The Spirit of the Law

John Allen


The traffic law makes very clear and unambiguous statements, but the letter of the law can’t cover every possible situation. There are also situations it does cover, but might cover better. In these cases, the spirit of the law has to rule. Let’s look at a few examples.

Stop signA stop sign requires two actions: stopping – before the crosswalk if there is one, and then yielding right of way. But a building, vegetation, parked car, etc., may block the view of the cross street, so it is necessary to stop again in the crosswalk to check.

A pedestrian who would like to cross may appear while a driver – it could be you on your bicycle – is blocking the crosswalk. There is another vehicle behind. You can’t back up.. So the pedestrian has to yield.

A driver is backing out of an angle parking spot. The adjacent parking spot to the right is occupied, so the driver can’t see whether traffic is approaching. The approaching  traffic could be you on your bicycle. The driver in the parking spot is required to yield. But that driver’s only workable option is to back out very slowly so you can yield.

In these two situations, among others, the applicable law simply doesn’t work. The problem is deeply rooted in the nature of reality: people don’t have x-ray vision.

Now for a couple of less deeply rooted but still very real situations:

Traffic law in the USA usually permits bicyclists to ride on the left side of a one-way street if it is two or more lanes wide. New York City, notably, has placed bike lanes on the left side of multi-lane one-way avenues where buses travel on the right side. This avoids bicyclists’ and buses’ “leapfrogging” one another.  But what about one-lane, one-way streets?

Part of my favorite route into downtown Waltham from my home is on a one-lane, one-way street with parallel parking along the right side. Riding a few feet from the left curb, I can safely allow motorists to overtake. I also have a good view ahead at intersections and driveways, without parked cars blocking my view. Other options would be to ride on the right side in the door zone of parked cars – not a choice I’ll make – or to ride nearer the middle, and then motorists’s can’t overtake. I’ll control the travel lane when necessary, but in this case it isn’t.

Another situation: a narrow road has a double yellow line down the middle and the motorists have to merge into the next lane to overtake slow vehicles, including bicycles.  Almost all motorists learn with experience to treat this law with a grain of salt. Several states including nearby Maine have amended their laws to allow motorists to cross the double yellow to pass bicyclists, recognizing that passing distances are much shorter when passing slow vehicles.

These two problems – one-lane, one-way streets, and crossing the double yellow – reflect problems where the law itself is unnecessarily rigid. Reasonable people have bent the law in the interest of safety, courtesy and convenience.

But all of the problems I have described have one thing very much in common: Only caution and courtesy resolve them.

Interacting with other road users is like a dance, and the rules of the road are the rules of the dance. If you make a mistake in ballroom dancing, you might step on your partner’s toes (or vice versa). You might have to take special care if your partner is inexperienced. Out on the road, the consequences can be much more serious.  

In situations which the traffic law does not address very well, the reasonable fallback is to adhere to the spirit of the law, applying caution, good judgment and courtesy. Everyone encounters these situations at one time or another. Very few people are so rigid-minded as to be sticklers for the letter of the law in these situations – and that includes police.

There’s a fine line though between exercising your right to use the road and rudeness to other road users.  Where this line stands is commonly misunderstood as it applies to bicyclists. Example: with the double yellow line, you often have to exercise your legal option to ride away from the right edge to discourage motorists from making unsafe passes. Your safety is more important than a motorists' convenience.

And also, at least here in Massachusetts, hardly anybody, bicyclist or motorist, comes to a full stop before the crosswalk unless yielding right of way is necessary. For you as a bicyclist, it is less convenient to stop. It is important though to make it clear that you will yield by at least slowing to a crawl. But only do this if you haven't reached the stop line yet. Yielding maintains respect for bicyclists, which is already in short supply.

So, please don’t get carried away with the observation that the law can’t cover every situation. Only depart from the letter of the law when actually necessary!

Stop sign image: by Bidgee - Own work, CC BY 3.0,


John Allen is CRW Safety Coordinator
Cycling Savvy Instructor
League Cycling instructor
Author, Bicycling Street Smarts
Technical Writer and Editor,