Confessions of a Consequentialist

OK, I admit it, I sometimes jay-walk. In fact a few weeks ago I jay-walked in front of the Oregon Attorney General – I thought he was going to arrest me…

I also roll my bike through stop signs without putting a foot down on occasion.

But I only do these things in specific situations. Jay-walking when there is no oncoming traffic for a significant distance, rolling through the stop sign after slowing down and being sure there’s no cross-traffic that has the right-of-way.

So it was with great relief that I saw this video in which the New York Times’ ethicist, Randy Cohen, is interviewed by Streetfilms.

Among other comments about the ethical implications of various modes of transportation, Cohen, who’s been biking in New York for decades, says he often rides through red lights!

He defines this as the “consequentialist” point of view: if the action has no adverse consequences for you or others, it’s ethical (which is not to say there aren’t circumstances where rolling through a stop sign WOULD decidedly have consequences, and therefore be unethical).

So I may be a scofflaw, but at least I’m an ethical, “consequentialist”, one.


33 responses to “Confessions of a Consequentialist”

  1. I find this very enlightening, and I have a feeling that it will fall on many accepting ears.
    There are some corporate entities that could accept the “consequentialist” in some work forces as well.

  2. There are areas where bicyclist need to examine the POTENTIAL consequences of their violation of laws pertaining to private vehicles operated on public rights of way. Ever since my street turned into a bicycle boulevard connection for the Springwater Trail, I have more than once nearly been run over by bicylists riding at night without lights. I have been trying to walk across the street at night, a bicyclist comes zooming down and has no lights to announce his presence.
    (see ORS 815.280)

    Another pet peeve (and this applies to motorists around here as well) is that vehicles need to have and use their audio warning devices. I don’t know if Portlanders consider it rude to honk their horns but it is an accepted practice of defensive driving to use your horn when another driver appears to be coming close to hitting you or at least improperly getting in your space. People seem to like to use their horns as retaliation instead of prevention. Bicylists should also have some sort of warning device and use it when needed. (Not sure where the law is on that one)

  3. There are only three rules for bicyclists.
    1. Don’t get hit
    2. Be considerate
    3. Maintain momentum!
    I am with Chris and Randy on this one, and a believer that jay walking is the safest way across a street as a general rule.

  4. I call this ‘productive’ jaywalking. If I cross a street mid-block without negatively impacting anyone else I have harmed no one;I have also improved the flow of traffic because I didnt go to the corner and push the walk button and force traffic to stop needlessly, or it allowed me to avoid crossing at a one way corner where me using the lighted crosswalk would halt the flow of traffic. I also see this misused regularly by pedestrians who think they are not hindering anyone when in fact they are using the crosswalk when vehicles have the right to turn on red. We also have the problem in downtown Eugene of deliberately using crosswalks against the signal to disrupt traffic …yes they are daring someone to run them over. Yes, these are usually, but no always teenagers with an “I dont give a flying f*** attitude. This happened in front of a bus the other day and the police subdued the young man with a taser. Unfortunately if prior taserings in Eugene are any indication, this may create a martyr for the cause of reckless jaywalking and once again lower the standards of civil behavior on the streets.

    The law, and various people with an anarchist bent don’t seem to recognize this distinction, but if everyone used the streets ‘productively’ it could create a more harmonious interaction between the walkers, riders and drivers. Civility is something that we all require, but is easily lost in such a situation when the ‘rules’ are twisted to create lose-lose outcomes instead of win-win.

    Many years ago I had a police officer pull his car up to me in the middle of a downtown, 3 lane Seattle street and tell me that I needed to return to the curb or he would ticket me for jaywalking. I pointed out that I was now closer to the other curb and that he and I were the only people anywhere in sight (it was 6 am and he had to pull out of a parking lot to intercept me). He agreed, but didn’t care. As you can imagine, our conversation in the middle of the street went on longer than it would have taken to let me finish crossing so I could get my coffee at the restaurant in the middle of the block. In the end I returned to the curb and walked down the block to the light, where I managed to stop the only car to come along for the 3-4 minutes this adventure went on. The silliness of this situation has lived with me for 30 years now.

  5. Bells are overrated

    I find the bell very useful. Yes, it’s true that if I can go by a pedestrian with a wide berth, it’s probably less disruptive to do so silently.

    But when using routes like the esplanade, passing a pedestrian at close quarters from behind is inevitable. And just shouting “on your left” produces a startle response, which often causes the pedestrian to turn and look in your direction – not helpful!

