Why Cyclists Break Traffic Laws?

Background Reading


A bicyclist uses a bike lane along L St. NW in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matt McClain for The Washington Post)

A bicyclist uses a bike lane along L St. NW in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matt McClain for The Washington Post)

There was a time when bicyclists vehemently denied that their behavior was anywhere as reckless as that of motorists. But slowly we are gaining a sense of ownership of our behaviors. What has now happened just yet is an understanding of just how much these lapses damage our collective reputation:

Reply by Haddon 54 minutes ago
I’m going to be honest and say I disobey far more traffic laws on a bike than I ever did in a car.

In a car I’ll wait out forever lights that I will not on a bike. For one there are traffic cameras and I don’t even think they register cycles let alone know where to send the ticket. The view is so unobstructed its crazy to wait.

I didn’t much ride on the sidewalk in the car but this does happen on the bike. Also going down one-way streets the wrong way happens (we all do this one) as does rolling on the wrong side of the road. I’ll do uturns all over the place, double yellow lines are suggestions, and when traffic is backed up at an intersection I’ll roll right up to the front rather than wait in line behind cars.

I would bet anyone they break all sorts of traffic laws all the time. Part of this is the convenience of riding a bike and part of this drivers knowing that most of these actions don’t impact their driving all that much and the’ll let it go.

The Washington Post article begins in this fashion:

In full disclosure, I have scoffed the law while cycling. In my neighborhood at night, when there’s no one around, I have rolled through a stop sign. I have paused at an intersection, “no turn on red,” and then done exactly that on a bike. I do these things … occasionally.

“I do, too,” says Wesley Marshall, now that we’re confessing. “If I’m sitting at a red light next to a bunch of cars, and there are no cars crossing, I’ll go through the red light to establish myself in the street in the next block, because I feel like I’m safer doing that.”

I have done this, too, and for the same reason: because it feels less dangerous to get out ahead of traffic than to fight for space on a road with no bike lane at the moment when the light turns green. Marshall, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado at Denver, suspects, though, that many drivers may not understand this thought process — that seemingly bad biking behavior is sometimes an act of self-defense.

Perhaps that’s because we don’t really understand — and we definitely don’t talk about — the behavioral psychology of cycling all that well. Maybe drivers picture all scofflaws as that caricature of a New York City bike messenger, a professional risk-taker who laughs at traffic laws and the suckers who obey them.

I don’t think everyone who’s breaking a law on a bike is that person,” Marshall says. “You’re not that person. I’m not that person. I don’t feel like I’m risking my life when I’m doing these scofflaw behaviors — I feel the opposite.”

There is, in fact, a lot we don’t know about why cyclists behave the way they do, or even what happens when people on bikes — in numbers many cities have never seen — take to infrastructure that was not designed for them. If you’ve ever biked in Portland, or biked through Washington with someone from Portland,it certainly seems as if social norms about traffic laws vary from city to city. Marshall, for example, has observed cyclists in Portland police each other in ways I don’t often see in D.C.

But why the differences? As cycling grows more common in a city, does peer pressure to obey the law follow? As cities build more bike infrastructure, does that make cyclists less likely to run red lights?

Why The Differences From City to City?

Behaviors differ from city to city (with regards to which laws cyclists break) in the same way that dress styles and language pronunciations do. And yes this means that there is in large part a ‘matter of peer pressure‘ which dictates behavior.

It would not surprise me that most seasoned cyclists who commute to work would ‘stick out like sore thumbs‘ in Bicycle Heaven. People actually wait for lights long enough that they complain when the duration is too long.

And here in Chicago the chances of finding cyclists who threaten to ride on Michigan Avenue sidewalks (or even actually do use Michigan Avenue sidewalks) are high.

Commuting is largely the domain of male cyclists. And to that extent the behaviors that are clearly reckless are largely confined to commuters of that gender.

We Have A ‘Blind Spot’ Regarding Our Behaviors

The first question raised is whether the mantra concerning the ubiquity of bike infrastructure would solve the problem of reckless biking:

If some of us violate traffic rules to stay safe, would we be more law-abiding if cities created safer spaces for us? (By this, I do not mean a separate network of biking roads in the woods, but more protected bike lanes and dedicated signals that would allow cars and cyclists to share the road on their way to the same places.)

