But, as in any learning situation, there are rules that can be written down, and then there are rules that defy codification and can only be learned through experience. The example that came up with us recently occurred at a four-way stop. Here the written rules are clear:
- First one to the stop sign gets to go first.
- If it's a tie, the driver on the right gets to go first.
Three cars were approaching the stop. The first to arrive was the car directly across from us; we were second; and the car to our right was last (see diagram). So according to the
rules, we should have proceeded in the same order in which we arrived. But there was a twist: the first car, shown in green, was turning left in front of us, and the third car (yellow) was signaling a right turn.
So instead of waiting his turn, the yellow car started to go while the green car was still in front of us. My son got steaming mad (he is 16) and honked, incensed that the yellow car had gone out of turn. After he cooled down a bit I explained that it made more sense in this situation for the yellow car to go before us because he had freedom of movement while we were still blocked by the green car.
In other words, this case presented an exception to the written rules. Although the case of a four-way stop is probably small enough in scope that you could, if you wanted, write a comprehensive set of rules that covered every possible arrival sequence and turning pattern, it's more efficient to just lay out the main rules as guidelines, and learn the specifics in practice.
In biking, there are even fewer written rules than there are in driving. One rule is, "bicycles should follow the same traffic laws as cars." But in Seattle there is an explicit exception to this rule that gives bicyclists permission to ride on sidewalks, where cars are prohibited. And there are other exceptions that prohibit bikes (and pedestrians) from going onto freeways. These rules recognize the fact that bicycles are not exactly like cars, and they're not exactly like pedestrians. They are something in between.
Unfortunately, no one has ever really tried to write down what the rules should be, exactly, for bikes. The law, as far as I know (correct me if I'm wrong), has very few bike-specific rules. So once in awhile some misguided cop decides to start enforcing vehicle traffic laws on bikes, which most of the time make no sense. (A full defense of this statement would take another entire column. But anyone who has regularly ridden the infamous"many-driveways" portion of the Burke-Gilman trail in Lake Forest Park will understand how absurd it is to try to enforce the many stop-signs along that stretch).
I've been riding 4,000 miles a year for many years now, and through experience I have learned many of these unwritten rules. For example, when coming to a legitimate stop-sign such as the one on the Burke-Gilman trail at 65th (unlike the illegitimate ones in Lake Forest Park), the most reasonable thing to do is slow down enough that you could stop if you had to, and then either proceed, if there is no traffic, or, if there is approaching traffic, wait for a clear signal from drivers to either proceed or stop. Any variation from this rule only causes more problems.
Let me take one paragraph to defend this statement. First, let's say you, as a newbie biker, decide to follow traffic laws rigorously and come to a full stop every time. Now if a car happens to be approaching the crosswalk while you are slowing down, chances are it's going to slow down and wait for you; 75% of cars do just that. The driver's expectation is that you will proceed across with dispatch, causing him minimal delay. When you act contrary to his expectations, you increase his delay (and probably his aggravation). Furthermore, you will make him less likely to slow down next time he approaches the crosswalk, surprising the next biker to come along. When it comes to traffic flow, causing surprise is the worst thing you can do. Behaving in a predictable way is the best thing you can do. Only experience can teach you what the "expected" behavior is.
I'm completely comfortable with the ambiguity inherent in the rule, "do what's expected." But there are certain personality types that can't stand such fuzzy logic. (I think traffic cops are disproportionately of that type). All I can say is, get over it. This is life, and life is complicated. Stop acting like a sixteen-year-old.