The Continuing Scofflaw Debate

Source: RIDE Solutions : Transportation and Sustainability in Southwest Virginia

An accident probably caused by a scofflaw.

The Virginia Bicycling Federation’s Scofflaw blog post continues to get traffic and comments over a year later.  I understand it’s one of their highest-trafficked posts of all time.  This debate over whether bad bicyclist behavior reflects poorly on all bicyclists, how much self-policing the bike community should be responsible for, and the relative risk of bad bicyclist behavior vs. bad driver behavior continues to rage with no clear clear winner.

So, an anecdote.

Last night, I was driving my daughter home from her karate lesson along I-581.  It was about 8:00 and full dark.  At the Orange Avenue onramp, a sporty little red car leaped from the merging lane, climbed up behind me with its engine gunning, then flew into the far left lane.  It sped up until its front bumper was nearly touching the rear bumper of the car in front of it, and proceeded to sort of weave back and forth within the lane in obvious agitation.  As soon as a space had opened up, the car in front of the sporty red speedster ducked back over into the right-hand lane, at which point the impatient driver gunned the engine of his car and leaped forward down the lane.

He was easily going 5-10 miles an hour over the speed limit, flying recklessly through traffic, and following at an unsafe distance, all at night where reaction times and visibility are already compromised.  This clearly was a bad driver.  He (or she, to be fair) was a clear and verfiable scofflaw.

I didn’t think, “Geez, people like that shouldn’t be on the road.”  I didn’t think, “It’s drivers like that who make driving unsafe.  Sports cars just don’t belong on the road with minivans like mine.”  I didn’t think, “See?  That’s why cars shouldn’t be on the road, because of lawbreakers like that.”

I thought, “Geez, what a jerk.”

One driver behaving badly doesn’t reflect on all drivers.  We know that.  And yet, not only do drivers think that about bicyclists, we in the bicycle advocacy profession have an unfortunate tendency to reinforce that perception because of our – understandable – habits of self-policing and calls to behave to a higher standard.

Vehicles on the road – no matter what they are – are operated by people, and many people are jerks.  They’re going to operate their vehicles like jerks.  They’re going to get impatient, or not pay attention, or participate in any number of bad behaviors.  For those people you enforce the law, you punish them when they cause accidents and dangerous situations, and you move on.  You don’t extrapolate their behavior to their whole community, you don’t lecture the whole community because of their actions, and you don’t lose focus of what’s really important:  the commitment to make the roads safer for all users.

You don’t make the roads safer for cyclists by calling out a few bad apples and telling them to behave.  You’re not going to encourage new riders if you make them think they’re automatically going to be associated with the existing bad ones.  You improve infrastructure, you train drivers and cyclists (who, remember, are generally the same people in different situations) on the rules.  Ultimately you create the circumstances which get more people on the road and visible, and you make them more and more a common part of the everyday traffic that every vehicle deals with.


Mr. Holmes brings up a valuable point in trying to make the case that “One driver behaving badly doesn’t reflect on all drivers.” But in fact just the opposite is true. Why?

We judge others by their behavior. We judge ourselves by our intentions.

— Ian Percy

In virtually any society (and especially this one) there are minority groups. You can always tell when a group fits this status because to paraphrase his words:

“One black person behaving badly doesn’t reflect on all drivers.  We know that.  And yet,not only do whites think that about black people, we in the African-American community have an unfortunate tendency to reinforce that perception because of our – understandable – habits of self-policing and calls to behave to a higher standard.”

You could substitute the words in bold for just about any minority group (e.g. LGBT, Sikhs, Muslims,Latinos, etc.) If you are a member of the  majority or at least identify more strongly with it than your own group your reaction will always be to condemn the minority group when one of its member behaves badly and not even realize that this is in fact evidence of the fabled Double Standard.

Most minority group members have long understood this dynamic. And it works its way to the surface in very strange and odd instances. Take for instance the flap over “Gabby Douglas’ Hair: How Did Olympic History Turn Into A Hair Debate?

