Brilliant Reader Comment: The Double Standard on Bike/Car Behavior

Streetsblog commenters are, in general, really, really smart. I learn a lot by reading the comments you all post, and sometimes an especially insightful comment deserves a little extra attention.

Here’s a gem from the Streetsblog Network’s story last week responding to a Salon article titled “Are Urban Bicyclists Just Elite Snobs?” This started a big discussion about whether cyclists are, in fact, essentially jerks.

Commenter Karen Lynn Allen sort of nailed the whole debate with this:

Yesterday I saw a bicyclist do [insert dangerous, stupid, inconsiderate, boneheaded move here] and it nearly inconvenienced me. This means all bikers better watch out because the responsible, productive, law-abiding members of this community aren’t going to tolerate this kind of of anti-social behavior from you riffraff much longer.

Yesterday I saw a car driver do [insert dangerous, stupid, inconsiderate, boneheaded move here] and kill someone!  A tragedy, but it was an accident, no one’s fault really, just one of those bad parts of living in the modern age that we all have to put up with. After all, anyone can make a mistake. It would be a shame to even suspend the driver’s license over it because they really might need it to get to work. It certainly is no reflection on me or how most people drive.


Come to think of it, nearly 33,000 people were killed by cars last year, and still, no one seems to be talking about the epidemic of unsafe driver behavior. How many people were killed last year by bicyclists?

  • jon winston

    The number of people killed by cars equals three jumbo jet crashes a month, every month. I wonder what the response to that would be?

  • a1

    As I noticed in an article on la.curbed it was mentioned that motorists kill more people. Someone responded “if a cyclist cuts in front of a motorist causing the motorist to hit the bicyclist and the bicyclist dies it’s the bicyclist’s fault but counts against the motorist, don’t over simplify”

  • Justin Larson

    Jon – That’s a great Stat! …source??

  • Anonymous

    @Justin Larson


    although traffic fatalities actually work out to almost 6 jumbo jet crashes a month.

  • Triple0

    In San Francisco, we had a bike rider kill a woman.  Everyone, even former head of the CA Democratic Party claimed that the bike rider should be charged.  Of course, no one bothered to notice that 11 drivers who killed pedestrians in the same year weren’t ever charged.  Frustrating to say the least.

  • Anonymous

    We’ve had the same issues in the UK for years. Times are changing, tolerance for bad driving and deaths and injuries that result is also waning. It does take constant campaigning, letter writing and emailing. It also means having to read through lots of evidence and research and educate yourself.

    Without the stats the arguments mean nothing. I also believe that personal accounts of single incidents don’t paint the picture that large studies do. 

  • Fred123

    The problem here is that the writer reveals an agenda in her words – “nearly inconvenienced me” means the bicyclist really didn’t do anything wrong, right? But we know that it goes beyond inconvenience – bicyclists DO injure and kill (, and the laws are there to protect everyone. Accept that there is the potential for you to hurt and/or kill someone, and act accordingly.

  • mikesonn

    @e54c801d422c02fa51dbe5fc1bf8fc97:disqus What happen in SF was horrible, but also very very rare. He deserves full punishment of the law, but drivers are routinely allowed to drive away from “accidents” (i.e. crashes) without so much as a ticket, let alone a criminal charge. Hence the disconnect.

  • slow and roll

    @e54c801d422c02fa51dbe5fc1bf8fc97:disqus wrote: “…and the laws are there to protect everyone.” 

    The trouble with this implied logic is that it ignores the reality that the laws are car-centric.  Ditto for the road planning, car-centric.  Sensible laws optimized for bicycle safety would be different than the laws we have now.  Why is it just that malformed automobile traffic codes should apply to bicyclists?  We instead should follow the lead of Idaho, which has “slow and roll” laws.

  • Fred123

    So therefore bicyclists should be able to ignore laws and potentially injure people? 

