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.

409 thoughts on Busting the Myth of the “Scofflaw Cyclist”

  1. some punk rode in between cars at a red light. He tore off my passenger side mirror, voting me 5 hundred dollars, I honestly cannot afford. He was fine, the turd flap, and just rode away. biking is my primary mode, creeps like this guy give all riders a back eye, and make it all the more dangerous for everyone.

  2. Getting off the road is what we’re sick of being forced to do, we want to use the road without the ridiculous amount of danger, the death threats, the road rage etc. Everything you complain about cyclists doing to drivers, we’re sick of drivers doing it to us on the roads, and we’re sick of being expected to use bike lanes that aren’t designed for safety.

  3. I didn’t dismiss anything, I argued that if the behavior of cyclists didn’t improve, it’s probably because whatever was installed didn’t actually do anything to keep them safe on the road… so in addition to the nasty sidewalk cyclists not switching to the road, the courteous careful cyclists never materialized because they never had a place to be, so they’re still on the bus and they don’t show up on your cyclist radar.

  4. Some punk used his car to push me into oncoming traffic. Used the right turn lane to get up beside me while I was going straight through the intersection, and then tried to merge into my lane, while I was there, pushing me into the oncoming lane. If the driver in the oncoming lane hadn’t stopped traffic to avoid hitting me, it would have caused an accident.

  5. Some punk came up right up behind me the other day as I was in the curb lane. I was looking behind me every few seconds, so I’d have the opportunity to pull over and let cars by if there was traffic behind me. This guy comes up so fast, I didn’t even notice him ’til he was within a meter of my back wheel. I’m going as fast as I can to avoid holding anyone up, but of course the cars are doing 60 in the 40 zone so they came up on me super fast. Had to slow down to pull over, so I was worried about getting hit from behind.

  6. Some punk threatened to kill me if I didn’t get off the road and let him pass. We had one lane to work with, traffic was moving at like 10mph so there was no advantage to him moving past me, he just couldn’t stand the idea of a cyclist in front of him. So right in front of his wife, he threatened to run me over if I didn’t get out of his “way.”

  7. I find that the cyclist behavior I observe really does depend on the infrastructure. Yesterday’s ride was a perfect example. In the spots where there’s no way to safely bike through, all the cyclists were on the sidewalk. As soon as I got into an area that was safe for cyclists, they were all on the roads, stopping where they’re supposed to, yielding like they’re supposed to. Same thing with drivers: in spots that are designed to exclude everyone else and promote competition among drivers, they break the law like crazy. And on small, simple road systems, they’re really quite safe.

  8. Except the infrastructure that already has changed that, and the infrastructure that will be built in the future, having the same effect.

  9. Which is not the fault of pedestrians nor cause for cyclists to exercise ememinent domain on sidewalks.

  10. You led with the term “transportation infrastructure” and “road”can mean freeway.

  11. Fuck you. I’m not suggesting more freeways, I’m suggesting cyclists cultivate pedestrians and bus-riders as allies. A good first step would be to admit you have more than your fair share of arrogant ninnies among you, which the article seems bent on casting in a euphemistic light.

  12. Stop cheering articles like this and you cyclists might get us pedestrians to add our voices to yours about distracted driving. We get hit by these assholes, too.

  13. I sympathize, but pedestrians aren’t your enemy and pointing out your travails with motorists won’t get you far with them and indeed only makes it look like you’re rationalizing cyclist misbehavior.

  14. no but it does explain why the cyclists who remain are the type who are willing to break the law and put pedestrians at risk… all the other cyclists have been eliminated from the picture

  15. Hmm, this otherwise fair point doesn’t take into account the fact that deaths of US cyclists from crashes with cars have declined for over 40 years. Granted, nobody but a rigid mind would argue all cyclist shenanigans stem from arrogance, but the facts seem to be that motorists are more considerate than they’ve ever been. Meager soup, but apparently true.

