Why it isn’t polite to stop for a stopped cyclist

I feel like I’ve ranted about this topic at length, but I can’t find any evidence, so it must have been on Twitter. The issue deserves some explication, since I think this is a point of actual confusion among decent people who are actually trying to be nice.

You should not stop when you have the right of way just because you see a person sitting on a bicycle preparing to travel across your travel path. In all interactions, please, proceed according to right-of-way laws. That does mean that the following advice does not apply to people walking, and it also doesn’t apply to people on bicycles using a crosswalk where sidewalk riding is permitted.

Caveat: always attempt to avoid any imminent or probable collision. Safe and wrong is better than sorry. Safe and correct is better than safe and wrong.

That out of the way, right now I’m talking about you, a kind Portland driver (or a kind anywhere else driver) traveling on a street, seeing a stopped or slowing-to-stop rider in the street at the intersection where the street the rider is on has a stop sign. Your street may or may not have one. In either case, proceed according to right-of-way laws. That means stop if you have a stop sign. Then, proceed in your turn (which means going first if you arrived first). If you have no stop sign, don’t stop. If you have one, don’t insist that the rider precede you if you arrived first.

Why? you say to me innocently. I’m just trying to be nice.

I know you’re trying to be nice, but it’s mostly confusing, and therefore mostly annoying, because it breaks predictability, which breaks safety and efficiency, which are virtually everyone’s first and second goals in traveling around (not necessarily in that order). There are two reasons it does this.

  1. Your car does not have the magic power to stop every other car on the road. Just because you stopped does not mean the rider can safely proceed.
  2. The rider already has predictions and plans about when it will be safe to cross. Your behavior screws up those predictions and usually creates delay.

Neither opposing traffic, nor traffic in the other lane, nor traffic behind you will necessarily stop because you have. You might even trigger a rear-end collision if the person or people behind you aren’t paying attention, since no one expects you to stop for no apparent reason.

If I’m waiting on the cross street and there’s actually traffic on the main street, I have to check that your stoppage has triggered everyone else to stop. Often this doesn’t happen (in which case you wasted everyone’s time), or takes a long time. If it takes a long time, you and I could already have both been out of here, along with everyone else, if only you had taken your turn. It could also change at any time. If I see everyone stopped and decide to cross, and suddenly one of the people behind you gets impatient and darts into the intersection, or the opposing direction of traffic changes their mind about stopping because I’m waiting too long so they think I’m not going to go but oh I am going, guess what happens? I get squished, and we don’t really know whose fault it is, so according to the police it is most likely my fault and therefore I get to pay all my medical bills and your car repair bills. No thanks! I’ll wait!

Or, if I’m waiting on the cross street and there’s not really much traffic on the main street, or it’s just you or most of the line of traffic has already passed, traffic is about to be clear if only you would get the heck out of the way, so do it. If I’ve already stopped or even put my foot down, gesturing for me to go is not doing me a favor. I already lost all my momentum. If you would just go already, you and everyone else would be out of my way and everyone would be happy and delighted and we wouldn’t be wasting this time waving at each other and getting increasingly frustrated.

In summary, there is no circumstance under which you deciding that you need to stop out of turn so that I can proceed out of turn will predictably end in happiness. It is possible that it may end in happiness, and I do take advantage of the possibility sometimes, because if everyone does stop and there really is a long line of traffic, that’s a less confusing and usually less dangerous way to resolve the situation than being annoying in turn and refusing to go so that everyone stopped for absolutely nothing.

But if I am refusing to go, there’s a reason, which is that I don’t think it’s safe or I think you’re wasting my time and probably someone else’s as well. So if I’m not going, please take your turn instead of sitting on your high horse thinking you know what I’m supposed to do. You do what you’re supposed to, and I’ll do what I’m supposed to. That’s only polite.

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