  • Fred123

    Let’s face it – the laws that get ignored (riding on sidewalks, etc.) are generally the ones that “inconvenience” the cyclist. And I’ve been hit (noninjurously so far, fortunately) by such cyclists.

  • mikesonn

    @e54c801d422c02fa51dbe5fc1bf8fc97:disqus What city do you live in? Were the police notified? A report filed?

    Riding on the sidewalk is rare as well. If you see a cyclist on the sidewalk, take a look at the road conditions. No excuse, but probably a good indicator of their intentions.

  • Anonymous

    To Fred123  – “So therefore bicyclists should be able to ignore laws and potentially injure people?”

    No. Everyone has obligations just as everyone has rights. 

    What needs to happen in many places around the world (some European countries are actually very pro-bicycle – The Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland) is for better measures for justice, better provision and information to be available to cyclists (eg in my own country I didn’t know I had the right to take an off-road route until a more experienced rider pointed it out to me).

    And most importantly for better education of drivers to help them realise that we’re a) not their enemy, b) we don’t hate them c) why we ride a certain way sometimes and d) that most adult cyclists in fact drive (they do over here in the UK, from the people I’ve spoken to Stateside it appears the same over there).

  • Joe R.

    @e54c801d422c02fa51dbe5fc1bf8fc97:disqus The problem is the laws as written not only don’t protect everyone, but in some cases actually make it more dangerous.  For example, in many places pedestrians are forbidden to cross except at corners by laws against jaywalking.  And yet crossing in the middle of the street, free from turning cars, is often the safest way to cross.

    The fact is the laws and infrastructure are largely designed with one purpose in mind-to move as many automobiles as possible as fast as possible.  That leaves cyclists and pedestrians on the margins, often fighting each other for the scraps left over.  Even worse, the laws as written often make walking or biking highly sub-optimal, in addition to more dangerous.  As one poster already mentioned, if we designed laws for bikes, then red lights and stop signs would legally be treated as yields, where basically the cyclist must slow or stop to allow any cross traffic to proceed, but otherwise they are not required to stop or wait out the full red cycle.  This acknowledges that cyclists starting from a red with a pack of cars is dangerous, and that constantly stopping and starting greatly decreases the potential range of a cyclist due to physiological limitations.  It also acknowledges that waiting out red lights on a road with lights timed for car speeds can increase trip times by a factor or 2 or 3 or even more.  This is beyond merely an “inconvenience”.  For other modes a delay of even 50% is often considered substantial/unacceptable.  The law shouldn’t require cyclists to routinely endure delays of 200% or 300%, in addition to making cycling more dangerous to boot.

  • Angie,  thanks for the kudos.  I really appreciate the reporting, fact-finding and analysis that Streetsblog does as well as the opportunity for discussion and exploration of ideas that Streetsblog forums make possible.

    As it is evidently unclear, I consider an act that is *dangerous*, *stupid*, *inconsiderate*, *boneheaded* to be bad! Wrong! A big NO in the book of life! And this is whether it is done by a bicyclist or a car driver. The difference between the two is that when a bicyclist pulls this kind of stunt, he/she is mostly likely endangering him/herself. (Yes, there are exceptions!) When a car driver pulls this stunt, he/she is most likely endangering someone other than his/her self. This makes the act both more egregious and more immoral.

    I also want to point out that I am not necessarily talking about breaking laws. I am talking about doing something dangerous (to self or others) and/or inconsiderate. For instance, in San Francisco, when there are no other cars around, the majority of car drivers do not completely stop at four-way stops. Though this is technically against the law (and I do not endorse violating this law and try always to come to a complete stop myself), I don’t think rolling through a stop sign at 1/2 -1 mph is necessarily an unsafe or immoral act if indeed it’s a pretty open intersection and the driver has done a thorough scan to make sure no pedestrians, bikes, cars are anywhere in the vicinity. Any faster, yes, in a city with a lot of pedestrians it is an unsafe, immoral act. Wrong. Bad, bad, bad. (This is a good example of poor road design providing an incentive for illegal behavior. A great deal of current law breaking by both cars and bicycles could be eliminated with the institution of well-designed, low-speed roundabouts in place of four-way stops without any compromise of safety.)