  16. What you say is true to an extent.

    But that doesn’t account for what one witnesses in the bike lane on New York’s Ninth Avenue, a one-way street which features ideal protection for the left-side bike lane, and even has separate signals for bikes and for left-turning cars. Bikes have the green while turning cars are held with a red arrow; then the light for bikes turns red while the left-turning cars get the green arrow. When I am stopped at intersections on this street that have this arrangment, I invariably see other cyclists riding through the intersection while the left-turn arrow is green and the bike signal is red. Some of the worst bicyclists completely ignore the bike lanes on that avenue and other Manhattan avenues, illegally riding in the car lanes.

    So, while we can say that bad infrastructure promotes and exacerbates bad bicyclist behaviour, we cannot say that bad infrastructure creates bad bicyclist behaviour.

    Thinking of those idiot New York cyclists whom I described above makes me long to make another visit to Washington, where stopping at red lights is the normal practice for bicyclists. In Washington I can enjoy the beautiful sight of groups of bicyclists — young and old; male and female; sporty and commuter-type — stopped at red lights like civilised people, and I don’t have to experience the embarassment caused by seeing those many New York bicyclsts who act against our collective interests by pissing off observers.

    The trolls with whom you are (unwisely) engaging in this comment section are just exaggerated versions of the monsters that have been created by the misdeeds of some of our fellow bicyclists.

  17. Actually, my town is a Mecca for cyclists. They come here from all over the world to bask in our glory and enjoy our scenery . They are pampered beyond belief , but still refuse to treat pedestrians as human. We have equestrians, hikers, motorists and drivers that have: been killed by cyclists, been beaten unconscious by cyclists, children that have had their life course changed drastically after suffering skull fractures from a cyclist, hikers very high up in age with broken bones from them, hikers beaten by them, equestrians paralyzed from them, parents terrified by them, disabled persons made into shut-ins by them and even babies knocked out of their prams by them. WE are doing something about it.

  18. No it does not. The cyclists absolutely do not have to do that. They can dismount . Cyclists who do that are doing something that comes from a dark place.

  19. The infrastructure of bike lanes has made it worse. Cyclists still refuse to stop at crosswalks and intersections and at stop signs.

  20. Please. Do not pee on my leg and tell me it is raining. You fully support cyclists endangering pedestrians on the sidewalk. It is in your other comments.

  21. and I’m sick of being excluded from the road and having “bad cyclist behavior” continually cited as an excuse to keep the exclusion going

  22. What kind of roads have they been pampered with? What kind of bike lanes? Do they link together into an actual network?

  23. So the sidewalks are all wide enough to accommodate a cyclist walking their bike with enough room for other pedestrians coming from the other direction? Because where I live, there’s a lot of places that can’t be avoided, which have sidewalks that are so narrow that cyclists actually stay mounted in order to NOT hit pedestrians. So we’ve got cyclists trying to go fast enough to maintain their balance as they pass pedestrians on the sidewalk. I’m asking for wider sidewalks so I can walk through these spots, because I know they’re not willing to put bike lanes in. And I just want to be able to safely walk my bike through there. So I can spend the next ten years spending 40% of my time walking through 10% of my route distance, so drivers can have extra turning lanes and stuff.

  24. Is there any type of bike lane that you’ve seen that is successfully getting these cyclists off the sidewalks? Or any types of road that cyclists are willing to use, where they don’t seem to stick to the sidewalk?

  25. I fully support cyclists endangering pedestrians on the sidewalk? What other comments is that in?

  26. Yeah, they’re totally not the enemy. They’re additional victims. The drivers victimize the cyclists, and the cyclists either give up or victimize the pedestrians. Most cyclists give up because they’re not willing to endanger pedestrians, they’re not willing to try to figure out a safe way to bike on the sidewalk, they fail to figure out a safe way to share the road with high-speed traffic, and they encounter sidewalks that are too narrow to share with oncoming pedestrians while walking with their bikes. And they can’t find a way around these spots. It’s like if you took way all the safe drivers, and just the crazies remained, you’d look around and be like “wow, drivers are nuts.” And you’d be right, because all the drivers around you would be nuts. And this explains why there’s this huge discrepancy in cyclist behavior where in some spots we’re totally safe and in other spots we’re mowing people down.