    I can start ringing the bell gently 15 feet out and just keep it up until they notice me. It’s a LOT less disruptive.

    Of course, some folks with earbuds never hear me no matter what, that’s challenging…

  6. There are only three rules for bicyclists.
    1. Don’t get hit
    2. Be considerate
    3. Maintain momentum!

    I’ll tentatively accept this as an “ethical” philosophy, but with a caveat:

    “Be considerate” must include avoiding behavior that you may be sure is safe but is concerning to other street users. Brushing safely by a pedestrian but startling them is not cool. Neither is making a driver nervous that they might hit you, even if you’re sure you’re going to avoid them. Close calls are “consequential”.

  7. While crossing a quiet one – way in NW at dusk yest. , fully checking the direction of car travel to my left , I heard a quiet sound to my right , and quickly turning , found a wrong way prius 5 ft from me. He was clearly wondering what this dumb Ped was doing crossing and not looking….. With hand signals I pointed out that he was going the wrong way on a one way , and as he turned around to go the right way he yelled thank you! Sometimes you just get lucky , but check both ways , eh!

  8. “Allan Says:

    Bells are overrated. Just don’t hit anyone and you’ll be fine
    Given that a bell or horn is a “warning” device my point is that operators of vehicles should be using them to avoid collisions, esppecially ones that may be caused by someone else. This is part of the concept of “defensive driving” that significantly diminished auto collisions, beginning in the 1970’s. Bicyclists need to adopt their own strategy of defensive operation of their vehicles—above and beyond what they already do.

    An example, on Sunday while backing out of a driveway I did not see a bicyclist approaching, because I was in a low slung car, and he was blocked from view by parked cars. I know that if I had actually hit him, I would have been at fault. But the concept of defensive driving is to prevent a collision even if it is the other guy’s fault. Horns are required on cars, and I believe that some warning device is legally required for bicycles, but I could not find the ORS statute.

    This is why I am very reluctant to see population growth in this area. Streets are already crowded and bicyclists are trying to cope and are in a vulnerable position. Adding more vehicles of any sort in a densifying area is just begging for more trouble. It only would take one instance to change your whole view of whether this was a good policy or not.

    People riding recumbent bicyles may be doing so within the law, but on a practical level they are frequently impossible to see until they are right on you. They should at least have some visible warning device displayed at a height everyone can see.

  9. EngineerScotty Says: Perhaps bicyclists ought to purchase electronic horns which sound like train whistles or tractor-trailer horns. THAT would get attention. :)

    When I lived in the Bay Area, my only vehicle was a motorcycle. The factory horn died early and was replaced by dual air horns that sounded remarkably like a truck. Giving a blat to someone cutting in front of me was remarkably satisfying.

  10. EngineerScotty Says:
    Perhaps bicyclists ought to purchase electronic horns which sound like train whistles or tractor-trailer horns. THAT would get attention. :)

    I always get a chuckle when I think of carrying an air horn with me to blow at people who wont get out of the way.

  11. I also roll my bike through stop signs without putting a foot down on occasion.

    Does this mean it is now OK for cars to roll through stop signs and go through red lights after looking both ways?

    As to riding without lights:



    BOTH ARE REQUIRED FOR YOUR SAFETY – Don’t expect sympathy out of me if I pull out in front of you as you invisibly zip down the street.


  12. “Does this mean it is now OK for cars to roll through stop signs and go through red lights after looking both ways?”

    No, but consequentially speaking it probably does mean that it is OK for cars to routinely go 1 – 4 mph over the speed limit without fear of being pulled over.

    Cars rolling through stop signs has worse consequences the bikes doing it because bikes have 360 degree visibility and much less mass than an automobile.

  13. jk: As to riding without lights: YOU STUPID SUICIDAL IDIOT!

    I think I was more polite about it, but I expressed a similar sentiment in my blog post. I agree with Mr Karlock 100% and I wish to take advantage of the opportunity to do so.

    I frequently see bicycle riders not only running without lights, but while wearing dark clothing and riding on poorly-lit streets.

    While driving a car, it is my responsibility to see bicycles and motorcycles and pedestrians — and it is equally their responsibility to go out of their way to enhance their visibility.

  14. I used to have a co-worker who was an avid cyclist and mountain climber–and he claimed that when he went riding at night, he would wear DARK clothing intentionally, and try to make himself as invisible as possible–on the grounds that if motorists did see him, their reactions would imperil him more than not seeing him at all.