    Bicycling on a narrow sidewalk where there are lots of pedestrians? Wrong. Bad, bad, bad. Get off your bike and walk it. Bicycling on a sidewalk where there are no pedestrians to be seen, traffic on the street is going 45mph, and there are no bike lanes, not even a skimpy shoulder? I personally think you’d be insane not to ride on the sidewalk. (Though in general I hate riding on sidewalks because of the uneven pavement, low hanging tree branches you have to duck under, etc.)

    The difference in lethality between a car and a bicycle is akin to the difference between a baseball bat and a ballpoint pen. Yes, you can kill someone with a ballpoint pen, but it takes some aim, luck, and quite a bit of force. Far easier to do the job with a baseball bat.  Now, I am not endorsing people going around stabbing each other with ballpoint pens. We all should be careful and considerate with our ballpoint pens at all times. But surely we all can see that someone coming at us wildly swinging a baseball bat is far more of a concern?

  • Angie,

    Thanks for doing a good job of making sure I don’t donate to Streetsblog any time soon. 

    Just because a the consequences of a cyclist’s antisocial behavior are likely to be insignificant compared to that of an antisocial automobile driver DOES NOT excuse the cyclist’s bad behavior!!!  To insist that it does, is naive, counterproductive to the cause immature and just plain irresponsible. Karen’s comments have great merit but to say that her thoughts are the true crux of the problem is flat-out wrong.

    Over the years, I’ve nearly been involved in over a dozen serious crashes while riding my bike due to the irresponsible and illegal actions of other cyclists.  While this pales in comparison to the number of incidents I’ve had to deal with that involved irresponsible driving, this only because there are hundreds of drivers on the roads for every cyclists (at least where I live in New Jersey).  If there were more cyclists on the roads I believe that that the numbers of near crashes would be much higher and I’m sure I would have been involved in a crash with another cyclist by now.

  • Back into the echo chamber where motorists and cyclists are vying for the moral high ground, all while f–king the pedestrian.

    Cyclists: good luck with any attempt to lead the conversation about distracted driving or road safety, because as soon as you identify yourself, you’ll wind up in Karen Lynn Allen’s downward spiral.

    You’d think that car insurance companies would have an interest in fewer crashes and deaths. But you’d be wrong: they’ve figured out how to make the status quo serve their interests. AAA? Highway Users Alliance? No, and hell no–respectively.They have yet to embrace road safety and vision zero in any meaningful way. LaHood’s Distracted Driving agenda is the first time (in recent memory) that we’ve had any leadership on road safety.

    The sooner we turn over the task of driving to computers and robots, the better.

  • carmonger

    This is a fun and contentious thread.

    I just want to point out a few things: 
    Andy B / Fred123, No one is excusing irresponsible cyclist behavior.  The point of Karen’s comment was simply to show that there is a double standard, i.e., to point out that irresponsible motorist behavior often is excused or downplayed.  We have become accustomed to thinking about collisions and deaths in terms of “fault” rather than “cause” where generally the party at “fault” is the one who broke the rules more egregiously (or sometimes in the case of a bicycle, it’s the party who made the mistake of being too small to see).  

    As long as a motorist is not at “fault,” then they don’t have to take responsibility for killing and injuring other road users, but that doesn’t mean they’re not responsible. We as a society have made the decision to sacrifice safety for perceived convenience.  We’ve cordoned off road space for enormous, inefficient machines, and created laws to protect their supremacy (as if their bullying size weren’t enough), and if anyone dares to violate those laws and ends up dying then they had it coming. And we choose to ignore the fact that had the driver chosen a more responsible form of transportation, then the danger wouldn’t even exist in the first place.  When considering the damage caused by the collision, there are many “causes,” (even if only one person can be “at fault”) and two that are routinely ignored are the speed and weight of the vehicle.  

