The Myth of the Scofflaw Cyclist


Whenever you read an article about cycling in the city, or a discussion of transportation involving cycling it is highly likely that you’ll read a comment like this:

“I will ‘share the road’ when cyclists start ‘obeying the traffic laws.'”

and this

“I always see bikers disobeying traffic signals. They always run red lights going across R Street and Connecticut Ave”

and this

Before encouraging people to cycle and spending millions of pounds of our money in the process, the Government should have down some groundwork to make roads safer for all of us. [WashCycle: Sounds reasonable]

Making cyclists observe a few traffic laws – such as stopping at traffic lights and zebra crossings – would have been a welcome start.[WC: Really? You’d START with cyclists?]

In fact, after Alice Swanson’s death, many comments on the Washington Post, DCist and elsewhere mentioned that something like this was bound to happen because of the illegal manner in which most cyclists ride. Despite the fact that there is no indication that she did anything illegal. [Update: she didn’t do anything wrong, though the police report claims the cause of the crash was excessive speed by the cyclist. She was going well under the speed limit and the driver admits never seeing her, though she was in a bike lane with a green light.]

Which leads to what I call “The Myth of the Scofflaw Cyclist“.

Now then, I’m not trying to claim that cyclists don’t break the law. Let me state clearly and upfront, they do. What I’m saying is that there is nothing unique about the frequency with which cyclists as a class break the law when compared with drivers or pedestrians. And even if cyclists broke the law more flagrantly than others, this would not negate the need to share the road.

Hello? Kettle? You’re Black!

Implicit in all of these types of comments is that drivers (and sometimes pedestrians) constitute the law-abiding sections of society, but these scofflaw cyclists – with their Lycra-clad arrogance (you have to mention arrogance or self-righteousness for it to count) – are a menace to society.

Let’s knock that down first.

Many drivers break the law. I would almost be willing to say that every driver breaks the law, but let’s stick with many. How?

First of all, they speed.

Driver compliance with speed limits is poor. On average, 7 out of 10 motorists exceeded the posted speed in urban areas. Compliance ranged from 3 to 99 percent. Compliance tended to be worse on low-speed roads, better on roads with prima facie limits, or where the speed limit was based on an engineering study. Better does not mean good compliance; less than 10 percent on [sic] the sites had more than 50-percent obedience with the posted speed

In DC, speed cameras were set up at several locations. They recorded 170 infractions per hour (that’s one every 21 seconds for all you poli-sci majors).

And they run red lights

From August 1999 through May 2008, the automated red-light enforcement program has, at 49 locations, resulted in 741,780 notices of infraction.

And stop signs

The overall compliance rate for stop signs was 22.8 per 100 vehicles, ranging from 1.4 per 100 for bicycles to 46.2 per 100 for commuter vans. Compliance increased to 53 per 100 vehicles when pedestrians were present in the crosswalk. [WC: Okay, we’re both guilty here, but the cars aren’t even stopping half the time. More on this below.]

They illegally park

There were 1.67 million parking tickets written last year, up from 1.3 million in 2001, according to statistics provided by the D.C. Department of Public Works (DPW).

They double park and park in the bike lane.

They ignore toll booths

Court records show that among the first cases in Fairfax County last week, five motorists each had fines topping $10,000. A dozen more face penalties higher than $4,000.

They drive drunk and distractedthis being a mere drop in the bucket.

Through October, officers issued 9,484 tickets this year to motorists driving with a cell phone in their hand, according to police statistics.

The number of citations already issued this year is 13 percent more than the 8,358 issued last year. In 2005, police issued 7,523…

Drive aggressively

During the Smooth Operator campaign waves of July, August and September, officers are assigned to target speeding and other forms of aggressive driving. They issue lots of tickets: Almost three million since the campaign began in 1997.

and hit-and-run.

Townsend said, explaining why far more [hit and run] incidents were recorded in Maryland (19,311) last year than in Virginia (6,757). [1500 of these every year are fatal]

Pedestrians, of course, jaywalk.

My point isn’t that two wrongs make a right or that drivers are worse than cyclists. My point is that it’s hypocritical to call your neighbor rude, because his loud stereo makes it difficult for you to focus on your backyard chainsaw sculpting.

Do you think I don’t know the law? Wasn’t it me who wrote it? And this man has broken the law.

Riding on the road, riding on the sidewalk, riding in a traffic lane when a bike lane is presentriding on the road when a bike trail is present, riding in the middle of the lane, riding two abreast, riding without a helmet, riding too slow, holding up traffic, riding through a crosswalk, lane splitting, passing on the right, locking up a bike to street furniture, riding without brake lights…

What do all of these things have in common? I’ve heard or seen each held up as an example of cyclists’ disregard for the law.

And they’re all legal (not in every circumstance, I note). Some are ill-advised perhaps, but all legal.

And cyclists know this. Cyclists in general know the law better than drivers (although Mike Debonis over at Washington City Paper is unsure about lane-splitting and sidewalk riding. Both are legal Mike). And better than the police even. So much of the myth stems not from willful disregard for the law by cyclists, but rampant ignorance of the law by drivers.



Are you crazy, my brother could be coming the other way

As I said before, cyclists do break the law. There is no denying that. Merriam-Webster defines scofflaw as “a contemptuous law violator”. Do cyclists break the law with contempt? Perhaps, but no more so than drivers or pedestrians.

