Busting the Myth of the “Scofflaw Cyclist”

People who bike are no more likely to disregard traffic laws than people who drive, according to a new survey published in the Journal of Transport and Land Use. Photo: Photo: Jim Henderson/Wikimedia Commons
People who bike are no more likely to disregard traffic laws than people who drive, according to a new survey published in the Journal of Transport and Land Use. Photo: Photo: Jim Henderson/Wikimedia Commons

According to a certain perspective that seems to hold sway among local newspaper columnists, bicyclists are reckless daredevils who flout the road rules that everyone else faithfully upholds. But the results of a massive survey published in the Journal of Transport and Land Use point to a different conclusion — everyone breaks traffic laws, and there’s nothing extraordinary about how people behave on bikes.

Researcher Wesley Marshall and his team surveyed 18,000 people online about their compliance with traffic laws when they are driving, biking, or walking. Most respondents — 14,000 — were based in the United States, with the remainder concentrated in Australia, Canada, and Europe.

They found that people admit to breaking the rules of the road at roughly the same (very high) rate, regardless of how they’re getting around.

“Bicyclists, perhaps despite popular conception, really don’t break the rules at any greater rate than any other modes: pedestrians or drivers,” said Aaron Johnson, one of the authors. “When there’s a disregard for the rules it tends to come from efforts to negotiate infrastructure that really wasn’t built for them.”

Only participants who said they bike were surveyed about cycling behavior and only those who said they drive were questioned about motorist behavior. Most participants identified as all of the above — drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians — said Johnson.

The study was conducted by “snowball sampling,” where surveys are passed along among social networks by word of mouth or through media. Though the survey was not random, the sample was big enough that researchers think the findings are reliable.

Among people who drive, nearly 100 percent said they exceed the speed limit, text behind the wheel, or break other laws; 98 percent of people who walk admitted to disregarding pedestrian signals; 96 percent of people who bike said they disregard stop signs and traffic lights.

But reasons for breaking the rules differed. People were most likely to say they broke a rule while driving or walking to save time, while people who bike were most likely to cite personal safety (by riding on the sidewalk rather than a busy street, for example) or saving energy.

The survey also examined geographical differences among American respondents. Cyclists in cities with higher rates of cycling, for instance, were more likely to say they follow rules. Interestingly, the survey did not find the presence of bike lanes to be a significant factor in cyclists’ reported observance of traffic laws. And intersection density — often considered a proxy for walkability — was associated with higher rates of rule breaking. The authors say these factors deserve additional study.

  • Frank Kotter

    Hi Cynara2. Pedestrian here when not driving. You’re insane.

  • Frank Kotter

    Yes, the less-than-one-per-year pedestrian death by cyclists is indeed statistically insignificant against the thousands caused by motorists. No arrogance from any ‘cyclists’ needs to be brought up by you.

    Ok, you hate people when they ride a bike. Got it. I wish you would see the situation more realistically though.

  • Cynara2

    No, you are stupid. I suggest you encourage motorists to fly through red lights and weave through a peloton of cyclists traveling legally and perpendicularly to the cars. I would love to see that.

  • Cynara2

    Well, I am greatly reassured about my safety around cyclists by your confirmation that I am not worthy of human life and so sub humanly unintelligent that I am incapable of making distinctions.

  • Douglas Presler

    You’ve got to be kidding. “Cyclists are no worse than motorists and pedestrians”. That’s your myth-busting? What a joke! And that euphemism about “negotiat(ing) infrastructure that really wasn’t built for (cyclists)”: they must think people with brains were born yesterday.

  • Douglas Presler

    You’re right. We should just let cyclists putter through wherever they fell the need to.

  • Douglas Presler

    And give you the finger if you object.

  • Baba

    Yes, they should, because bicycles have the same right to transportation infrastructure as other means do. Roads are for moving people around, no matter what method they use, because ALL people pay for them with property taxes and special assessments.

  • bobfuss

    I’m sorry that you cannot debate transportation issues without becoming overly emotional. Under the circumstances You make a good decision.

  • bobfuss

    It’s a sign that you cannot match my arguments and know you are losing the debate

  • bobfuss

    Your defensive reaction tells me that you know I am correct.

  • Cynara2

    As if cyclists only use roads. It would be nice if they stopped flying up sidewalks and through crosswalks whenever they do not want to stop for a red light.

