A Wink And A Nod—Teaching Our Kids To Be Criminals (Part I)

What is it like growing up in the U.S. today?  What messages will you get from the society around you?

As you grow and mature you’ll begin to form your own personal values. You’ll learn lessons from your own experiences and from others. You’ll form opinions about regard for others and their property, from sex, alcohol, and cafe etiquette to murder, rape, and stopping at stop signs.

You’ll also develop thoughts about our system of laws and law enforcement.  Not necessarily respect for them though.

You’ll learn to be a criminal at a fairly young age – perhaps the first time you’re in the car with a parent who gets pulled over for speeding.  Most likely your mom or dad will make some comment after the incident that they were breaking the law and that they shouldn’t have been.  You’re satisfied with that for a while, but you’re curious about this whole speed limit thing.  You begin to notice the speed limit signs and you occasionally glance at your dad’s speedometer which is often registering something above the speed limit.  “OK, this whole laws thing may not be so cut and dried.” you think.

Later, you’re 15 and you are driving the car on a family trip.  You stick hard to the 65mph speed limit.  This has been drilled in to you by your drivers-ed instructor, parents, grandparents, and obnoxious little brothers.  EVERY car on the highway is blowing by you.  It’s scary!  You glance over at your mom several times.  You can tell she’s analyzing your driving and the situation.  “If you’re comfortable with it why don’t you speed up just a little.” She says.  A bit of pressure on the accelerator and cars aren’t blowing by quite as fast.  You slowly inch up to about 75. Some are still passing you, but not nearly as many as before and not nearly as much faster.  You feel safer and your mom seems to feel safer.  You, and everyone around you, are breaking the law, your mom knows it, and isn’t doing anything about it.

Throughout most of U.S. history only a very small minority of our population was ever on the wrong side of the law.  Today?

Is this what we want our kids to learn?  That it’s OK to break the law?  Even a speed limit law?  In some families perhaps, but most of us aren’t in the mob, and aren’t thieves, murderers, terrorists, crooked CEO’s, or instigators of ponzi schemes.  We work normal jobs, share home ownership with our bank, go to church, play football, and shop at Target.  Yet here we are telling our kids that it’s OK to break the law.

Traffic laws are one thing, but real laws (we all know traffic laws aren’t real laws don’t we?) are another.  Well, we’ll find numerous real laws that we’ll routinely flaunt.  Besides speeding, we’re statistically also likely to break the law by drinking before we’re legally old enough (and perhaps obtaining an illegal fake ID to do so—nothing like a bit of premeditated criminal ethics to get us on the right foot to being a contributing adult citizen), visiting or working as a prostitute, gambling, smoking pot, shooting illegal fireworks, or some illegal combination of these.

And…, aware that these activities are all illegal, we’ll be keeping a close eye out for the bad guys—cops.

By the time we graduate from high school, nearly all of us will have broken at least one law and many of us will have broken a quite colorful variety of them.

Street School

Vadnais Heights Stop Signs Madness

Stop Signs on Vadnais Heights Bike Path

For most, it starts on the streets—dad’s speeding ticket, mom telling us we can drive over the speed limit.

How many kids riding down the bike path above will stop at each one of those stop signs? What lesson will they take away from that?

For one month this summer I decided to strictly obey every traffic law while riding my bicycle, on segregated paths whenever possible. This turned out to be somewhere between excruciating and nearly impossible. Fortunately, I only encountered those Vadnais Heights stop signs once.

At every signal-controlled intersection I would have to wait longer, sometimes much longer, than vehicles in the traffic lanes. Vehicles traveling in the same direction as I, might have a green, but I would have to wait through an entire phase of lights to get a white crossing signal, even when there were no cars anywhere in sight. At some intersections it would take me five to seven minutes just to make a legal left turn (press beg button, wait for crossing signal, cross, press beg button for next crossing, almost fall over trying to get back in position to cross, wait, cross).

And then there are the cases of beg buttons not working. How long do you wait before crossing against the red don’t walk signal? One button I encounter often, stopped working mid-way through the first week of my experiment. Was I to dutifully wait each time I went through here to make sure that it was still broken?

I chose not to at this one broken button (my one concession). Instead, I came to a complete stop, checked to make sure it was safe to cross, then crossed. Once I was yelled at by a driver that I was crossing against the red ‘don’t walk’ sign and once lectured by a cop for doing so. BTW, as of this posting, that crossing button, despite being reported at least twice, is still broken.

Throughout this summer I also observed kids riding habits. I saw perhaps a hundred kids (and many parents) blow through the multitude of stop signs on that path along Centerville Rd in Vadnais Heights (above) but never saw anyone actually obey all of them (though a small handful did stop for the first two or three further back from where the photo was taken). They seemed much better at waiting for crossing signals. At busier intersections about 80% of kids waited while at others I’d guesstimate about 30% did so. Adults? not so law abiding.