Note in this paragraph the author has leapt to a conclusion regarding ‘safety‘. He has no data for this assumption but holds it (as do many riders) more (to my mind) as a justification that allows them to avoid self-condemnation than anything else.

The assumption is that ‘violating traffic rules keeps you safe‘. I have watched as cyclist do what I have come to call the Idaho ‘Two Step’:

Urban Cyclist "Idaho Stop" Two-Step Variation

Urban Cyclist “Idaho Stop” Two-Step Variation

It is seldom (in my experience) executed to get out in front of traffic, but rather to avoid waiting for the red light. So my impression is that this assumption or at least the rationale for the assumption is somewhat suspect.

But where I really take umbrage with reckless cycling is when the individuals who commit reckless acts do not offer the same courtesy to drivers:

The Golden Rule of Cycling

The Golden Rule of Cycling

Neither group should be behaving recklessly. But cyclists are a bit like bankers who complain that gang bangers in poor neighborhoods are a scourge because they rob people, but see nothing wrong in using shady practices to bring down the World Economy through collateralized debt obligations.

We Keep Blathering About Weight

If you think that Climate Deniers are a bunch of scientific morons, then welcome to the Church of Urban Cycling, where the acolytes are frequently confused by difference notion of (mass x speed) ≠ weight:

Reply by Andy Moss 9.5 1 hour ago
Important to keep in mind that comparing moving violations on a bike to moving violations driving a car is, in many cases, a false equivalence.

My guess is that the most common moving violation committed by cyclists is blowing lights and stop signs. The most common moving violation for cars must be exceeding the speed limit–almost everyone does it. Rolling through stop signs probably is a close second. There is no question that speeding and ignoring traffic controls in a 2000+ lb. vehicle is a more serious concern for the simple reason that it will potentially kill people and cause significant property damage. Cyclists stand at risk of their own personal safety and minimal property damage.

In addition, none of the valid reasons (impatience and ignorance are not valid) why cyclists infract provide any justification for driver infractions, or if they do, it’s exceedingly rare. None of this is, IMHO, an excuse for cyclists to ride recklessly near pedestrians.

So yes, technically it is equally unlawful to commit moving violations on a bike or in a car, but it is not equally serious.

© Associated Press

© Associated Press

When will we ever learn? The weight of the vehicle is not the issue when considering the potential for damage to property or person, it is the speed at which the vehicle is traveling at moment of impact.

An object weighing less than three ounces if propelled fast enough can unleash as much damage to the human body as an SUV. These very small objects moving a high velocities are called bullets.

What Andy is regurgitating in the quote above is the same nonsense that is festering in the ether having been left by the foul musings of one Randy Cohen:

The very fact that he was ever hired as the ethicist for the New York Times is simply astounding. He is living proof that the moral authority of the Urban Cycling Movement is a sham. We are duplicitous in our speaking and our thinking and nothing can change that. Nothing!

Giving Respect Is No Guarantee Of Less Reckless Behavior

More data on the scofflaws inside all of us could potentially help create safer streets, even, Marshall imagines, more productive public debate about how cars and cyclists coexist. There is some evidence, for instance, that cyclists may be less likely to ride the wrong way down one-way streets and more likely to wait at red lights when they’re given dedicated bike paths. This would make sense for a number of reasons.

You’re treating the bikers well, you’re giving them a place they should be,” Marshall says. “You’re giving them respect in the transportation system.”

Maybe that makes cyclists more likely to respect the laws of that system in return. Or perhaps, by giving cyclists their own safe space, they don’t feel the need to head down one-way streets to bypass busy roads, or to blow through red lights to stay ahead of traffic.

Infrastructure influences how we think about our own roles in public space (“the system isn’t looking out for me, so I have to do whatever necessary to look out for myself”). Infrastructure also physically shapes our behavior. On the protected bike lane in front of the Washington Post office, for instance, it’s near impossible to run through a red light. That’s because bike traffic cues up at the intersection in its own restricted lane the same way cars do.