  • Cynara2

    The finger is all you get? I have had them verbally threaten to kill me

  • Douglas Presler

    Not surprised. Lived in SF for nearly 30 years.

  • Douglas Presler

    Are you a moron, Baba, or just a garden-variety fool with a possible death wish? There’s a reason bicycles aren’t allowed on freeways that lack bike paths. It’s dangerous. There’s a reason bikes are generally not permitted on sidewalks. It’s annoying.

  • MatthewEH

    Personally? If I’m crossing in a crosswalk with right of way, and I see a cyclist down the street perpendicular to my path who appears that he (or she, but realistically, he) is not even slowing for the red light, I try to establish eye contact and hold my hand out in a firm “stop” gesture. I will slow slightly as I do this but still maintain forward momentum.

    Works pretty well; no close calls so far.

    If the cyclist is so close that I don’t have time to do this before starting to cross, I simply stay on the curb a moment. Which is annoying — the cyclist is being reckless — but I haven’t lost agency on making the situation safer.

  • Baba

    I said roads and highways. Local streets and roads are the only things I ride on, except a few areas in CO that allow bike travel on freeways. I NEVER ride on sidewalks, because they aren’t bikerides.

  • Moran64

    Are we really putting blowing through a stop sign on the same level as slightly exceeding the speed limit?

  • MatthewEH

    So if the counter says “25”, and I know that as a fit and relatively young individual I can easily cross in 15 seconds, I shouldn’t be able to exercise judgment? That’s bonkers.

    I could see a law written along these lines being reasonable:

    “Countdown timers: A pedestrian will be understood to have crossed without right of way if a countdown timer shows that the amount of crossing time remaining was very small, so much so that it was not reasonably possible to cross before perpendicular traffic would be shown a green light.”

    I do see pedestrians in NYC start to cross broad 4-lane avenues when there are 3 seconds on the timer left and this is annoying. I don’t think anyone disagrees with you on that.

  • Fifty Something

    That’s like saying, “Are we really putting cars going 30 mph over the speed limit in a residential area on the same level as bikes yielding at stop signs?!”

  • Fifty Something

    Let me know how many cyclists “kill and cripple” pedestrians, and I’ll tell you how many drivers kill cyclists.

  • Cynara2

    If the next one is your mother, tell me what it matters that cyclists call her an “insignificant statistic?”

  • Cynara2

    Yes, yes we are. Cyclists are incredibly oblivious to pedestrian safety.
    We are afraid to say anything to you, because you get abuse, try to infuriate people and put them on youtube, and even get violent. You have no idea how much protestation against scofflaw cyclists is going on under your radar. A whole, whole lot. You can scapegoat the next old lady on the sidewalk that gets mad at you, but just know that it is very likely at this point that the entire community wants something done..

  • Brandon Marguet

    If you’ve ever gone over the speed limit, your argument is invalid. And we wouldn’t have paved roads if it wasn’t originally done for cycling.

  • Cynara2

    Are you kidding?
    That is totally ignorant. If the state wants drivers to travel at sixty mph, they make the speed limit fifty five. They know what drivers will do. Paved roads only exist for cyclists? Are you serious? They exist because the horse fecal matter and mud was spreading disease. Guess who existed before two wheeled royalty? Pedestrians.

  • Brandon Marguet

    ARE YOU KIDDING? Follow the speed limit you prick. Go 55 in a 55 or get off your high horse.

    Bicycles existed before cars. Learn how to drive on the road and obey the rules or walk to work

  • Cynara2

    I am legally blind, super super super prick.

  • Cynara2

    No one goes fifty five in a fifty five and planners have the intelligence to know that.Pedestrians existed before cyclists. What make you entitled to decide that pedestrians deserve to be sacrificed to your idiotic fad. This cyclist craze will end. Too many people find it nothing but a gigantic pain.

  • Douglas Presler

    If you’ve ever been capable of reading at grade level, you’d see it was the article that claims the “myth of scofflaw cyclists” has been “busted”, when by its own admission, the study it cites shows that cyclists are really no worse at following traffic rules than motorists or pedestrians. Nowhere do I claim or even imply motorists are better. By the way, it might interest you to know that I don’t drive. Save the sanctimony for someone else who can’t follow what people are actually saying.
    And that bit about paved roads being invented to facilitate cycling, that really takes the cake. I’m sure what you wrote was true, but really, who cares? Does that give cyclists some sort of trump card? Does it lessen the fact that the people who conducted the study tried to hide pro-bike bias with a euphemism? Honestly…

  • Frank Kotter

    ???

