Scofflaw Cyclists: Outside our influence?

POSTED ON APRIL 18, 2012 BY DAVE SCHLABOWSKE, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR

Source: Bike Federation of Wisconsin

Recently there was an interesting thread on the Milwaukee Bike to Work Yahoo email group. It all started with this:

“Saw something interesting today. While stopped at a RED LIGHT heading south at 6thand Michigan today at approximately 1:00pm, a person wearing red shorts, wearing no gloves, no eye protection and no helmet pulled up beside me. Since he apparently thought RED LIGHTS do not apply to him he got up on his pedals and blew through the red light while other law-abiding users of the road choose to obey the traffic laws and stayed put waiting for the green light. I thought to myself now here is someone who is not going to make it to my age.

As I turned west onto Canal street, I was on the bike path on the north side of the road, I soon saw the red shorted bike rider several blocks down the road. Apparently he thought he was in a bike race and he thought of paying no attention to the many crossings on this stretch of the Hank Aaron trail. Also those blinking caution signs facing both west and east bound users also did not apply to him. I soon lost sight of him.

When I got to 16th street I casually glanced to my right and saw the red shorted bike racer brushing himself off while a car was stopped alongside of him. I don’t know if the car hit him or he was just careless and fell. My guess he was just stupid and the car stopped to help him out. I was half tempted to ride up to him and say something but I thought what the hell Darwin’s Law will take care of him soon enough.”

This was another interesting follow-up comment:

“More likely the guy will live to a wiser age, but because he is reckless, he will have close shaves with cars and other hazards. By the time he hits 30 he will think of biking in the street as something he did back when he was “young and stupid.” He will advise others not to ride in the street because it is “dangerous.” He will have harrowing tales to tell that paper over his own culpability and enhance the image of bikers as vulnerable to the whims of car drivers.

In the meantime, others who observe his behavior will have their image of bicyclists as scofflaws confirmed. This will make the chances that they themselves will take up biking for transportation or fitness even more remote, since in their minds, bikers tend to be maniacs or daredevils.

What can be done? I would be all for increased enforcement of traffic laws, so long as the cops also equally enforce the most commonly broken laws, ie, the speed limit, and the law that requires vehicles to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.”

I sometimes have similar social Darwinism thoughts when I see people on bikes do seemingly crazy things, but as a bicycle advocate and safety instructor, it is part of my job to actually try to do something about it. But what can we do?

Do we yell out at scofflaws on bikes to ask that they obey the law as they pedal off through the red light?  I don’t think those sorts of interactions with people we don’t know are effective at changing behavior. We are most effective if we work with people within our personal circle of influence who share our concerns. Who is in that circle of influence and how effective we are at changing their behavior varies depending the situation and the issue.

We are bad, but not the worst according to the intersection studies I did when I worked for the City of Milwaukee DPW. Note the worst case example of bicycles was this 2010 count at Water and St. Paul in which 48% made illegal maneuvers. Counts at other locations showed better compliance and motorist failure to yield compliance were as bad as 100% did not yield.

We are bad, but not the worst according to the intersection studies I did when I worked for the City of Milwaukee DPW. Note the worst case example of bicycles was this 2010 count at Water and St. Paul in which 48% made illegal maneuvers. Counts at other locations showed better compliance and motorist failure to yield compliance were as bad as 100% did not yield.

We are bad, but not the worst according to the intersection studies I did when I worked for the City of Milwaukee DPW. Note the worst case example of bicycles was this 2010 count at Water and St. Paul in which 48% made illegal maneuvers. Counts at other locations showed better compliance and motorist failure to yield compliance were as bad as 100% did not yield.

I am pretty sure of my entire family is within my circle of influence and because we share many (but not all) family values, our circles of concerns overlap on most issues. For instance my wife and daughter know I care a lot about obeying traffic laws, and they are pretty law-abiding on bikes and behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. My friends are also within my circle and we share common values, but I have been pretty ineffective at getting many of them to drive the speed limit and stop for pedestrians, even though I politely remind them when they violate the law.

Getting road users of any mode to obey the traffic laws seems to be particularly problematic.  Millions of dollars have been spent on education, enforcement and encouragement to try to get people to drive the speed limit, stop distracted driving, and stop drunk driving, with little positive effect. It’s like trying to eliminate fights from professional hockey. The videos below are from a Dutch campaign to try to stop speeding. In a country that has incredibly intensive drivers ed, strict licensing, strong enforcement and BIG fines, they still have trouble with speeding.

If the Dutch can’t get motorists to stop speeding, do we have any hope of getting more people on bikes to obey the laws given there are comparatively extremely limited resources available for bicycle education, enforcement and encouragement programs? Should we just give up?

My hopeful view of our cycling community.

My hopeful view of our cycling community.

Personally, I still have hope. To begin with, as I have written in previous posts, bicyclsts are statistically more law-abiding than motorists. So we start out with a small head start in the race to become law-abiding road users.

Because I have hope, if I am doing a group ride that includes people I don’t know, at the start I typically mention that I stop at red lights just so they know.  I don’t demand everyone on the ride do the same, but based on experience, either I tend to ride with law-abiding people or those statements have been effective. I also avoid group rides that I know blow red lights.

At the Bike Fed, if we give up, we should probably close the doors. The doors are wide open though, and our Share & Be Aware and our Safe Routes to Schoolprograms are the biggest programs at the Bike Fed by far. Each year through those programs, our instructors provide bicycle education to thousands of adults and children. But since millions of people in Wisconsin ride bikes annually, we are clearly missing most people.

Our Share & Be Aware program reaches millions of people each year with messages to motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians about the rules of the road. Still, as I mentioned above, the funding for those programs in minuscule compared to the money spent trying to get people to stop speeding and driving drunk.

So why do I think we can reduce the number of people on bikes who run red lights if we can’t get people in cars to stop speeding? It goes back to those circles. I think people who share a love of cycling tend feel themselves to be part of a sort of extended family. Like any family, many of their circles of concerns overlap. For this reason, the areas of influence where all the circles overlap is greater as well.

I don’t think that people feel the same in their cars. There doesn’t seem to be a happy community of automobile drivers. It almost seems the almost the opposite is true as is evident by the road rage that motorists exhibit to each other. Lately for instance, I have noticed more and more angry drivers honking at other cars when they make perfectly legal turns in front of them. I guess when many people are driving a car they fell that anyone who slows them down is a jerk. Outside of races, I think most people on bikes are  really nice to each other and generally very courteous, even if not everyone obeys all laws.

Like any generality, this does not include everyone, so excuse me if you don’t fit my stereotype. I’m an exception since when I drive, I always obey the speed limit and believe my personal safety and happiness improve when I obey all laws.

So, what can be done about those cyclists who break the laws? Set an example by obeying the traffic laws yourself. Beyond that is up to you, but remember that your ability to influence others, even within our relatively close-knit cycling community, is limited. If it is a really important issue to you, you can talk to your cycling friends about it. Tell them how you feel, don’t tell them what to do. Want to have a bigger impact?  You can become a certified cycling instructor and volunteer to teach bike safety in your community. Don’t have time for that but still want to work to cut down on the number of scofflaw cyclists? You can support the Bike Fed’s Safe Routes or Share & Be Aware programs with your membership or special targeted donations.

Remember though, like any other similar issue you care deeply about, the most important thing you can do is to be the change you want to see in others.