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.

  • I agree with you here. I am not an anarchist; so I accept the premise that laws are desirable. The goal then is to have laws which make sense and which deal equitably with the situations in which they apply. Unfortunately, current traffic laws fail both tests, in that they are crafted with only automobiles in mind, and so impose inappropriate and impractical constraints on bicyclists.

    Still, the correct way for bicyclists to deal with this problem is not to unilaterally decide to ignore the law. The way to deal with the law that inappropriately requires us bicyclists to stop at red lights is to work to get this bad law changed.

    I noted in a previous comment that I have no problem with bicyclists bending the rules for the sake of safety, such as the act of starting to move a bit before a red light changes to green, so as to get out in front of the pack. I strongly object, however, to the practice of ignoring the red light altogether, and behaving as though the law doesn’t apply to us. This sort of arrogance irritates onlookers — and rightfully so, because it demonstrates contempt for the social contract.

    Some bicyclists will be tempted to argue that, because the laws take no account of our needs, we aren’t bound by any social contract or by any ethical duty to act according to the law. I myself held this view for a long time, from my childhood in the 1970s, through to the early 2000s. But then something happened: governments began attempts at accommodating us by installing bike lanes. In New York, Bloomberg fundamentally changed everything by empowering the visionary Janette Sadik-Khan to remake the DOT as an agency that served the general interest, as opposed to one which served only drivers and worked against the general interest.

    New York was transformed, as bike lanes proliferated. This huge transfer of land to the masses had a profound effect on me, and completely altered both my thinking and my behaviour. I came to understand that we as bicyclists were now at the table, and that our concerns were being addressed; so the previous notion that the social contract does not apply to us was no longer valid.

    While our present bike infrastructure is far from perfect, its existence shows that the way to make further progress is within the system. This requires an agreement to practice good citizenship by abiding by the law. Every time bicyclists demonstrate an unwillingness to do this, they hurt the cause of progress towards better laws.

    So I as a bicyclist take issue with nothing that you have said so far.

  • Michael Scott Leonard

    I don’t really disagree with you either, and you’ll notice I really haven’t expressed a substantive opinion about what our bike laws should look like. My concern is with the legitimacy of unilaterally nullifying democratically enacted laws for individual reasons. Kim Davis, the bigot who refused to perform gay marriages in Kentucky, saw herself much the way the ever-rationalizing cyclist “scofflaw” seems him or herself.

    Although I find your current position quite reasonable and well-reasoned, I would point out that the sea changes you identify over the past 15 years are the result of other people’s patiently and democratically engaging with policy during those decades when you felt it would be a lost cause to do so.

  • That’s true. And I now understand that the notion of rejecting the social contract was not a good one, even when it seemed to me to be right.

  • bobfuss

    Everyone benefits from roads, so everyone should pay for them.

  • bobfuss

    ” In other words, you’re simply more likely to notice the transgressions that you personally don’t like, and ignore those that you yourself might participate in.”

    It’s not about what I “like” so much as what affects me. I don’t notice what doesn’t affect me because, well, it doesn’t affect me. I have no opinion of things I don’t see or that don’t disrupt, delay or endanger me.

    So for instance, since I don’t ride a bike, I don’t perceive certain things that might bother a cyclist, like obstructions in a bike lane. At least, not unless a cyclist pulls out into traffic as a result, but then that’s a different problem any way i.e. not paying due care and attention.

    I’m not going to change my behavior based on statistics but rather on the reality that I see every day. And that reality includes things like the fact that, as a pedestrian, drivers yield to me at intersections much more reliably than cyclists do.

  • Vooch

    Everyone benefits from Cargo Ships so everyone should pay for them

    Everyone benefits from Freight Trains so everyone should pay for them

    LOL

  • bobfuss

    To some extent all that is also true, and so we subsidize ports, rail, the coastguard and so on.

