The ethicist says “It’s okay to be a scofflaw”

Randy Cohen who formerly wrote “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times says it’s ethical to run red lights on a bicycle.

THE rule-breaking cyclist that people decry: that’s me. I routinely run red lights, and so do you.

I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else.

My actions harm no one. This moral reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.

Read more in Saturday’s opinion column in the Times.

I also don’t care when motorists also break the law, as long as they’re not endangering anybody. The usual situation: drivers who fail to come to a complete stop at a stop sign when there’s no cross traffic. I only point out failure to stop as a counter-example to the frequent claim that cyclists are dangerous scofflaws.

Cohen had weighed in previously on the ethical implications of your choice of transportation. Basically, if you drive a car, you’re a selfish 流口水的婊子和猴子的笨儿子 who puts your own needs above those of anybody else.

This ties in well with my thought’s about Woz’s Golden Rule of Driving that the Mercury News published last week. To summarize, he doesn’t believe anybody should get in the way of the driver behind you. This is kind of the opposite of the actual rule, which is that the road user in front has the right of way over the road user behind. Even if you stay in the slow lane, signal every turn, drive 5 to 10 MPH over the speed limit like everybody else, you’re still getting in somebody’s way. At the very least, you’ve impacted traffic flow by triggering red lights, forcing all of that cross traffic to come to a complete stop just so you can get across the street.

I think Woz’s rule begets the strange idea of rude and entitled cyclists who control the lane for safety. Many of my cycling friends occasionally chide me (gently) for this rudeness. Implicit in this allegation of rudeness and entitlement is the belief that the operator of the motor vehicle is more important than the bicycle rider.

If you’re driving behind me, I won’t needlessly hinder your movement. As a courtesy I’ll even pull over to let you pass when the opportunity presents itself. But if I’m taking up the whole lane, be assured I’m doing so for a pretty good reason. Be patient and you will get there.


  1. The issue that then comes up, is that when drivers get used to rolling stops, they might be less careful, and learn to expect to do a rolling stop most of the time. It only takes one corner with bad sightlines, and a jogger or cyclist coming down the sidewalk faster than expected for there to be a collision. This always seems accompanied by “they came out of nowhere.” This is why it is never safe to ride on sidewalks in dense areas, and many cities prohibit that.

    When a cyclist rolls through a stop, it means they can continue moving along at a reasonable pace without extra effort. Driving a car, it’s as simple as just bending your ankle twice, so I see no reason not to stop and make sure all is clear. Since even small cars weigh 3500lbs these days, there is a huge amount of responsibility that needs to go with that, and unfortunately almost no one takes that seriously.

    What I find consistent among drivers (and often cyclists) is that they make utterly stupid moves if it appears to save them even 1 second of time. The problem with that logic is that they will inevitable just end up behind the same vehicle at the next light, or 10 seconds down the road. I typically drive 5mph under the speed limit in the city, and it’s much more relaxing, and no slower than the idiots going 10mph over when I reach them at the next light. There was a study I can’t find now, that showed that speeding in cities will only get drivers to their destination 4% faster.

  2. | I also don’t care when motorists also break the law,
    | as long as they’re not endangering anybody.

    I agree with most of your opinions, but I think this is just wrong.  It is right in theory, but totally breaks down in practice.

    I have had several close calls when cars rolled through a stop sign because they thought they were not endangering anybody.  Except, they did not see me on my bicycle.  Sometimes they just continued on, never realising that they nearly ran over another human.

    When you allow people to inject their own judgement into the law, you are asking for trouble.  There will be a fraction who put in the proper thoroughness.  But a large number will perform only cursory checks.

  3. Fresh new insights to be ignored in favor of the same old entrenched arguments from the 10-Speed Era, judging from the sfbike and ebbc lists. #TiresomeSauce

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.