The Real Rules of the Road

colorful-pedestrian-bike-car-truckWith cameras everywhere these days people feel compelled to share their critique of any road user who breaks a rule here or there. Yet we know perfectly well almost all of us break a traffic law every time we go anywhere. The road rules we most often break are jaywalking, speeding, coasting through a stop, failing to signal, and using a cellphone.

Here are excellent dashcam examples of this contradiction. In the first video the driver complains to the cyclist who ran a stop, then proceeds to change lanes in the middle of an intersection (illegal in his jurisdiction) and then back again, all without signaling. In the second video the driver complains on his cellphone(!) about another driver who’s conscientiously running the red light.

Whatever the explanation for this hypocrisy, it means the rules defined by traffic laws don’t entirely define how we use our roads in practice.

Here then are the four universal principles of road use we all apply in reality. I call them ‘universal’ because they apply with astounding consistency to the behaviour of road users on different modes (driving, cycling, walking…) and even across nations. No contradictions, no hypocrisy.

1* The first Universal rule of the road is so obvious that we tend to dismiss it, but it needs to be stated, and that is safety. We all go to great lengths to avoid injuring ourselves and others, like steering straight into a ditch at speed to avoid a stalled truck. Safety overrides all other concerns. It is always 100% fair to criticize anybody who puts safety at risk (any circumstance likely to provoke an evasive maneuver or a collision).

2* The next consideration is the right of way. The right of way is largely defined by local law, but sometimes it’s negotiated informally between road users on the spot through eye contact or body language. Some cultures rely much more on informal rules to share the road but make no mistake, informal rules are very real even if they’re not obvious to outsiders. In fact, that’s a large contribution to the discomfort we feel when driving in a foreign area – we don’t know their informal rules.

The only valid excuse for breaking this second principle (cutting someone off) is to observe the first one; avoiding a collision.

Keep in mind, at this second stage no highway traffic laws matter other than those that happen to ascribe the right of way in a given scenario. Laws like seat belts, signaling, stopping, speed limits… none of them influence our use of the road except insofar as they may help establish the right of way. This may seem irrational, even dangerous, but we’ll see why the traffic laws unrelated to the right of way are so inconsequential below.

3* The third principle of road use is convenience. Or, what I amusingly describe as ‘whatever the hell I want’. Convenience is when we choose whether or not to jaywalk, to cruise past a stop sign, to exceed the speed limit and so on.

That may sound exactly contrary to the purpose of sharing the road, but in fact as long as the first and second rules are followed then observing this principle can enhance the flow of traffic and make it more predictable – meaning safer. Rule three also leaves room for using our best judgement to show courtesy towards other road users, to let them by in a congested area for example.

Doing whatever suits us – while respecting rules one and two – is actually a sign of competence and maturity. Granted, doing so may be illegal and it’s clearly not in our best interest to receive a ticket. But as long as we don’t contravene the safety or right of way rules, each of us can choose to weigh the risk of a fine alongside other costs and benefits, and decide on the best course of action for ourselves. Which is where rule four comes in.

4* The last principle of road use: all other traffic laws. This is the rule 99% of us break almost every time we go anywhere, illustrating just how inconsequential the laws can be. The only risk of conscientiously breaking rule four (meaning without obstructing others or creating undue risk) is a traffic ticket. It’s a purely technical breach of law, with no consequences to actual traffic.

If you’re not convinced, here are two everyday examples of how all of us ignore some laws that are clearly irrelevant. They may not even be enforced.

The first applies to pedestrians. When they cross the street with the walk signal, they’re supposed to stay on the sidewalk once the countdown begins, and finish crossing if they’ve already started. In practice they keep entering the intersection during the countdown and try to clear the intersection before the countdown ends. This is practical and sensible, but illegal (at least in Toronto).

The second example is a similar scenario at a crosswalk. When drivers stop to let pedestrians cross, Ontario law states they’re supposed to wait until the whole crosswalk is clear from end to end before proceeding. Again that’s silly and no serious person objects when drivers cross an intersection as soon as pedestrians are clear of their way.

Of course all laws (traffic and otherwise) still serve an important purpose, usually when we’re unsure about all the potential risks of our actions. In such situations it’s smart and prudent to know and obey the law. This explains why, when we come across someone who’s strictly observing the law, we often suspect that they’re new drivers or in some other way maxed out in their coping ability, and we try to keep our distance. In effect, we view such a cautious and law abiding road user as a greater hazard than another with more experience who skirts the law conscientiously. We intuitively understand that that cautious user will have contravened the third principle, which is worse than the regular road user who may inconsequentially contravene the fourth.

Here’s a final example demonstrating how we regularly dismiss some road rules that aren’t related to the right of way. We often view speed enforcement as unduly harsh while highway lane discipline needs harsher enforcement. This is because there is often no infringement of safety or right of way associated with casual speeders – they are (usually) only breaking rule four. But someone hogging the passing lane is obstructing the right of way, infringing rule number two. So we already know, instinctively, that the right of way is more important than any other rule.

Applying this new framework of road rules to our judgement of the ‘bad behaviour’ we see on the roads allows us to re-frame those situations in a more positive, sympathetic light. And it introduces interesting new insights into the problems of traffic. The video below is a great example of why it’s so important that we all understand these real rules of the road and apply them in our daily driving.

This driver sat waiting for a long time to turn on a green light, out of concern for being able to clear the snow-covered intersection fast enough to avoid oncoming traffic. So far, so good (ignoring that their lights were off…). Then the traffic light turned red and the driver took it as their cue to go, seeming to believe that oncoming traffic could stop by pure force of law. As if the rule of law was so powerful it could overcome the laws of physics! They mistakenly placed their respect for lawful traffic signals above the safety concerns that they’d been so cautiously applying just seconds before!

So it turns out that there’s a hierarchy of traffic laws, the top laws being those that assign who has priority if there’s conflicting traffic. Returning to the common example of blowing past a stop, it’s only a problem if someone were cut off or a collision was risked in the process. On its own, a failure to stop doesn’t indicate any offense other than to the law.

Knowing and applying these real rules of the road can help improve our perspective of other’s behaviour, supporting fair criticism or understanding and helping us share the road, making us better road users ourselves.


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