    But specifically with roads, you benefit from them every day even if you don’t have a car. You take a bus, cab or Uber, you ride a bike, you receive deliveries, emergency vehicles can quickly get to you, and goods are cheaper because of the interstate highways and efficient state and county road system.

    So it’s perfectly reasonable that you should contribute towards them, and I’m not even particularly socialist about things at all. And of course drivers contribute more than you do, through a variety of special fees and taxes.

  • Vooch

    Always interesting to hear defense of road socialism from people who say they believe in the free market.

    Point of fact, drivers are lavishly subsidized in the US. Gas Taxes would have to rise to anywhere from $2 to $8 a gallon to cover the full cost of driving.

    City streets and typically County streets are paid for via property taxes – which also tend to subsidize ex-urban drivers at expense of inner ring suburbanites and their urban cousins.

    So why not favor at least privatized interstates ?

  • Brian Howald

    Bobfuss, aren’t highways just a reward for motorists who drove dangerously on city streets for decades? Should we get rid of those?

  • Brian Howald

    Evidence is not valid if comes from anecdata. The story above – in case anyone’s forgotten – shows us hat all road users break road rules, and that the perception that cyclists are unique among road users in doing that is false.

    When your perceptions of reality do not match better indicators of reality, it’s a sign that your perception is off. Not necessarily that he things that you see don’t happen, but that you aren’t seeing a lot of other things happening.

    If 96% of cyclists run lights, something that is easy to observe, but 100% of drivers speed, something that is hard to observe, you might conclude that cyclists break the rules more, but it wouldn’t be correct. What you perceive often isn’t the whole picture.

  • Brian Howald

    In New York, the city council just changed the law to allow pedestrians to cross whenever there is time remaining, so long as they make it to the sidewalk before time has expired. What’s it to you if I like to run across the street with 12 seconds left on he timer?

  • Brian Howald

    100% of drivers admitted to speeding, 98% of pedestrians admitted to jaywalking, 96% of cyclists admitted to running lights and stop signs, but acknowledging rule breaking is a statement against interest. Essentially, when people claim things that don’t portray them well, they are more likely to be true. This survey measured high rates of self-reported illegal behavior. Why would people have had any reason to claim these things if they weren’t true?

  • Brian Howald

    You finally got the study’s point!

  • Joe R.

    If we’re talking strictly about safety, there are enormous safety benefits for a cyclist to pass a red light whenever it’s safe to do so, not just to start a second or so early to avoid the pack. Once you’re on the other side of the intersection, you pretty much have the entire street to yourself, at least until the light you passed finally goes green and the pack of vehicles catches up to you. Often, this may not happen for several blocks. So running the red essentially gives you your own personal street for quite some time. This makes riding a lot safer and more pleasant.

    You also have the fact that due to light timing, sometimes by passing only one red light, you’ll hit a lot of the lights further down on green. If you wait out that light, you’ll get stuck at all of them. So passing that light gives you the safety benefit I mentioned earlier. You also get the bonus of being able to ride both efficiently AND legally for a while once you do pass it.

    What’s interesting about your position that breaking laws hurts our ability to get things like bike infrastructure is the fact we did get quite a bit of bike infrastructure despite many cyclists breaking laws. And we’re still continuing to get it, albeit at a much slower pace than before.

    Finally, it’s worth pointing out that good bike infrastructure (which NYC mostly doesn’t have) never requires cyclists to stop very often in the first place. That’s ironically how they dealt with cyclists who ran red lights in the Netherlands. They didn’t penalize them or stop building bike infrastructure. Instead, they realized there are logical reasons for staying in motion when you ride a bike, and they built infrastructure which enables cyclists to do exactly that. In fact, I think the same criteria which might apply when laying out a railroad should be used when designing a bike route. That includes keeping gradients as low as possible, and avoiding the need to stop as much as possible by either grade separation or giving cyclists the right-of-way at intersections. They do the latter a lot more than the former in the Netherlands. Often when bike routes have traffic signals, those signals exist solely to give cyclists priority over motor vehicles. The signal defaults to green whenever a bike is detected.