These kids, nearly all under about 14, have already learned something important—U.S. laws are not necessarily to be obeyed. This seed will grow in the coming years as they begin to drive and face the fear of obeying the speed limit on a highway with nearly every other car going 10 mph over, or of deciding whether to completely stop at the rightmost side of a very lonely T-intersection they go through every day.

And this all carries over to adulthood. Law breaking is no longer a line never to be crossed, but merely a bump on the road to self-absorption. Laws, particularly traffic and vice laws, become only suggestions, to be regarded so long as they don’t inconvenience us too much. When a 20-year-old can’t legally drink a beer that seed grows deep roots of disdain.

Part II—Beliefs, Laws, and Turning Right On Red.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at localmile.org, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN

17 thoughts on “A Wink And A Nod—Teaching Our Kids To Be Criminals (Part I)

  1. Justin FoellJustin Foell

    Spring Lake Park has those same little stop signs on Osborne Rd. How hard would it be to move the crossing road’s stop sign back 6 feet and remove all the little stop signs? I rode that trail exactly once, never again. It didn’t help that it was the single most poorly maintained trail I’ve ever ridden on.

    Regarding skirting the law, Chuck Marohn made an interesting observation of his own behavior while visiting Detroit: http://www.strongtowns.net/profiles/blogs/blog-bonus-a-testable-thesis (see text before & after empty road photo).

      1. Justin FoellJustin Foell

        Unfortunately no. They had some issues with spam and apparently mandating sign-ups was the easiest way around it. I do promise that strongtowns.net is full of useful discussion, and you can always slide the membership donation down to zero.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

          Great comments by Chuck. Quite disappointed in his sinking to such a level of lawlessness though 🙂

          Several years ago, working on a deal on roundabouts, I kept track of how much time I spent stopped at intersections and could have proceeded had the intersection been a roundabout. My average over 5 days was 17 minutes per day. An hour and a half WASTED! And now I tell people that riding a bike somewhere is leisurely and the extra few minutes isn’t a problem 🙂 I also use to count cars at dual signal entrance ramps and then get ticked if I chose the wrong lane. OK, stream of consciousness ended… Or at least paused…

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I still remain highly unconvinced that stop signs like those pictured are enforceable. A shared-use path in the right-of-way of a regular street is, in the eyes of the law, a sidewalk. The fact that it’s made of asphalt is of no consequence. A sidewalk is:

    “that portion of a street between the curb lines, or the lateral lines of a roadway, and the adjacent property lines intended for the use of pedestrians.” (169.011, subd. 75)

    A bicycle riding on a sidewalk is a legal pedestrian. That does mean, technically, that they should stop and use beg buttons, even if there is a vehicular green signal. But that also means that vehicular stop signs do not apply (unless they somehow also apply to pedestrians).

    However, your point is well-taken. It’s purportedly a belt-and-suspenders approach to improve safety, but it’s really engineers taking it upon themselves to reinvent standard right-of-way, even though they must know it just causes their stop signs to be ignored.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

      Sean, Agree—I’m not sure of the enforceability of the stop signs. Note though that they are not vehicular stop signs but are specific to the MUP. I don’t know that enforceability has much to do with the lesson it teaches kids about obeying the law though.

  3. Allen

    @Sean, does MN law say pedestrians have to use beg buttons? My reading of it is that it’s not clear that walk / don’t walk is anything more than advisory.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Unfortunately, yes it does.


      Subd. 6.Pedestrian control signal. (a) Whenever special pedestrian-control signals exhibiting the words “Walk” or “Don’t Walk” or symbols of a “walking person” or “upraised hand” are in place, the signals or symbols indicate as follows:
      (1) A steady “Walk” signal or the symbol of a “walking person” indicates that a pedestrian facing either of these signals may proceed across the roadway in the direction of the signal, possibly in conflict with turning vehicles. Every driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to such pedestrian except that the pedestrian shall yield the right-of-way to vehicles lawfully within the intersection at the time that either signal indication is first shown.

      (2) A “Don’t Walk” signal or the symbol of an “upraised hand,” flashing or steady, indicates that a pedestrian shall not start to cross the roadway in the direction of either signal, but any pedestrian who has partially crossed on the “Walk” or “walking person” signal indication shall proceed to a sidewalk or safety island while the signal is showing.

      (b) A pedestrian crossing a roadway in conformity with this section is lawfully within the intersection and, when in a crosswalk, is lawfully within the crosswalk.

