It may be really polite, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe

Q: I often ride my bike on a route that takes me across an arterial street. I have a stop sign and cross traffic does not. I’m good with waiting for a gap in traffic, but sometimes a car will stop to let me cross. That is polite, but should I go? I’m concerned it’s dangerous because it’s not a move other drivers expect.

A: We should start with the law. That way you’ll know right up front that it’s not much help, at least if you’re riding within city limits. And to be clear, I’m talking about this specific situation. As you know if you read this column regularly, I feel strongly about the connection between traffic laws and safety.

It sounds like you’re doing what the law requires: stopping at the stop sign and yielding to any vehicle in or approaching the intersection that could “constitute an immediate hazard.” The next question is, what does the law require of the vehicle that doesn’t have a stop sign? Or put another way, is it legal for a car that doesn’t have a stop sign to stop at an intersection to let you cross?

Outside of city limits, the law states that “no person may stop, park or leave standing any vehicle, whether attended or unattended, upon the roadway.” There are a few exceptions, including avoiding hazards, following the direction of a police officer, disabled vehicles (if it’s impossible to move it), garbage truck drivers and bus drivers. I presume that this law exists because county roads often have higher speed limits, and you wouldn’t want to unexpectedly encounter a stopped car on a 50-mph road.

Within cities, the law has a list of places drivers aren’t allowed to stop, but that list doesn’t include a driver stopping to allow a cyclist to cross the street. And if a driver does stop for you, you’re not violating the law by crossing. Probably.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Let’s say you’re at the stop sign waiting for break in traffic. A car approaching from the left stops and waves for you to cross. You still have to yield to any traffic coming from the right, and those drivers might not have any plans to stop for you.

Now you have a politeness standoff, like the “You go, no you go, guy” Pemco commercial. To quote the commercial, “Politeness is nice…but no one ever said it was efficient.” And I’ll add, it’s sometimes not safe.

So do you reject the driver’s gesture and refuse to cross, or do you accept and put yourself at risk from other drivers? Sure, there may be situations where there are no other vehicles, and that driver’s kindness is easily accepted, but sometimes you’re going to have to choose between rejecting kindness and accepting a real bodily threat of harm.

If I were a psychiatric researcher, I’d want to study what happens in our brains when people offer us a courtesy that we didn’t ask for and don’t want to accept. But I’m a traffic safety nerd, so I’ll offer this: I’m a big fan of kind driving, but not at the expense of getting where I’m going safely. The person offering to let you cross may not see the big picture. It’s up to you to decide when it’s safe for you to cross, and if you don’t believe it is, it’s OK to politely decline the offer.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.