LONDON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 07: U.S. Olympian Gabrielle Douglas visits the USA House at the Royal College of Art on August 7, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for USOC)

This is essentially a flap created when some African-American women decided to express their dismay in

a string of negative Twitter comments about her “unkempt” hair

Why? Because one black woman in the spotlight is seen by whites as all black women. It gets pretty silly sometimes. But Jim Sensenbrenner (R – Wisconsin) decided to pick on the size and shape of Michelle Obama’s derriere in a recent flap. His remarks were taken as offensive in the African-American community simply because the size and shape of the arses of black women are uniformly thought to be different from those of European women. And the collective group takes offense when one of their number is singled out.

James Sensenbrenner

Never mind the fact the Mr. Sensenbrenner does a remarkable job of impersonating Jabba The Hut, his notion of feminine beauty is distinctly skewed to that of the group to which he belongs. He no doubt sees nothing wrong with have double chins and a bay window, simply because his white colleagues in his age group strongly resemble him.

This stereotyping of one another is what we humans do. It is largely a way of identifying with our own and is no doubt an evolutionary response to living in a world where group identification can mean survival. Long before civilization reigned folks had to find protection within the group. And unless someone was passing out uniforms (which I doubt was happening in pre-history) the next best thing was to be with people that looked like you.

In fact humans are no doubt wired to be distrustful of those who look different. Nothing makes an airline passenger more nervous than to have a swarthy person wearing a turban board the plane and later begin praying at his seat on his knees.

The sad incidence of what we know as 911 occurred because members of the Muslim Community known as Al Qaeda made similar gross assumptions about Westerners and Americans in specific. This problem obviously cuts both ways. We fear and hate Muslims and Radical Muslims return the favor. It is a vicious cycle that can persist (as it did in Northern Ireland) for generations. Here on our own shores the Hatfields and the McCoys fought ceasely until their feud because part of our American lore.

Like it or not bicyclists are part of a minority group. What signals our membership in this group is the fact that we are riding two-wheeled vehicles and wearing in many instances some rather bizarre clothing (Lycra™ and Spandex™) that makes non-riders feel uncomfortable. And to further add distinction to ourselves we like to (especially in urban settings) rig our bikes to have single gears (i.e. fixes) and strap messenger bags to our shoulders even if we are not in that profession. We should understand why we (like street gang members) dress alike. It is our way of self-identifying with our own.

So when we step outside of the boundaries of correct behavior as proscribed by the majority it reflects badly on anyone who might be wearing the uniform or have a different skin color or wear a turban or speak a different language we find ourselves targets. The majority looks to find ways to justify their fear and loathing and bad behavior is an easy means to that end.

Never mind if that same behavior in a majority member is present. On a member of a minority group it is cause to find fault. You can be a young hipster on the ChainLink forum and say that you “hate police, you simply do” and that raises fewer eyebrows than were it a black youth in the Cabrini-Green projects. Why? Simply because the hipster who says this sort of thing is viewed as expressing a viewpoint, while the black youth is possibly declaring war on the majority. The Double Standard is alive and well.

It behooves us all to remember that what we do reflects on others in our subgroup. You can be white and from Europe but if you are Italian you share the burden of the Mafia regardless of how long you have lived here. These stereotypes are what we humans use to make snap judgments that reduce our reaction times when danger is thought to be nearby.

If you are riding your bike home through the West Side of Chicago and you see two white youths walking alongside the roadway you are likely (if you are white) to have a wildly different reaction than if these same two youths were black. And that feeling is one that even elderly blacks might feel. Our society has engrained in us the acceptance of stereotypes. It always has and always will.

Bicycle riders need to consider the fact that what they do will reflect on other cyclists. And to the extent that we openly defy the Rules of the Roadwe reinforce the stereotypes that have grown up around us. Randy Cohen took on the mantle of Malcom X when he wrote his opinion piece “If Kant Were a New York Cyclist“. His was elegant “smack talk” into the face of the motoring majority. It was the issuance of a manifesto of sorts and whether I agree with him or not that single piece was the 911 act on behalf of the cyclist minority.

The rest of the cycling population will have to live with the fall-out from that piece.