Sometimes cyclists break the law in the exact same ways that drivers do. They fail to signal. They fail to yield the right of way (especially to pedestrians – thethree foot safe passing distance rule goes both ways). They catch an “orange” light. Etc…

Sometimes cyclists break the law in different ways than drivers do. Some cyclists ride at night without proper lighting. Some ride against traffic. Both of these are, IMO, ill-advised. [Though London is looking at making the second of these legal]

But the two biggies are red light and stop sign running. This is the most frequent criticism and the one that really gets the blood to boil. As mentioned above, cyclists run stop signs at much greater frequency than drivers do and I’m sure the same is true of lights.

I once heard Eric Gilliland of WABA on NPR asked the question “What can we do to get cyclists to obey stop lights?” He gave a very non-confrontational answer, saying it was a problem, and that WABA supports education and such. But Gilliland never really answered it, and I think the true answer is “Nothing.” There is no engineering fix and probably no education fix (Let’s face it, most jaybikers are experienced, well-informed cyclists – not that foot-droppers aren’t. Just that they’ve made up their mind). Enforcement would have to be off the chart, and even then would probably have little impact. Seattle fought jaywalkers for years, writing thousands of tickets, as I recall, and finally gave up defeated. You could ban bikes – but I can’t imagine any city doing that these days.

Then someone asked Eric a variation of “Why do cyclists run red lights?” There are several reasons I’ve heard (safety in getting ahead of traffic and in-street sensors which do not detect cyclists, for example) but the basic answer is a classic risk/reward scenario. Jaybikers are calculating that the reward of keeping momentum or gaining the early start outweighs the risk of being caught or hit. People are notoriously bad at calculating risk and reward (sub-prime mortgage crisis anyone?) so I won’t weigh in on whether they’re right or wrong, but I’ll just leave it at that’s what they’re thinking.

This, coincidentally, is the same reason why drivers and pedestrians run red lights.

Let’s talk about red-light running. There are two types of red-light running: “catching an orange” – or running the start of a red light – which every class of users does; and jaywalking or jaybiking – waiting for the intersection to clear and then crossing against the light – which only pedestrians and cyclists do.

Therefore, a better question is “Why don’t drivers ‘jaydrive’?”

Is it because they love the law so much? Did you skip the previous section?

It’s because their risk/reward calculation is coming up with a different answer. And that makes sense. In a car, you’re several feet farther back from the intersection and you’re often a foot or two lower than on a bicycle, meaning you can’t see as well (I bet those on recumbents don’t jaybike as often as those on standard bikes). In a car, you’re in a soundproof enclosure, so you have no stereoscopic hearing. And if you make a mistake you aren’t as maneuverable as you would be on a bike or on your feet. You can’t just ditch to the sidewalk. Drivers don’t jaydrive because, in their own estimation, they can’t. If they could, I’m sure they would.

Still, that doesn’t explain the anger. Drivers get – I feel – irrationally angry about this. I wondered why for so long; and then an anthropologist friend of mine helped me to understand. Running a red light is so dangerous for cars that it isn’t just illegal, it’s taboo. You’re breaking a social construct. That means people find it objectionable and abhorrent. So if education is needed, maybe it’s needed to explain why it’s safer for cyclists to do it than for drivers.

Which goes back to the question of what can be done about jaybiking. I said there was nothing, but that’s not true. I’ve told this story before, but here it is again. As a college professor told it to me.

On a campus, campus planners laid out the sidewalk to a building in the shape of an L. Students ignored the sidewalk to walk along the hypotenuse wearing a path in the grass. The school planted hedges to “guide” them. Students cut a rut through them. The school put up a fence. Students climbed over it until the fence broke. Fed up, the school got an architect to design a fix. She tore up the old sidewalk and laid another new one along the path. Problem solved.

The same can be true of red lights. The way to end jaybiking violations is to decriminalize them. As Lee Watkins pointed out

stop lights didn’t need to be invented until there were too many cars in NYC, etc. leading to something new – car accidents, making streets a place to be feared. The purpose of all the traffic lights, signs, and lines – is to prevent CARS from running into everything else.

Idaho has changed its law – and California is considering it – to allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, and stop lights as stop signs. This (and the article about allowing wrong-way cycling) is the same as moving the sidewalk. Streetsblog argues for this – and that the way to end wrong way biking is to get rid of one-way streets.

I’m not saying that cyclists should break the law. Nor am I saying they shouldn’t. But we all know it’s safer for cyclists to run lights than it is for cars. Shouldn’t we evaluate the need for these laws? One of the best arguments for being a foot-dropper is “if bicyclists want to be respected like other vehicles, they have to obey the same rules.” But, if the law were to change. how many cyclists would really sit through the whole light cycle when there was no traffic anyway? Would this make cyclists less safe?

Lee also talked of ‘Naked Streets’ and there is a lengthy article on them in the Atlantic.

Hey jerk, don’t be a name-caller?

I try not to be a hypocrite. I try not to say that such-and-such action was wrong because it was illegal, but because it was dangerous. This is a philosophy that has evolved over the three years I’ve been writing this blog. As I’ve said before, I don’t care if you break the law (like driving without a license); just be safe and be courteous.

The premise that cyclists’ behavior somehow voids their right to sharing the road is indefensible. “Well officer, I thought it was OK to hit this cyclist because several blocks back I saw another run a red light” is not something anyone could defend. This becomes an increasingly difficult premise when one considers that, as I’ve tried to point out, cyclists aren’t behaving any differently than drivers or pedestrians. They’re taking liberties with law where they think it’s safe to do so. Right or wrong, that is what every class does.

Once we clear up this myth, we can work on the one about how cyclists bring crime.

that basket on my bike is not just for groceries, it is for the goods that I rob from people while pleasure cruising down a rail trail.

This could be harder than I thought.