“You’re putting people on bikes in transportation systems that are entirely built for cars. If that seems to be one of the reasons why people are behaving this way, that would lend an argument to better bike infrastructure,” Marshall says. “If people are [being scofflaws] because they like risky behavior, that’s something different. If that’s the answer we find — bicyclists are just riskier than everybody else — that would lead to different solutions.”

At this point in the article I began to yawn. Bicyclists are no more careful when given their own space, than are motorists. You only have to search the literature to read about the growing number of deaths of pedestrians and cyclists alike that occur on MUPs.

Here in Chicago we are trying to deal with the recklessness of cyclists on the Chicago Lakefront Trail by segregating them from pedestrian traffic. But that is only going to lead (in my opinion) to a greater likelihood of speeding by cyclists who are training with those who are functioning as recreational riders:

As the cited article implies we have a breach in etiquette on the Chicago Lakefront Trail and in my opinion on the streets as well.

We Need Licensing

As Haddon points out in the very first quotation, there is really no penalty for reckless cycling because the cameras designed to catch red light runners or speeders among the automotive population are powerful to mete out punishment to cyclists. We have no license plates.

Short of facial recognition we are completely anonymous. If you can  be identified by Big Brother that makes a difference when you decide to act recklessly. If motorists and pedestrians with the aid of a simple SmartPhone camera can ‘drop a dime on you‘ things change.

Like the folks who decide to slaughter people who poke fun at their prophet or religious practices many of us are equally insulted when the question of licensing comes up. Heck we are also in many instances against having to carry bicycle insurance.

But every time a cyclist hits and either injures or kills a pedestrian this topic will resurface. Eventually public approval will outweigh our discomfiture with being ‘the cat who was belled‘.

The Audacity of ‘Affirmative Action’

As an African-American who is old enough to have lived in the Segregated South I am always mindful that the biggest complaint against individuals who participated in the Civil Rights Movement was that their leaders were ‘uppity niggers‘. That sentiment was prevalent not only among Southern whites but many living in the North as well.

And make no mistake the resistance to the current POTUS Barack Obama is a direct result of the lingering notions about race that persist from that time. It was not enough that ‘niggers‘ got the right to vote but they felt themselves worthy of equal treatment in terms of jobs and housing.

But as is always the case when two distinct segments of a society collide after a declaration of equality (or at least a commitment to end discrimination has been won) some of the folks who have benefited from the sacrifices of the folks who went before them, begin to want to move beyond mere equality to a situation of ‘special privileges‘.

It is that situation which has created the resentment to ‘affirmative action‘ that persists to this very day. In an attempt to fast forward the hands of time well-meaning folks came up with what is admittedly a scheme to rebalance the scales in something short of ‘real time‘. And there is backlash as a result.

The Urban Cycling Movement has launched itself on a trajectory of ‘special privileges‘ that are the transportation equivalent of ‘affirmative action‘. I term it the ‘audacity of momentum‘. In essence we no longer want to be just ‘permitted and intended users of the roadway‘ but wish to move to a point of having special allowances made for our whims.

This is a slippery slope, to say the very least. Here is why… It is a once both elitist and arrogant. Yes, ‘affirmative action‘ is pleasant if you come from a poor background and have the skills to compete at a good college but not the money or the quality of education to do so. But no society can perpetuate such a policy forever.

Eventually everyone has to realize that merit is the basis for success. When it comes to movements like Feminism you can see emerging a similar kind of ‘problem‘.

In corporate settings you would hope that women would find it equally pleasant to have their skills recognized and their advancement assured. But there is always the temptation to ‘engineer equality‘. A case in point is the notion of ‘Bicycle Comfort‘ as it relates to the Urban Cycling Movement.

Liberal Social Engineering

The concept of ‘Bicycle Comfort‘ rapidly overtook ‘safety‘ as the guiding principle for the furtherance of bike lane infrastructure. I contend this happened for two reasons:

  • It takes time to gather enough data to support the notion that a given redesign of a specific street has in fact resulted in a safer thoroughfare for everyone. Given the impatience of the movement with the evidence of progress that benchmark was jettisoned to make room for a less difficult measure of success, ‘Bicycle Comfort‘. After all the notion rests on the supposition that the overall intention is to raise the level of ridership to match what happens in Bicycle Heaven.
  • But in order for the level of ridership to surge ahead the demographics had to be adjusted. An overwhelming number of males were commuting by bicycle compared to their female counterparts. So the idea was to make the number one goal of bicycle infrastructure to be ‘visually inviting‘. It has to inspire confidence in as many females as possible. In addition the impression had to be created that what you wear while riding can be stylish and still be suitable for actual commuting.

