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.

  • Douglas Presler

    No less arrogant, either. Your high horse emits a lot of shit, even if you’re loathe to admit it. I’ve seen cyclists engage in every one of the behaviors you decry in your retort, except rolling stops. Cyclists don’t bother to stop, as is evidenced by the ones who get hit by cars who have the right of way (we had one killed in Minneapolis recently.)
    I know from your previous commentary that you’re wedded to the idea that all motorists are dedicated to being obtusely inattentive, the better to martyr you two-wheelers, but the fact is that in forty years, while the US population has risen by well more than third, with many more cars on the road, cyclist deaths, which were heretofore at least a thousand annually, haven’t reached that awful number since the Carter years. Somebody in a car is paying attention to cyclists. Just as some (perhaps many) cyclists would be spared injury or worse if they stopped acting like they own the fucking road.

  • hokietrax

    You almost get it. Almost. Each class (driver, cyclist, pedestrian) engages in distracted whatever.

    Cycling deaths staying relatively flat while the population increases is (a) incomplete analysis and (b) correlative; just as useless is the argument that “somebody in a car is paying attention….”

    I look around and see fully 1/3 of drivers looking at phones; it’s interesting to me that you seem to frame cyclists as the enemy–primarily because of their “arrogance.” Cars are clearly the bigger threat to pedestrians as well.

    The best thing for everyone is protected bike lanes along with sidewalks, which gets cyclists off “your” sidewalk, and out of “their” streets. But when the bill comes, and you already have your sidewalks, are you ready to pay for something that helps everyone?

  • Douglas Presler

    I’m more than ready. Have been probably longer than you’ve been alive. I never said and would not like motor vehicles having a monopoly on the roads. I don’t mind higher taxes to achieve a fair situation. I suspect that’s more than you’re willing to do.

    But, okay, let’s set aside ascribing the lowest possible motivation to you. If you get these lanes, are you ready to dump your sanctimony and admit it’s rarely—if ever—been better for cyclists? Because, you see, execrable as motorists often are, they ARE more careful than they’ve ever been and they AREN’T acting one minute as if nobody ever honors their vehicular rights (like cyclists so often do when some nimrod in a car opens his door without looking to see if a bike is coming), the next minute as if their bikes are the equivalent of my pre-school age niece’s toy wagon (like cyclists do when they careen down the sidewalk which is just as much mine as it is theirs.)

    We both know you assholes won’t stick to lanes, no matter how extensive and protected they are. You long ago proved you don’t give a shit about anything but your sweet selves. Even this lame article can only say you’re no worse than motorists. What a comfort!

    I did mention, didn’t I, that I don’t drive?

  • hokietrax

    If there’s a logic you seem to really get into with cyclists it’s the time-honored ad hominem. And for someone who seems to be overly proud of their intellect, it’s too bad–it buries some decent points you might otherwise make.

    According to the CDC, pedestrian deaths are likely decreasing per capita for a number of reasons. Driver care may be one (they don’t mention this), but it’s just as likely more and better sidewalks, pedestrian paths, playgrounds away from streets,
    one-way traffic flow, and restricted on-street parking.

    So the takeaway is: if you de-stress things for pedestrians, they gravitate to it. People don’t tend to walk in streets alongside traffic when they have good sidewalks, right?

    Same thing for cyclists. Give me a place to ride where stress is lower for me (as in, less interaction with traffic), I’m going to gravitate to it. We both want a buffer. If there’s a cycling lane, I’m there. As much as you don’t want cyclists on “your” sidewalk, I’d rather not ride where pedestrians are. But if all I have to choose from is a sidewalk or a dangerous road, I’m getting on to the sidewalk.

    However crappy your personal interaction with cyclists, the hasty generalizations and caricatures don’t really make you sound like someone who really believes in the “alliance” you claim would be good for both causes. I walk plenty, so I understand the pedestrian perspective. If you don’t already, you should bike your city. Taking advantage of 160+ miles of bikeways could give you a different perspective.

  • Douglas Presler

    At no time have I ever held that increased motorist respect is the sole reason cyclist deaths have held steady over decades rven as car traffic has increased. But it’s fatuous to say it has nothing to do with any of it.
    I’m glad you are not the sort of cyclist that wants to annoy pedestrians, but ones who don’t care about anyone but themselves are legion. They really do want it all ways in their favor and will continue this jejeune trope even when they get it. Pointing this out is neither caricaturing them nor a sign that I’m insincere about my general view that cyclists’ concrete demands are reasonable. Do I have to like them too?
    Cycling doesn’t do much for me. Sorry to disappoint you. I get that way when people tell me they don’t think bowling will change their perspective.

  • hokietrax

    Okay, let’s break this down. You say motorists are more careful. Based solely on a shallow numbers “analysis.” We’re approaching 4000 distracted driving deaths a year. So roughly 10%. Fatalities per 100,000 people have been ticking up since 2010.

    So the argument that drivers are more careful doesn’t hold water. From a god’s eye view, sure, it looks as if things are getting safer if you only equate fewer deaths to more safety.

    According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 2015 fatalities attributable to distracted driving increased on a percentage basis faster than those caused by drunk driving, speeding, or failing to wear seat belts.

    Cycling deaths have increased steadily since 2009. I don’t have detailed stats, and nothing that proves correlation. But I’m willing to bet a very high percentage of those are where cars are involved.

    You don’t want to ride, I don’t really have a stake in it. I was just pointing out that it might help you understand the cycling perspective better.

    “cyclists who don’t care about anyone but themselves are legion”; “you assholes won’t stick to lanes”; “the better to martyr you”…these are absolutely caricatures

    Happily standing by for support to any of your arguments about vehicle safety, or a rebuttal that would reframe your hyperbole as possibly supportable by facts.

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