With some San Francisco cyclists, traffic laws get about as much use as a hipster’s shaving kit.
As a commenter on The Bay Citizen who identified himself as Willaim Carty wrote last week: “Every day in the Mission I see cyclists fly through stop signs, red lights and intersections without looking side to side to see if the coast is clear.”
The Bay Citizen’s Bike Accident Tracker showed that in the past two years, cars were more often at fault in car-versus-bike crashes by a 60 to 40 percent margin. In the collisions that police say were caused by bikes, the leading causes were: speeding, in 120 cases; blowing red lights, 64; and rolling through stop signs and crosswalks, 44.
Like Carty, few would be surprised by the number of bikers causing crashes by rolling through red lights or stop signs. But the fact that speeding is the leading cause, according to the police reports, has raised questions from many Bay Citizen readers, since most cyclists don’t actually travel faster than posted speed limits.
“What's up with faulting cyclists for ‘riding too fast?’ How is that even possible?” wrote a Bay Citizen commenter who called himself John Brooking. “‘Too fast’ only makes sense if it's either too fast for conditions, or while doing something dangerous. In the latter case, it's the other action that's the root problem. I don't understand this criticism, and it makes me suspect it's more anti-cyclist bias.”
The violation police point to in these cases is what is known as the “basic speed law,” or Section 22350 of the California Vehicle Code. The law states that: "No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property."
Lt. Troy Dangerfield, a spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department, confirmed our readers’ suspicions, saying that the basic speed law is a “catch-all” for assigning blame in accidents.
“Say, for example, it’s raining and pouring and you have no helmet and you’re going too fast to stop and you’re going 5 miles per hour, then that’s too fast,” Dangerfield said. “The basic speed law says if 1 mile per hour is not safe, then 1 mile per hour is over the limit.”
Dangerfield said that the basic speed law is useful for accident investigators since it covers violations that may not be in the code elsewhere. He said investigators determine speeding by interviewing witnesses and looking for evidence of excessive braking and skidding.
But some bike advocates don’t think it’s a good idea to use the basic speed law as a catch-all.
Bert Hill, who serves as the chairman of the San Francisco Bicycle Advisory Committee, said it’s too subjective.
“The problem is, if I go through an intersection at 10 miles per hour and get in accident, then the cop can just say that I was going at excessive speed,” said Hill. “It’s kind of a cop-out.”
Hill said that overuse of the basic speed law makes it harder for those mining statistics on bike accidents to figure out what behaviors or street designs are making the roads unsafe.