  27. That is not the issue. They agreed to accommodate concerns about pedestrian safety by installing flashing amber lights over the crosswalks. The pedestrian pushes the button and they flash. The cars stop, for the most part. The cyclists go right through. And they go right through the STOP signs, without even turning their heads to look for pedestrians. The bike lanes do not address the cyclist’s need for speed. If they come to a red light, they want to keep their momentum going and so fly up on the sidewalk via driveways and wheelchair cut ins, with no regard for pedestrians and around blind corners on the sidewalk. All for convenience and totally selfishly. They are on STRAVA and GRINDR and they could care less about pedestrian safety. Infrastructure will never address the fact they are totally irresponsible to pedestrians.

  28. So no matter what kind of cycling protection they installed – lanes, bike tracks, separated, non-separated – they just wouldn’t stop at lights or stop signs, and wouldn’t even yield to pedestrian traffic?

  29. …and what convenience are they getting out of violating the pedestrians right of way? Like are they saving themselves any time or just doing it to be annoying? I’ve found sometimes people do ridiculous stuff just to remind everyone else that they can, or it seems like that’s why they’re doing it but it’s really because they incorrectly think that they’re going to get something out of it. That’s when I’ve ended up doing ridiculous things on the road… when I’m anticipating too much and I pull some move that gets me nowhere. It’s not always easy to see the difference in intention. Either way it’s either selfish or desperate or inattentive, or some combination.

  30. Dude if you knew where I lived you would not consider me an exaggeration in the least. The cyclist behavior here is unbelievable. It is an extreme and a powder keg. I am mild compared to the tsunami about to hit cyclists if one more paralyzed equestrian, child with life time consequences from a skull fracture, pedestrian in the crosswalk fatality, older woman walking outside her retirement community is hit and gets a broken hip, car driver is pulled out of his car and beaten unconscious with a u lock and permanently disfigured or hiker in her sixties is thrown down a ravine off a hiking trail. there is nothing out of line to my reaction. I am living in a place of cyclist extremes. Violent cyclists.

  31. The bicyclist in that incident was not at fault in the crash, and there is no indication that he was riding illegally. He was not cited or charged with a crime.

    Bicycles were not banned from the road where the incident took place. They were banned from a nearby nature preserve.

    Get off your high horse, and stop using these tragedies to support your obnoxious crusade.

  32. The survey is wrong. I pay attention and EVERY cyclist I see zips past Stop signs. EVERY one.

    Cyclists also often zip past me when I’m in a cross walk. Go through red lights. Always riding on sidewalks, even when there’s a bike lane a few feet away. Riding against traffic. Cutting through streets (i.e., from one alley to the alley across the street).

    I pay attention to scofflaw cyclists vs. those who obey the rules, and the latter are almost non-existent. So I call BS on this “survey.”

  33. Cyclists have no business being on the road. Streets are for motorized vehicles. Sidewalks are for pedestrians. Bikes should be limited to bike parks devoted to that purpose. All bikes on streets or sidewalks should be impounded and sent to the scrap metal yard.

  34. That’s like saying, “Hey, burglary isn’t murder, so the police should ignore burglars.”

  35. Nobody said anybody should ignore anything. The fact is since bicyclists don’t speed we’re left with infractions that are considerably more serious.

  36. Sounds like you need a driver’s training refresher course. Or your license revoked until you learn the laws.

  37. In most places cyclists are allowed to do just that. If I want the whole lane as a cyclist, I have a legal right to it. Ride on sidewalk? Yep, legal in plenty of places.

  38. No they freakin don’t blow through at top speed. Every one of them slows and looks to see if it’s safe. They probably don’t slow to your satisfaction, but when a 200 lb dude on a 30 lb bike hits a 4000 lb car, they know they’ll lose. Nobody’s risking that.

  39. No more arrogant ninnies than the text-while-drivers, the running-red-lighters, the rolling-through-stop sign-ers, the speeders, the not-yielding-to-pedestrian-ers. Get off your high horse.

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