New study shows that "scofflaw cyclists" don't break the law any more than drivers

at red light
CC BY 2.0 Lloyd Alter/ Cyclists stopped at red light in Copenhagen

It is a standard trope that cyclists ignore red lights, blow through stop signs and generally ignore all the traffic rules that govern cars and are not very nice to law abiding pedestrians either. People on bikes are often told that "If cyclists want legitimacy, they should obey the rules of the road”. And indeed, a new study find that cyclists do break the rules fairly often. But guess what? So do drivers and pedestrians, just as often.

Authors Wesley Marshall, Aaron Johnson and Daniel Piatkowski nail the issue in the first line of the abstract: (PDF here)

Nearly everyone has jaywalked, rolled through a stop sign, or driven a few miles per hour over the speed limit, but most such offenses face no legal consequences. Society also tends to see these relatively minor infractions that almost all people make—though they are unmistakably illegal—as normal and even rational. Bicyclists who break the law, however, seem to attract a higher level of scorn and scrutiny.

But as Aaron Johnson told Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog,

“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.”

Palmerstion AvenueLloyd Alter/ Palmerston Avenue, Toronto, with stop signs every 266 feet to slow down cars/CC BY 2.0

I have complained about this often, how where I live they put stop signs every 266 feet to slow down cars that used to speed through the residential area, that have nothing to do with right of way or bicyclists but everything to do with cars cars and cars. Or, Why cyclists roll through stop signs: It's really bad design.

The authors also look at how drivers break the law mainly to save time, (killing many people at red lights). The numbers are significant:

When including driving and pedestrian scenario responses—such as how often respondents drive over the speed limit or jaywalk—100% of our sample population admitted to some form of law-breaking in the transportation system (i.e., everybody is technically a criminal). When disaggregating by mode, 95.87% of bicyclists, 97.90% of pedestrians, and nearly all drivers (99.97%) selected responses that would be considered illegal.

thresholds for cyclists© The majority of rules broken are minor infringements.

But cyclists often break the law out of concern for their own safety.

For instance, some bicyclists feel that perfectly legal bicycling maneuvers—such as “taking the lane”—cede too much control of the situation over to the drivers. Thus, on seemingly dangerous roads, they would rather ride illegally on the sidewalk than risk getting hit by an inattentive driver.

Dufferin streetDufferin at dusk; crowded street and empty sidewalk/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I will admit to riding on empty sidewalks on big suburban arteries because I was afraid to rid on the fast moving street. Commenters were not impressed. But there is a reason this happens. Long excerpt from conclusion:

When it comes to rule-breaking bicyclists, one popular opinion is that if bicyclists want to be taken seriously as road users, they need to obey the rules of the road like everyone else. Our survey results and the literature review both suggest that drivers break the rules of the road just as much, if not more, than bicyclists. The other common argument is that cities need to step up bicycle law enforcement to improve safety. While bicyclists are certainly not immune from causing harm, the literature suggests lower societal costs and safety risks associated with lawbreaking bicycling as compared to lawbreaking driving. Drivers speed, roll through stop signs, park in bike lanes, and run lights that have just turned red while still considering themselves to be law-abiding citizens. Despite research showing a causal link between such driving behaviors and increased crash rates, injuries, and fatalities, society continues to see these behaviors as rational decisions within our transportation system, other than in the relative minority of places that take Vision Zero as more than a buzzword. Our results suggest that bicyclists seem to be making the same rational choices.

StoppingLloyd Alter/ a red light in Copenhagen/CC BY 2.0

They finally conclude by noting that “the current iteration of our transportation system was not designed with bicycles in mind, and most bicyclists seem focused on surviving in a system designed for a very different mode of transportation.” And indeed, in Copenhagen where the roads are designed to accommodate both bikes and cars, people on bikes do, for the most part, stop at red lights, even at T intersections.

So really, instead of calling cyclists scofflaws, drivers should look in the mirror.

Tags: Bike-Friendly World | Bikes | Biking | Cities


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