    AFAIK, he’s still alive… :)

  15. EngineerScotty Says: I used to have a co-worker who was an avid cyclist and mountain climber–and he claimed that when he went riding at night, he would wear DARK clothing intentionally, and try to make himself as invisible as possible–on the grounds that if motorists did see him, their reactions would imperil him more than not seeing him at all.
    JK: And what does he do when I pull out onto a main street, with him going 15 mph, about 10 feet in front of him?

    Or I check my side view mirror, then open my car door into him?

    Let me guess – he didn’t have insurance to fix my car either.


  16. He’s a well-paid software engineer, so I suspect his insurance is up-to-date. In case it isn’t obvious, I wasn’t ENDORSING his position, in fact I was mocking it–he’s the sort of individual who thinks he’s the only one in the room with a brain. Note the stated rationale for wearing dark clothes: he thinks that any motorist he might encounter is going to be a knuckle-dragging idiot, and more likely to HIT him rather than avoid him if they happen to notice him.

    At any rate, such attitudes are all-too prevalent (and here I’m speaking generally, not of the cycling community in particular). But it’s amazing the amount of bravado one encounters from people riding around on 20 pounds of metal. :)

  17. Does this mean it is now OK for cars to roll through stop signs and go through red lights after looking both ways?

    I was stopped at a light waiting to cross the Broadway Bridge this morning, and five (5) motorists made a right on red from Broadway to Larabee, after at best slowing to under 10 mph.

    It’s not legal, but even you Jim have to recognize it is common practice.

  18. I hate these conversations. I think the articles concept is spot on though. We all make rational decisions and justify them in our own mind, but so do the other people on the road.

    The tendency is always to over emphasize your rationalization of something and underestimate the other persons rationale. In this case the other person is someone operating a different form of transportation.

    I see people do the following all the time and chances are 99% of the time they are rational actions with very little in the way of negative consequences.

    – Failure to come to a complete stop at a stop sign
    – Failure to signal a lane change
    – Turning right on a no right turn on red
    – Exceeding the posted speed limit

    This isn’t about one mode of transportation v. another. It is about understanding that the other person is making what they believe is a rational decision just like you think you are making a rational decision.

  19. So what other laws can we ignore when they are inconvenient?

    Does this mean that I can go 100+ mph on a straight dry road when no one is around, or is there a different standard for following traffic laws when you’re on foot / a bicycle?

    Can I ignore red lights if there is no opposing traffic as well? I find them to be terribly inconvenient.

    How about those pesky other traffic control devices, like “Do not enter” “one way” and “no left turn” ? If there’s no other traffic around, why can’t I go the wrong way, enter where I’m not supposed to, or turn left wherever I want?

    Where exactly is the line drawn on which traffic laws you can ignore and which ones you can’t, and where is the criteria for when you can and can’t?

    The hypocrisy of people that agree with this behavior is amazing.

  20. If you don’t like my suggestions on defensive operation of your bicycle, come up with your own strategy, as long as it is something that works. Drivers did that, decades ago, although it took a national campaign to get it accepted. Smart drivers have had to forego the ability to simply operate their vehicles within the law while taking no account for how other ones might be violating the law and contributing to an accident. They learned to avoid an accident caused by someone else.

    Bicyclists should do the same. It’s an adult world, you know.

  21. Fred –

    A bicyclists who breaks a traffic law is also at risk of getting a ticket, just as the driver in your scenario.

    (However, I really don’t have much of a problem of someone getting their 100mph+ thrills on an empty road with good visibility — without admitting to anything I once had a very enjoyable drive on “the loneliest road in America” down in NV.)

    Is the strong reaction to the so-called hypocrisy of bicyclists actually something else — a perception that enforcement of the law is not even-handed?

    Take a look on BikePortland and you’ll find frequent complaints from cyclists who have been cited for relatively minor traffic violations, including the now-infamous dispute over whether “lanes” extend out into intersections where there is no paint.

    I’ve seen several local news reports over the past year or two of police sting operations in popular bicycle corridors to catch cyclists who coast casually through stop signs.

    And on the topic of choosing which laws to obey, at least the bicycling lobby advocated for a change to the law, and attempted to get Oregon to adopt a law similar to Idaho’s, where in the right circumstances it is allowable for a bicycle to slow, rather than stop, at a stop sign.

