What's Wrong With Bicycle Traffic Laws?
Traffic laws are supposed to promote your safety if you obey them, and protect your rights if someone else causes an accident. The core principles of traffic law do this very well for both motorists and cyclists, but there are many add-ons in bicycle traffic law that degrade both our safety and our rights.
There is no federal traffic law. Traffic law is a state function, and the troublesome add-ons are state (and local) laws.
This is not a problem for motor vehicle operators. Motor vehicle traffic laws are generally uniform throughout the 50 states. A motorist traveling from state to state need not learn a new set of laws with each border crossing. Also, local authorities have only limited powers to enact special ordinances. The standard traffic laws promote safe practices.
Cyclists do not enjoy this uniformity or benevolence of bicycle operation laws. State laws differ widely and local laws are often loose cannons aimed at our rights. Well-meaning but misguided lawmakers treat cyclists like children. Moreover, many troublesome laws betray a lack of knowledge of the actual causes of bicycle accidents.
Many state and local laws trample cyclists' rights. We are treated as incompetent children and third-class citizens. Some laws forbid cycling on roadways, but instead direct us to use more dangerous facilities such as sidewalks and pathways beside the road. Other directives confine us to the edge of the road, even where the road edge may not be safe. In many states, local ordinances form a crazy-quilt of dangerous and discriminatory rules that vary from community to community and that conflict with the known best practices of bicycling safety.
The safest way to operate a bicycle is as the lawful driver of a vehicle. This means riding on the roadway while following the same traffic rules as other drivers. Cyclists who operate this way have one-fifth the accident rate of the average bicycle operator. Paradoxically, the best and safest practices are sometimes prohibited while dangerous mistakes of novices are encouraged.