Rules of the Road

Whether in a car or on a bike, this is the one thing to remember when you get ‘the wave’

Whether riding a bike or driving a car, obeying the law is important, but most of us are governed by a higher need – that of arriving home safely.
Whether riding a bike or driving a car, obeying the law is important, but most of us are governed by a higher need – that of arriving home safely.

Question: I ride a bicycle and drive a car. While riding my bike in town, I confront the following situation on a regular basis: I am riding on a side street, come to an intersection, and stop at the stop sign. A well-intentioned driver on the main road will come to a stop, even though he is not facing a stop sign, and motion me to cross, even though I should wait until traffic has passed. Usually I cross, providing traffic from other directions has also stopped. I would like all motorists and bicyclists to follow the law; i.e. if the car has the right-of-way, then it should go. What is the appropriate way for me to handle this situation?

Answer: Like you, I both ride a bike and drive a car. Not at the same time, obviously. And like you, I’ve been in a similar situation – getting the “go ahead” wave from a driver who has stopped for me, even though I’m the one with the stop sign. I know people even experience it occasionally when driving a car.

You could look at the bright side: all those drivers stopping and waving is an indicator that we have lots of nice and well-intentioned drivers on the road. But as I’ve mentioned before, the kindest thing you can do as a road user is follow the rules of the road (and smile occasionally, if you’re up for it).

I’m curious as to whether this is a regional phenomenon. Are there other places in the country where being courteous overrules following traffic signs?

You mentioned that when you get the wave, you usually cross if traffic is clear, but seemed concerned about whether that was the right thing to do. When it comes to what’s right, there is legal and there is reasonable; both are important. We’ll start with the legal.

Despite some people treating them as suggestions, we know that the law requires drivers and cyclists to stop at stop signs. But what is the requirement after the stop? Check to make sure it’s clear and then go on, right? Pretty much, but here’s how it’s worded in the Revised Code of Washington: “... after having stopped (the driver or cyclist) shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another roadway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard ...”

If you’re the person on the bike, and a car has stopped and motioned for you to go ahead, how should you understand the law?

I’m going to take a stab at two interpretations of the law, with my usual caveat that I’m not a lawyer and the judge that oversees your hearing might disagree with me.

You could conclude that if a driver that has come to a complete stop, looked directly at you and motioned for you to go ahead it does not, in itself, constitute an immediate hazard. If that lone vehicle is the only one on the roadway, you’ve yielded the right-of-way to it, and the driver has decided not to exercise that right-of-way, you could argue that you’ve met the requirements of the law and continuing on your way would be legal. Otherwise, you’re in a stalemate with one party stuck due to the obligations of a stop sign and the other trapped by a compulsion to be nice.

However, you could be wrong. A more cautious interpretation would have the cyclist refuse “the wave.” The rider could wave back for the driver to carry on, waiting until the road is truly clear. I’ll leave it up to you to debate which interpretation is correct, but I’ll propose that the second will most often be the safer approach.

Obeying the law is certainly important, but I would argue that most of us are governed by a higher need – that of arriving home safely. The big concern I have with “the wave” is that the receiver might perceive it as more than just a friendly gesture and instead interpret it as an “all clear” sign and pull out into the intersection in front of driver coming from the other direction that certainly did not give up their right-of-way. Given how vulnerable a cyclist is in a car/bike conflict, it’s worth it to double-check the route if you decide to proceed after getting “the wave”.

Holiday Alert: We’re coming into a season of celebration, and with that comes DUI emphasis patrols. Law enforcement will be working extra shifts during the holidays focusing on impaired drivers. As always, if your festivities involve alcohol or other drugs, plan ahead for a safe ride home. If you celebrate with someone who looks like they shouldn’t be driving, let your generosity extend to helping coordinate a ride.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.