    No one can honestly claim that a bike with a passenger weighing possibly 200lbs and traveling at a speed of 15mph is as dangerous as a car weighing 3,000lbs and traveling at 30mph. And before you say “oh but bikes kill people too,” just ask yourself, which would you rather be hit by?  Moreover, a bike “breaking the rules” is less likely to even hit you because a 200lb bike traveling at 15mph is smaller (with less surface area to hit you) and can stop faster. That’s why there are so many stories on this thread about near misses. Where I live in NYC everyone has a story about some jerk cyclist who “almost killed me” but very few people have a collision and far fewer get a serious injury (*invites everyone to share their stories about friends of friends of loved ones of co-workers who were killed by bike messengers*).

    It’s bad enough that the double standard exists at all.  Everyone should be held to the same standard: we should all behave responsibly given the dangers we pose to others. There. Who could disagree? But what makes it more infuriating for the cyclist is that we are held to a higher standard than motorists despite the fact that they are more dangerous.  And if anyone on a bike disobeys a law that was written with cars in mind, then that reflects on everyone who’s ever mounted a bike. We live in a culture where rights for motorists are a given, but for cyclists they must be earned.

  • @2995d81157fecd50fe4b728419a38787:disqus I don’t see where in Karen’s comment she gave cyclists blanket permission to violate the law. Rather, I think the point was that the motoring majority causes a lot more damage and pretty much insists that any collateral damage is worth it because of the advantage provided by cars.
    Yet the actions of a single cyclist breaking the law are cause for uproar and calls for cracking down. When was the last time we saw SFPD cracking down on the routine speed violations committed by drivers racing to beat the lights on Howard or Folsom? I’ve never heard of that happening, but I do recall multiple instances of the SFPD cracking down on cyclists and pedestrians.

    Again, this is not to justify anyone’s law breaking. But if we have limited law enforcement, it seems strange to be so accepting of the major cause of traffic accidents.

  • The number of people killed by motor vehicles is 11 9/11 attacks a year, every year from 2001 on, but we still ignore them and go after the thing that hasn’t killed anyone since 2001. I haven’t been flying since I had my hip implant removed that was holding my leg together since someone tried to kill me for riding a bicycle (long story) did they ever dial back the sensitivity on those metal detectors at the airports so cavity searches are not required for people with orthopedic implants? I mean I know my 2.5 pounds of stainless steel was going to set off a metal detector, that’s why I had it removed when it was no longer required, but do they still do cavity searches for other people with ortho implants?

  • Wow – scanning these comments, I see a LOT of jumping to conclusions about the hypothetical point/counterpoint written above;  NO, PEOPLE, A DRIVER SAYING THEY WERE ‘INCONVENIENCED’ BY A CYCLIST’S WRONG MOVE DOES !NOT! EXCUSE IT!  Wrong is wrong, illegal is illegal, no matter who does it.  The difference is ‘inconvenience V. death/serious injury’.  AND, BTW, these were both presented as views of the everydriver.  They had NOTHING to do with any LAW.

    I am ALL FOR equal, across-the-board enforcement of the law on traffic infractions; if people KNOW there is an unpleasant consequence for what they do, they are less likely to do it!  Right now, because of all the crap of ‘profiling’, ‘civil rights’, the ‘waste of time’ the LEO does by stopping someone for a ‘minor’ infraction, there is no consequence!  No blood, no foul is the order of the day!

    More and more people grow to the age of adulthood (without BECOMING adults, BTW) with the philosophy of “I’m grown, I can do what I please!”  When challenged or reminded of the impropriety of their actions, they will lean over further in the wrong direction to prove that ‘they’re grown’.  Apparently, being a law-abiding citizen is unmanly, immature and mousy, while being a scofflaw is MACHO!

