Sunday, June 13, 2010

Law'n'Order: Ethical Principles and Practicality

Questions to consider:
  • While motoring*, have you ever tried to scrupulously observe the speed limit, anywhere in the US, any time in, say, the past 8 years? What happened? (Bonus question: Was there bloodshed?)
  • When's the last time you saw a motorist make a complete stop at a stop sign when it wasn't mandated by cross traffic?
  • If you live in an area where cellphone use is illegal while driving, do you see people doing it anyway?
  • Are there stretches along your cycle commute where litter is really bad? (Bonus question: How many times in the past, say, month have you noticed complete fast food bags discarded?)
By now you're asking, "What's your point, Robert?" Fair enough. I've been thinking about how personal ethics are affected by being in a car. I'm wondering if the isolation that an automobile imposes, the sense of being "cut off", somehow enables the motorist to compromise his principles. Is a cyclist different because he's "out there" in the environment with little or no protection? Admittedly, I see plenty of cyclists (in the US at least) do lots of scofflaw behavior. And it's this behavior that I always consider "stupid", meaning dangerous, or ultimately impractical.

Ethics seems to be about finding the balance between the principle and the practicality of the situation. Consider the well-known "four-way test" of the Rotary Club International:
  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?
Notice that items 1 and 2 are about adherence to principle (truth and fairness) and 3 and 4 are about practicality (goodwill, friendship, benefits). Certainly, if an action can be said to meet all 4 questions in the affirmative, it can be said to be ethical. (See this post for more ruminations on the Rotary "4WT", including examples of situations where the principled and the practical collide.)

Traffic laws (and for that matter, littering laws) are thankfully areas where the principled and the practical coincide, or at least overlap greatly. A commenter on a previous post noted that cyclists (and pedestrians) in Denmark were scrupulously observant of traffic laws, and I've noted the same on my travels to Europe, in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Sweden. (France is, well, another story.)

I'm always flummoxed when I see a bicyclist, say, commenting on a blog, defending his right to break the traffic laws. Neither principled nor practical.

*I recognize this blog is not about motoring, and it may be that many readers of this blog in fact never act as motorists. To you, I doff my helmet and bow.


pumpkinslayer said...

Hmmm, I think a lot of cyclists who defend their right to break the law are the ones who do so in places where others generally do follow the law. Their tune might change in places where the law is almost completely disregarded by all vehicles.

I experienced this kind of change...

In South Africa I was used to most vehicles obeying the rules, so I could be almost sure that the other vehicle will stop at the stop sign or red light or other traffic signal. As a cyclist, I could ignore certain signs and be fairly certain of my safety. Stop meant stop... for the other guy.

I moved to Taiwan, where, like many other Asian countries, people don't follow the rules so much. Now, even a red light is no guarantee that the other guy will stop, so I have to be double cautious at intersections, and when tackling a four way stop I'm tempting fate. So now stop means take a double-take and be super-cautious.

In the end...

Make sure you stay safe. If running a stop sign means you don't get mugged (which happens in South Africa) then I'm not going to be your judge, just make sure you're not infringing on someone else's safety on the road.

(BTW When I'm in my car, I follow the rules of the road almost religiously, and the annoyance of other drivers is tangible, or they just zoom past)

Gillea said...

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Brand and Communications Assistant
D Magazine Partners
750 North St. Paul Street, Ste 2100
Dallas, Texas, 75201

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Anonymous said...

Great blog, but this latest post interests me so much that I wrote a book about it a decade ago. You already support the link in your sidebar, Bike & Chain. Thanks.

I believe you're still struggling with the ethics. They are hard to define, but there's a good reason. Modern industrial society bent on materialistic gain has advanced in just about every way but ethics. Predatory practices for profit don't care who dies in the process; collateral damage. Every year 0.1% of the World's population dies directly because of oil use (cancer, cardiovascular disease, and one and a half million fatal collisions). But people won't budge one inch to alleviate obesity, pollution or traffic snarl. The Pope had to issue a bull to advise motorists to take care of vulnerable users of roads, including bicyclists. "Get out of my way!"

All onus for road safety is on operating motorists and traffic planners, not cyclists and pedestrians. Only drivers are licensed. You can't expect children and pets to know rules. An automobile (not bicycle) runs by itself and supposedly saves labor. It's easy to go slowly and stop for everyone in a courteous manner, but power under the hood corrupts.

Every bicyclist knows that if they don't take extraordinary care among motorists they will pay the ultimate price. But they aren't going to inflict harm on others, for the most part. Traffic laws, therefore, shouldn't apply, more guidelines; besides, if they can't take away the license you don't need to bike, why pay a ticket? The reverse is true of most motorists, many of whom shouldn't even have licenses. Traffic laws were adopted to regulate them alone after people died from their incompetence and motor lust. Remove the bad actors for the mix, and everyone would benefit.


Spokey said...

One of the problems is that cyclists generally don't obey the law themselves. Yes, a bit sweeping but while most of my observations are US/NE, traveling around shows that the same is true all over the country.

It's ironic that most group rides these days require you to wear a helmet while the riders often curse you if you actually stop (not rolling stop) at a stop sign. Failure to obey traffic signals is probably the worst. But failure to get in single file ranks pretty high as well.

We will never get motorists to respect our rights to the road until we stop throwing our own disregard in their faces. Heck I'd settle not be buzzed most days.

Eric said...

1) Driven the speed limit a lot, local and highway... never a problem
2) Was on Cape Cod last week, they stop out of turn *all the time*.
3) I can't go a day without seeing someone talking illegally on a hand held phone ( or obviously using on in their lap ).
4) No and never.