      The references to what the red/green/yellow mean are all prefaced with, “unless otherwise directed by a pedestrian-control signal, …”

      So if the signal has no dedicated pedestrian signals (a handful of old lights are like this), then the pedestrian may just follow the vehicular signals. If they are present and working, then the pedestrian must follow the upraised hand / walking man to be lawfully within the crosswalk.

      In practice, I think 99.9% of cops would enforce them as advisory — as long as the pedestrian is not crossing against the flow of the light, who cares. But I do think the statute could use an update, especially in light of much longer “pedestrian clearance intervals” (flashing hand) and countdown timers. If you’re not legally allowed to enter the intersection after the countdown starts, what’s the point of providing that information?

      1. Nathanael

        Legally, this implies that if the pedestrian crossing buttons are not working, the legal thing to do is to tear the pedestrian signals out with a hammer, *then* follow the traffic lights. 🙂

        Yeah, not obvious, but legally correct. It’s not even vandalism, because the pedestrian signals are already not functioning.

  4. Rob

    From my limited experience on a village committee in NY state, these stop signs are to protect the Village from lawsuits. If someone gets hit by a car, the Village can say, “But we put a stop sign there, so we’re not responsible!”

    In NY, we call this “covering your ass”.

    1. Justin FoellJustin Foell

      A better policy would be to put the intersection (read: real) stop signs before the path, and stripe a crosswalk with a stop line so it’s obvious that there may be crossing bike & foot traffic.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

        Yes. I believe that in practice a MUP, even one separated by a grass median, is generally to be considered another lane of traffic for the road that it runs parallel to. In much of Europe and in WA and OR a MUP or Bicycle Path will continue across a drive such as these or minor road entrances and maintain the path material, color, and grade. Here’s something I wrote up last spring about this specific signs (about halfway down the page):


        Most MUPs and Bicycle Paths I’ve seen in the U.S. are just as you suggest with no stop sign for the path, but a stop sign for crossing traffic prior to the path.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          I can’t imagine any possible indication that MUPs would be considered an extra lane of the roadway. It’s asphalt, rather than concrete. And in some cases, it’s wider (but not significantly… standard Minneapolis sidewalks are 7′ and many suburban MUPs are 8′). Why on earth would we conceive of it as a totally different kind of facility because of a difference in paving choice?

          It clearly meets the statutory definition for a sidewalk (subd. 75). Seeing it as part of the roadway would be horrendously problematic for bicycles and pedestrians: bicyclists would be functionally required to use it (since not doing so would not be riding “as far right as practicable”), and pedestrians would be subject to the same restrictions as walking in the roadway — on the left only, facing traffic.

          However, even if we did conceive of it as part of the roadway, it still doesn’t make sense for the trail to be stop/yield-controlled at driveways. State law requires drivers exiting driveways to yield to both the sidewalk and traffic in the roadway of the through highway. In no other context to we expect users of the through highway to yield to a private driveway.

          1. Justin FoellJustin Foell

            I think you guys are focusing on the letter of the law too much. I treat many of these laws as guidelines, and we should probably work to rewrite them.

            Like the law that if there’s no sidewalk pedestrians must walk on the left side of the street. I understand this may be technically safer, in that I can see a car coming and might be able to jump out to the way if they’re driving erratically.

            But how about we just don’t hit people in the road? It’s asinine to see municipalities invent all these intricate rules that appear to “cover their ass” and always lean in favor of the driver. We should be (legally) protecting pedestrians first and foremost.

          2. Walker AngellWalker Angell Post author

            I probably could have worded it better, but yes, my intention, as you mentioned below, was that in practice, not legally, it is treated similar to another lane. EG, if traffic in the vehicular lanes isn’t controlled (doesn’t stop) then neither should the bikeway or MUP.

            The paving material matters. In the photo above you can see the darker driveway proceeding through the lighter colored MUP. This indicates to the driver that they have ROW over people on the MUP (which in this case, thanks to the stop signs, they do). However, this same scenario is seen all over the twin cities MUPs where MUPers have ROW. If instead, the path material continues through and breaks the drive, then this provides some indication to the motorist that the MUP exists and that the MUPers have ROW. (see Minor Road Crossings here: http://localmile.org/?p=236)

        2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          Re-reading what you wrote, I think I may have misinterpreted you. Perhaps you’re saying that driver behavior treats it as a part of the roadway. But I would also disagree with that, since you’ll find drivers very frequently blocking MUPs and sidewalks as they prepare to turn onto the through highway. You of course do not find them doing the same thing in lanes of high-speed traffic.

  5. Nathanael

    When the laws are terrible and it’s impractical to follow them, people will not follow the laws — and eventually people will disrespect all law.

    This means that it’s important to repeal garbage laws.

    They figured this out at the end of Prohibition, but everyone seems to have forgotten since then.

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