  • Dorian Douma

    What I’m suggesting is that we stop making bike lanes that we know are design failures, and just replicate successful designs instead. I don’t think that the designs we’ve implemented have been properly vetted.

  • Dorian Douma

    so far the strategy of keeping us off the sidewalks by keeping the road dangerous is not working

  • Dorian Douma

    yeah this would be dangerous enough if the roads we have didn’t require drivers to constantly compete for their spot in line, but given that you need to have motorsports skills in order to survive as a driver, adding distraction to the mix is so dangerous… as a cyclist I’m too distracted watching my back to see all the details of the surface in front of me that I need to read because I have to be in the rough part of the road, off to the side, so I miss traffic signs, road signs… so at the same time as drivers need to put away their cellphones, cyclists need a less overwhelming traffic situation, and that means either more separation or lower traffic speeds or both

  • Dorian Douma

    That’s pretty much what’s happening in north america.

  • Dorian Douma

    And as a cyclist, I get the same arrogance and hostility from drivers, and I want the same protection from them that you want from me. And access to the road. And I find in some spots, all the arrogance and hostility from everyone basically evaporates, and it seems to depend on the shape of the road and the surroundings more than the type of traffic.

  • Cynara2

    It does not matter. In my town we put in the bike lanes the cyclists wanted. There was a lot of concern about pedestrian safety, since cyclists fly at top speed through populated crosswalks and STOP signs, making a point of ignoring the pedestrians. The concession was that there would be flashing overhead amber lights letting the cyclists know well ahead of time a pedestrian was in the crosswalk or waiting to cross.
    You can guess that the cyclists’ behavior at STOP signs and crosswalks only got worse.

  • Cynara2

    So far, cyclists refuse to have any consideration for pedestrians, no matter whether on the sidewalk or in the crosswalk. No amount of infrastructure will ever change that.

  • Cynara2

    So you refuse to treat pedestrians with any decency because you think it is right to make us atone for the sins of motorists? That is a big time losing strategy, it really is.

  • Frank Kotter

    If I admit stupidity, will you confess to insanity? I feel it a fair trade.

  • 1LelaG

    You are very correct. What is missing in the whole mess is strict and extensive Enforcement which is almost impossible, due to the costs of unprecedented number of cops on the road. Best, would be if the Courts impose such an exorbitant amount of punitive charges to intimidate drivers from engaging in texting or phoning.

  • 1LelaG

    Density is the plague in everything related to public Space: too many frigging cars, too many people, very little space to accommodate all. We can not eliminate people, but we can eliminate cars and increase rail public transport, after we eliminate corrupt Governments who enrich the rich for their own benefits.

  • 1LelaG

    No, YOU are the ignoramus! Read all Reports on sustainable transportation, on Scandinavian countries solving the problem, and then open your mouth to spill sensible words. And if you have what it takes, I can start you by browsing the following info: http://www.ecopolitics.ca/public-transit/

  • 1LelaG

    No need to defend yourself. You are right in what you expressed. See my answer to your objector just above your comment.

  • Dorian Douma

    No, I don’t do any of that.

  • Dorian Douma

    sounds like your town implemented the kind of ineffective bike lanes I’m complaining about, like most american towns

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

The Great Bicyclist Responsibility Debate Continues

|
Searching for clarity when road users conflict. (Photo: squacco via Flickr) Today on the Streetsblog Network, Boston Biker takes issue with a recent column in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine about how people on bicycles need to "earn" respect on the road. In the view of the Globe’s Doug Most, it’s essentially the responsibility of […]

Funds for Walking and Biking Under Attack in Congress This Week

|
Funds for walking and biking infrastructure account for a tiny portion of federal transportation spending. Safer streets don’t cost much, though, so for the cities and towns that count on these programs, a few dollars from the feds can be a huge help. Despite the relatively small sums at play, walking and biking programs are a constant […]

As Baby Boomers Age, They Take Their Foot Off the Gas

|
They may be remembered as the driving-est generation. Baby Boomers, who came of age in the heyday of suburbia, have always driven more than any other generation. At the height of their driving years, boomers averaged 51 miles per day. They continue to drive 17 percent more than all other age groups, according to a […]