    When did the concept of responsibilities going hand-in-hand with rights die…?


  • Joe R.

    @twitter-361548560:disqus In case you haven’t noticed, police departments don’t exactly have an excess of manpower these days.  To me it’s a matter of prioritizing by going after the most dangerous things first.  When you look at it that way, going after cyclists is pretty close to the bottom of the list on the scale of threats to the general public.  Statistically, it’s right up there with lightning and falling tree limbs.

    As for your comment about people growing up without becoming adults, yes, it’s a problem, and if you ask me this problem was creating by society simply not allowing adults to exercise adult judgement.  In the context of streets, we tell people what to do far too often via stop signs and traffic lights, instead of letting them decide what to do on their own, as adults.  The oft-used excuse is that people have poor judgement.  Sure they do when they’re not allowed to exercise it and develop it.  End result, lawmakers think they need to put even more controls on people, rather than just leaving them to their own judgement.  Top it off with the illusion that perfect obedience to some “perfect” set of rules will promote perfect safety, and you’re left with a nanny state of adult children who are clueless once they’re in a real world do-or-die situation.

    If some cyclists take the initiative of making their own judgements as to what is and isn’t safe without being told, then I’m not seeing that as a bad thing.  As adults, if they screw up, then generally they’re the only ones who suffer as a result.  If others are hurt as a result, then as adults they should be prepared to accept responsibility.  The problem nowadays is not only do most people have poor judgement resulting from being told what to do their entire lives, but we also mitigate the consequences of poor decision making via such constructs as auto insurance.  In other words, there is little incentive to even try to develop a sense of judgement.  I personally want more people to think and act like adults.  Just letting people make their own decisions by removing most of the traffic controls and laws telling them what to do would be a good start.  Sure, we still need some basic rules in place, but merely as a framework, rather than a means of micromanagement as is currently the case.

  • 🙁 this severely one-sided and immature post really makes me not want to follow streetsblog, despite my strong support of transit and livable streets…

  • Answer: bicyclists probably kill fewer Americans than beds. Cars kill 50% more Americans than guns.

    Every single day, I start my bike ride thinking “okay, I’m going to be the paragon of lawful cycling.” I stop at crosswalks and wave people through with an “after you, ma’am,” I dutifully wait for every green light, I let people in, I pick up my bike to get out of the way of cars trying to turn right on red. A few blocks in, once I’ve been cut off by a dozen or so drivers — parked in bike lanes, merging without signaling, gunning it at top speed through lights, sneaking in turns while talking on the phone, throwing open doors, ignoring my signals, blocking crosswalks and bike lanes as they wait to turn — I cave in to the law of the jungle that truly governs the streets.

  • David Chase

    Regarding bikes, cars, and pedestrians, the statistics show that cars are far more dangerous to pedestrians.  Stats from say that 1 pedestrian per year is killed in crashes with “pedalcyclists”, where 3100 are killed in crashes with light trucks and automobiles.  Take a conservative guess of 0.5% ride share, that means that cyclists, with all the alleged law-breaking (as if drivers did not speed, etc, as if that were not very dangerous to pedestrians), are 15 times safer than drivers.  (Even more, if my ride share estimate is too low.)  No matter what’s legal, in terms of results, bicycles deliver — cyclists are the safety experts.  They “cheat”, of course, by only traveling about 15mph, and only weighing 150-250lbs.  To me, the majority of the problem is that most people are more interested in the rules of the game — whether traffic laws are obeyed, whether it is legitimate to consider choice of a lighter slower vehicle as a safety decision — than they are in the results.

  • PF

    What an amazingly self-serving, partisan commentary. The auto deaths statistic included all fatalities involving automobiles, not pedestrian deaths due to automobiles- and it’s the lowest number since 1949. You’re just preaching to the choir here. Besides, there are consequences to motorists who cause accidents, unlike cyclists, who have no licenses or insurance to lose.

  • smallkat

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