  • bobfuss

    If highways and freeways take vehicular traffic away from streets where people walk and children play, isn’t that a good thing for everyone?

  • bobfuss

    Taxes and subsidies are subject to voter approval, so if driving is subsidized as you claim, then it is only because the voters agree with me that its a worthwhile investment.

    Some roads are effectively privatized, like toll roads, so if the voters in that location are happy to agree to that and drivers think it is worth the toll for a better trip, then who am I to oppose it?

  • Vooch

    So you support tyranny of the majority ?

    We live in a republic not a democracy. In a republic there are civilized checks on the extent of gov’t power.

  • bobfuss

    So if the majority think differently from you then they are a tyranny?

    As a fully paid up libertarian I deplore the excesses of government over-reach. However, if the subsidy of road transportation derives from a mandate from the people, then so be it.

    And I’d take much the same view of the 75% subsidies given to Muni, as much as I hate Muni.

  • Vooch

    that’s not liberty that’s leviathan

  • bobfuss

    So wait, let me make sure I’ve got this.

    If the majority agree with you, then it’s the glorious will of the people speaking?

    If they do not agree with you, then it’s the tyranny of the majority?

    OK, I think I get it.

  • Joe R.

    The same could be said if we also built bicycle highways. They would take bike traffic off streets where people walk. They would also let cyclists travel free of the need to stop just like cars on highways do.

  • Vooch

    I’m arguing the liberty perspective that no mode should be subsidized.

    you are arguing that the tyranny of a simple majority can decide most anything – in this case subsidizing highways.

    it’s called

    “2 wolves and 1 sheep voting on what’s for dinner”

    in order to limit excesses that’s why we do not have a democracy, we have a republic.

    Despite your prostestations, you are no libertarian. possibly a big gov’t national socialist or maybe a big gov’t international socialist, but certainly not a supporter of liberty.

  • bobfuss

    No, the difference between us is that I trust the voters and you don’t.

  • bobfuss

    If we were designing a city from scratch I might agree. And indeed some newer cities were designed with cycleways in them, like Milton Keynes in the UK:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milton_Keynes_redway_system

    Implementing that in an already over-built and over-crowded city is another thing altogether.

  • Vooch

    worship of leviathan and trusting your fellow man are not the same.

  • 1LelaG

    Good article about cyclists. But past few years, drivers have added one more
    danger into the equation of scofflaw: that, of distracted driving which has surpassed drunk driving.

  • NunyaBusiness

    Nope.

  • NunyaBusiness

    How the hell does blocking a bike lane not impact safety? You’re forcing a cyclist onto the driving lane where drivers are not expecting a cyclist to be, specifically because there’s a f*cking bike lane on the street.

  • NunyaBusiness

    A car can be hit even if it’s doing everything right as well, and skilled and experienced drivers can get into accidents. Professional race drivers have had accidents on the open road while operating a vehicle safely.

    You’re not making a point here.

  • NunyaBusiness

    What about as a pedestrian not on a sidewalk? You’re spinning yourself into the ground.

    A cyclist has more maneuverability than a motorist in a vehicle. That’s just not even arguable. How quickly can a can stop vs. a bike? Quick enough to avoid a moron driver turning left in an intersection with oncoming traffic, I can attest to that.

  • NunyaBusiness

    You are an idiot. Protected bike lanes maximize safety for everyone. You should go to Europe to places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. I’ve even seen protected bike lanes in South America.

    Why is it that the US consistently insists on being backward morons? Why do we refuse to learn from other people in the world? Same with health care, every other country in the world does it one way. No, we have to do it our bug stupid way.

  • NunyaBusiness

    Wait, so all taxes are voted on by people, directly? Hell no that’s not true.

  • NunyaBusiness

    No, he’s right. You got owned.

    You believe in libertarianism until there’s something you and the majority decide they want.

    Which is not libertarianism. It’s what Ben Franklin foresaw as the death of the republic — when people realize they can vote themselves money.