    Back to the 100mph+ example, though… Truly deserted roads are difficult to find. There is the risk of killing pets, livestock, and, well, jackrabbits. Something which just isn’t as likely to happen when a low-speed bicycle cruises cavalierly through an unoccupied intersection.

    (But the jackrabbits had it coming.)

  22. I suspect that a lot of the motorist/bicyclist arguments are in reality, little more than proxies for demographic feuds that having nothing to do with vehicle choice.

    Teabaggers and law-and-order types often despise uppity yuppies and DFHs, and vice versa. And when these demographics correlate with visibly symbols–such as whether or not one prefers to drive a Trek or a truck–often times the symbol becomes a point of argument, when it realty it has little to do with the real grievance.

  23. Ron, you can find the regulations for use of a horn at ORS 815.225. The regulations for bicycle equipment are ORS 815.280. Horns or other warning devices are not required on bicycles.

    Nor should they be. If you want to operate a vehicle weighing 3,000 lbs. or more, traveling at 30 mph or more, in the PUBLIC right of way, your ability to hurt someone else – and therefore your responsibility to protect others – is far greater than me on my bike (total weight = 190 lbs).

    Humans are still more important than machines, last time I checked, and should receive preferental treatment. Yes, cyclists should follow traffic laws. But people moving under their own power should not have to carry air horns or flags in order to simply move down the street. What kind of logic is that? If you can’t see cyclists when you’re backing out of your driveway, then the on-street parking should be eliminated.

    BTW, I own and drive two cars, so don’t say I’m anti-car. I’m pro-human! :-)

  24. A person can do a lot of damage with bicycle. There really is no way of calibrating the potential damage when a solid moving object hits a soft human body. It could even break your spine. In fact I have once been actually knocked down by a kid riding a bike on a sidewalk, and luckily had no permanent injuries. A few weeks ago another kid crossed just in front of me, because he was riding on a sidewalk and concealed from view by a building and assumed that no one was coming in to the junction on the other sidewalk. I have been nearly run down at night a couple of times–and believe me it was close. Furthermore you can never be sure that a pedestrian will continue to walk straight forward and, with no eye contact, that you can predict their location a few seconds ahead of time.

    Conversely, I was riding in a semi w/trailer that plowed broadside into a car on an icy I-5 stretch at 60 mph. There was very little damage. Why? The broad flat bumper of the tractor protruded little into the car’s body. (The people who were in the car got a little freaked out though. :)

    And how easy would it be for a bicyclist to hit someone at night, assume they were not hurt and just ride off? Can a pedestrian get insurance to cover such incidents—or does a bicyclist carry any insurance at all for such incidents?

    So what is wrong with an audible warning device?

  25. There really is no way of calibrating the potential damage when a solid moving object hits a soft human body.

    We can certainly look at the probabilities. And the probabilities favor humans struck by items with a lower mass at lower speeds. All other things being equal, and given the fact that I’d rather not be struck by any vehicle, I’d still much rather be struck by a 20mph bicycle than a 50mph car. I’ll take those chances easily, and not worry about calibrations.

    At the risk of revealing too much about myself :-) there is a large annual event that takes place in the Nevada desert called Burning Man. Now, quite frankly, people get away with a lot more there than they typically do in daily public life… and some of them consume quantities and qualities of materials which they might not otherwise indulge. And some of the attendees get hurt — it’s an event of 50,0000 people in a makeshift city less than 2 miles across (and much less if you look at the populated area) — things happen. But I bring this up because 99% of transportation in that city is by biking and walking. At night, there is no real street lighting, and many bikes have no lights. It’s really a sight to behold, thousands of bikes and people swarming in all directions. If you look back over the years at those who have been injured and who have died, though, you’ll see a hugely disproportionate number of deaths due to interactions with automobiles, not bicycles.

  26. I think this captures the flavor of it in a mostly-safe-for-work way (and this would be low to moderate bike/ped traffic situation at Burning Man):

    Or this:

    Oh, and some people do fly planes there, too:

    Skip to 3m00s into that last one and you get an idea of the scope of it, you see the entire city.

    My point is that Black Rock City (the official name of the temporary city) is just about the worst-case scenario you can dream up for: Bicyclists operating without safety gear or lights mixing with lots of peds and people doing very unexpected things in bad visibility. And yet, all things considered, the rate or serious injuries from bike/ped collisions is astonishingly low.

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