Cyclists and motorists take a lot of flack from each other for bending the rules of the road. But even the police will tell you that it’s pretty much impossible not to break the law. With bike month around the corner, we learned what it’s like to try to follow every single rule.
If you’re riding your bike around Toronto, make sure you have a bell. Or a gong. The Highway Traffic Act, which regulates cyclists, drivers, and all other road users, states that “every motor vehicle, motor-assisted bicycle, and bicycle” requires some sort of “alarm bell” in good working order. The act also states that you can use a gong, which you shall sound “whenever it is reasonably necessary to notify pedestrians or others of [your] approach.” The document doesn’t specify how big the gong can be, and its definition of “reasonably necessary” leaves room for interpretation, so you might as well buy the biggest one possible and bash it liberally.
Gongs aside, the Highway Traffic Act is about as long as the phone book and half as interesting, and even the police admit that it’s impossible to follow. Last Friday, I was explaining my plan to ride my bike while following the law to the letter to Clint Stibbe, a spokesperson for the Toronto Police Service, when he interrupted me.
“I guarantee you can’t do it,” he said, arguing that all road users inevitably make mistakes. “And you know why?” he asked. “Because they’re habitual.”
Stibbe was right, of course. All road users—not just cyclists—have bad habits. Riding west from my apartment near College and Bathurst on a cool, clear morning, I had the requisite bell mounted to my bike’s stem and a brake that was capable of making my rear wheel “skid on dry, level, and clean pavement.” I headed towards the west end, following Annette Street to Jane, past two vehicles blocking the bike lane, and into Baby Point, a wealthy enclave of large family homes. From there, I accelerated down Humbercrest Boulevard to around 35 kilometres an hour, squeezing hard on the brakes when I realized that the posted limit was 30.
I eventually made my way east, following the Harbord bike lane towards the downtown core. As on most mornings in the warmer months, there was a steady stream of cyclists in the lane, and most followed the rules with the exception of minor transgressions. One younger guy was riding just a little too aggressively, passing the other cyclists on their left. But as usual, the many stoplights along Harbord acted as a great equalizer. I got off and walked my bike through the northern end of Queen’s Park. I wasn’t exactly sure what the rule was, but I erred on the side of inconvenience. I noticed, with a bit of envy, a few cyclists riding slowly through the park. About 25 kilometres into my ride, I was dying to bend a rule to save some time.
I signalled all my turns and obeyed all stop signs and red lights. This being Toronto, my own politeness was often in direct conflict with the politeness of others. A driver waved me through a stop in the west end, though she had arrived first. Lots of drivers do this, and I can never decide if it’s condescending or polite—if they’ve resigned themselves to thinking all cyclists would rather blow through stop signs.
When I spoke with Stibbe later, I learned that in some ways I’d been more law-abiding than I thought, while I’d also managed to bend some rules I didn’t know about. For instance, Stibbe said that cyclists can’t technically be ticketed for speeding. So unless I was being particularly reckless, I wasn’t breaking any laws when I zipped down Humbercrest. I was also fairly certain I’d rested my foot on a curb at a stoplight or two—which Stibbe says is okay, as long as you’re not in motion. Like most of what’s in the traffic act, it’s complicated, nitpicky stuff. So here’s a handy rule of thumb: You’re probably breaking the law, but there’s a good chance that no one cares.
Later that weekend, in the early hours of Sunday morning, I’d stopped at a red light where Barton Avenue crosses Bathurst. It was late enough that most people were home sleeping but before the bars had emptied into the streets. Another cyclist was waiting to continue west on Barton, across Bathurst, but the light stayed red for several minutes. Finally, she looked around carefully, and rolled through the red. A tree falling in a deserted forest. She carried on down Barton, her taillight glowing in the dark, and disappeared.