketball- where’s the gorilla?” one and the research on spotting things off to the side of your travel path.

    I realized riding home yesterday that in that whole article, not once was the phrase “bike path” mentioned. There *is* progress.

  21. guez says:

    If this bill fails to get out of committee (a real possibility), then it will confirm what I have believed for some time: cyclists are losing the war of public opinion because they are unwilling to address the sources of motorist/pedestrian anger. Perhaps cyclists shouldn’t have to stop at stop signs. Perhaps cyclists’ behavior doesn’t endanger anyone but themselves. Perhaps the lack of cycling infrastructure is a big part of the problem. For the sake of argument, I’m willing to concede all of these points. Bikes good. Cars evil. I get it.

    Cyclists would have a better chance of achieving political change, however, if they showed some deference to motorists. The reckless behavior and adolescence insouciance of some (not all) cyclists understandably frays the nerves of many motorists. This doesn’t help cyclist advocacy in the court of public opinion, where motorists are the majority.

  22. phillip says:

    It depends where you live. In orange county, ca, the serious cyclists feel they have the right to take up one lane of the two lane Pacific Coast Highway.

    In many other cities bike lanes exist but are inconsistant- they suddenly disappear and bikers have to ride on the sidewalk or on the dirt shoulder.

    If the us was consistant about bike lanes and drivers were about safety, then maybe the country would consider riding appropriately, following laws and safe speeds.

  23. Very thoughtful comments here. What is interesting is the parallels to the civil rights movement. There was lots of dialogue and disagreements within and between passionate leaders and followers about just how to get a minority issue mainstream support. Some groups advocated in-your-face protests, sabotage, and even violence. Others thought going the quiet, behind the scenes political route might work. And, of course the non-violent protest tactic led by Martin Luther King was eventually the winner. Using that technique, managed to engage non-minorities into the cause by demonstrating the simple but profound injustices of discrimination and separate but equal. We can and should take lots of pages from that legacy if cycling is ever to become more than two tenths of one percent (is that pitiful or what?) of trips (in Maryland) or any other very low percentage nationwide. Otherwise we will continue to just talk among ourselves while being largely ignored and despised by other road users.

  24. phillip says:

    How many cyclists have to die before there is change?

  25. kit says:

    Let’s not get a complex about this. If we go around talking about how horribly dangerous the roads are we’re going to be pushing the balance in the wrong direction.

    There is a sea change going on right now that is propelling our movement forward. We are certainly a minority group on the roadway but this is no civil rights movement comparable to Martin Luther King’s struggle.

  26. Actually our movement is akin to a civil rights movement –
    The international bill of Human rights Article 13:

    1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
    Our supreme court also added that intimidation on our roads is a form of restriction on those rights. To wit – harassment or close passing can all lead to enough intimidation to keep many people from bicycling.

    That said, we need to look at how to engage the majority (in this case car drivers) in supporting our efforts – My premise is that drivers want less cars, (less traffic) and through our bike commuting we grant them that wish and therefore we deserve their full support.

  27. kit says:

    I ended my comment on the wrong note. I just think we need to keep things positive rather than sounding like a whining group of outsiders, giving drivers more reason to see us as radicals rather than neighbors and friends.

  28. siouxgeonz says:

    … and while, indeed, there are many ways in which we *can’t* compare this to the civil rights movement, we can still learn from it. We are a minority and some people *do* think we’re beneath contempt and many more think we are asking unreasonable privileges adn depriving others of their rightful ones.
    One obvious difference is that people can change and *truly* become one of us.
    I *do* want to know how many people will die – and have it considered, somehow, the expected results of an “acceptable risk” since we can’t be expected to make things safer for cyclists (I live in Boub territory). How often is “I just didn’t see him!” going to mean “okay, say you’re sorry, and have a nice drive home.” That doesn’t even work with speeding tickets – you have to go to those safety classes… but actually, I just wondered if that response was simply rewording Mr. Dylan…

  29. siouxgeonz says:

    Oh, but I also hear the “we must all be positive” stuff … while I do think the worst thing to do is to get on this guys case when, after all, he didn’t even entertain the opinion we should go to the Bike Path and let the roads be for cars, and *that* is some serious progress. He might even let his daughter bring one of us home for dinner 😉

  30. phillip says:

    bike paths are cool except many don’t go anywhere close to civilization. For instance, in So Cal, (Inland Empire) bike paths are made over old railroad tracks so the biker has to go on city streets part of the way. They are great for recreation; straightaways, no crowds, open at any time etc. But isn’t the point of “commute by bike” to utilize the bike as a part of conservation? To work? To the store?

    I think it will take an absolute tragedy for Americans to change and consider bikes. Like, “All Americans can only fill up their cars twice a month” Then maybe govt will make an effort to make street riding safer and maybe the cyclist will abide by city laws.

  31. burnsey says:

    Any bill in favor of bicyclist is a go in my book.
    I do shudder every time I see an unhelmeted bicyclist in the wrong lane, no lights, no concern for what is happening around them, and clearly, no clue.
    That alone does more damage to my commute than any law, for or against, bicyclist.

  32. Continuing along the civil rights theme, falling victim to the ‘if one of us behaves badly then we will all be blamed’ theory is exactly the internal strife the civil rights leaders hotly debated internally. In other words if someone broke the law by drinking from a white water fountain or sitting in the front of the bus or even condoning violent resistance (as the black panthers did) then we’ll all be blamed for their actions. Frankly, I also hate seeing lawbreaking cyclists (although helmets are almost never used by adults in Europe) we cannot allow ourselves to fall into the ‘why, they are all like that” stereotype trap. The fact is each of us are very different and individual in our behaviors on the roads. You don’t think ALL motorists are homicidal maniacs just because one nearly hit you running a red light or speeding do you? Our cause is right despite the poor behavior of other individuals. Our cause for equal rights, access and responsibilities on the roads supersedes any single individuals actions and the we must prevail if we’re ever going to see larger numbers of bicyclists in the USA.

  33. Dave G. says:

    The sad thing about this whole issue is that people (in cars) are treating people (on bikes) with disrespect sometimes. And people (on bikes) are treating people (in cars) with disrespect sometimes. Additionally, I was riding home one night from work last summer and came upon a pair of adult men riding bicycles on a city street weaving between the right lane and the left lane. I passed them with caution and wondered to myself if they had a death wish. A few blocks later I’m signaling to turn right and one of these guys nearly t-bones me on my right-hand side as I attempt my turn! And guess what…no legislation in the world is going to completely solve the problem of treating each other with respect. Watch your back.

  34. chi_bike_commuter says:

    Chicago has both 3-foot passing and “dooring” laws.

    There was a bit of publicity when City Council passed the ordinances last year, but these laws — like most other traffic laws in this city — are ignored. The ordinances have no noticeable effect.

    Chums, get a rearview mirror, be visible and ride defensively. Assume that most of your colleagues on the road are morons. (Because they are.)

    This mirror’s really good:


    Yours Truly, Mr. Safety – A Chubby Middle-aged Bike Commuter

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