  • NunyaBusiness

    So, basically, because you’re an asshole who thinks no one else matters but you.

  • bobfuss

    I usually figure that when someone only has an insult to counter with, that they know they have lost the debate.

  • bobfuss

    I do not see libertarianism as the converse of democracy.

  • bobfuss

    I didn’t say directly. But indirectly, yes. We vote for the kind of leaders we think will enact policies that we prefer. So I voted for Trump because he promised lower taxes. Clinton wanted to raise taxes/

  • bobfuss

    What I just learned there was that when you see an idea you don’t like, you use words like “idiot”, “moron” and “stupid. That’s all I learned from you, sadly.

  • bobfuss

    If that is correct then all this whining by cyclists about their lack of safety must be a fraud. Good to know.

  • bobfuss

    If your point is that skill isn’t a factor, then you’re obviously wrong. But it may not be enough to save you anyway.

    And as a driver I can choose a vehicle that makes me safer, preferably something large and heavy.

  • bobfuss

    Wrong. My presence in a bike lane doesn’t “force” you to do anything. You can choose to stop and wait until I leave or until it is safe to pass, or you can dismount and walk around me.

    It’s only a safety issue for you if you’re the kind of clueless cyclist who blindly pulls out into traffic rather than slow down, and that is 100% on you.

  • Cynara2
  • Cynara2

    I am? Because cyclists call every pedestrian death they cause an “insignificant statistic?” Because they call us “moving obstacles” and “fleshy air bags?” Who is out of touch with reality here?

  • Joe R.

    Statistically your chances of surviving getting hit by a bike are way higher than if you get hit by a motor vehicle. Only a few people die in the US each year getting struck by bikes. More people die getting hit by lightning. I’m not sure exactly what point you’re trying to make here.

    You can die from picking your nose too but it’s not a common thing: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/3566273/Man-dies-from-picking-his-nose.html

  • Joe R.

    He rightly called you insane because your version of the way things are doesn’t match reality. You have a pathological hatred of bikes for some reason. You also spout ridiculous assertions and anecdotes. Please go seek mental help. I’m serious.

  • Cynara2

    “BIKE BAN IN BYRNE PRESERVE

    Sheriff’s Office deputies may soon be occupied with additional bicycle-related enforcement details as well. At the June 11 Los Altos Hills Open Space Committee meeting, committee members unanimously voted to recommend that the city council ban bicycles from Byrne Preserve to prevent accidents involving hikers and horseback riders.

    The council unanimously voted to direct city staff to prepare an ordinance prohibiting bikes in Byrne Preserve. A public hearing must take place before the council votes to pass any ordinance, however.”

    YOU DO NOT HAVE TO TELL ME THAT I AM NOTHING BUT AN INSIGNIFICANT STATISTIC TO A CYCLIST, BUT NOT TO MY CHILDREN,
    IT JUST DOES NOT MATTER TO YOU UNTIL YOU KILL THE WIFE OF THE PLANNING COMMISSIONER.

    https://www.losaltosonline.com/news/sections/news/199-city-affairs/51382-

  • Cynara2

    You are as insulting and obnoxious and arrogant as the average cyclist.

  • Joe R.

    So they want to ban bikes in Bumblefuck, USA. Who the fuck cares what a bunch of ignorant, backward thinking hicks want to do? Middle America is already a laughing stock to most of the rest of the world as it is. This is just more proof what fucking idiots they are. Seems if you’re killed by a bike everyone is up in arms but the thousands killed annually in motor vehicles are the real insignicant statistics.

  • Cynara2

    Are you ignorant? Santa Clara county in California is redneck? Geez, please stay off the sidewalk. No wonder no one ever invited you to Los Altos.
    Middle America? What a joke.

  • Joe R.

    Geographical location doesn’t matter. It’s the same type of ignorant thinking as middle America, so it might as well be in middle America. We have people who think like that on the east coast also. Deport them all to middle America and let the rest of us live in peace.

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