And lurking behind all of these changes in the transportation landscape is the same sort of assumption as that used to justify ‘affirmative action‘. Women are as likely as men to want to commute. Blacks are as likely as whites to have grades and college test scores that qualify them for admittance to good schools. The only reason that things might not shake out that way are the lingering effects of ‘racial segregation‘ and in the case of females an overall lack of societal encouragement to participate in bicycling.

The Audacity of ‘Momentum Maintenance’

Momentum maintenance is for cyclists their version of ‘affirmative action‘. Here is an explanation of the concept as delineated by a member of my bicycle club:

Momentum.  Cyclists don’t want to loose momentum.  There are many instances where stop signs are illogically placed for cyclists. Other issues are roads that have stop signs every few blocks, which doesn’t make for efficient traffic flow for either cars or bikes.  That’s not an excuse to blatantly run stop signs when there is conflicting traffic however and I’m not advocating running stop signs.

In my mind I slow down and approach a stop sign with caution and look carefully in all directions.  I’m ready to stop if there is any traffic at or approaching the intersection, but if there is none I proceed on thru with caution.  I do believe in always stopping at red traffic lights, since lights are typically placed at busier intersections or when crossing main roads.  However since bikes usually do not trigger the light to turn, depending on conditions I may decide then to proceed across if there is no opposing traffic in sight.

The article also mentions cyclists “hogging” the road by riding multiple abreast when there is other traffic on the roadI’ve noticed this on some club rides and do not like it.  I think cyclists also need to share the road and rapidly move into single file when there is traffic on the road.  And yes cyclists must yield to pedestrians just like cars.  We cyclists complain about cars so we shouldn’t give them an excuse to complain about us.

There are however some rather interesting ‘mixed messages‘ that attend this argument:

  • Cyclists claim that it is the exertion of their bodies that keeps them young. In fact the starting and stopping of one’s bicycle to obey traffic signals creates opportunities for exertion. In essence it is the bicycle version of ‘fartlek‘.
  • Cyclists while claiming to like exercise, are nevertheless loathe to park their bicycles at a designated center (e.g. McDonald Center) that requires them to walk a mile or more to reach their offices. Commuters who have to do this regularly must wonder at the disconnect between the rhetoric of cyclists and their behavior.
  • By suddenly moving from demanding the acknowledgement that they are both ‘intended and permitted‘ users of the roadway to demanding that the placement of things like traffic signs be adjusted to ‘maintain their momentum‘ the impression of elitism is given.

Take for instance the constant complaints by cyclists that cars are either driving in the bike lane or parking there. But consider therefore the threats by cyclists to ride the sidewalks along Michigan Avenue if they are not given the kinds of special lanes they desire. It seems selfish and ugly. After all the sidewalks are in essence the ‘pedestrians lanes‘. Why is it not OK for cars to park or drive in the bicycle lane but a defensible right for bicyclists to dislodge them for their own purposes.

Take too the constant complaints that motorists should never claim that they did not see a cyclist because to do so is an admission of their guilt in causing a collision. Yet bicyclists run over pedestrians in the crosswalk simply because they are unwilling to risk ‘losing their momentum‘ during Strava™ training rides.

Arrogance Hurts The Urban Cycling Movement

Cyclists have proved time and again that they are arrogant. The ‘preservation of momentum‘ argument is such an instance. Take as an example a homeless veteran who is hired to a good paying position in a company as a measure of compassion but he refuses to arrive on time because he has become used to waking at 11:00 AM and does not wish to break his routine. Does he not understand the nature of his situation?

Automobiles blow through stop signs for the very same reasons as do cyclists. The drivers are far too impatient to slow down. So not only do they not stop when approaching an empty intersection, they do not wait their turn when coming to a full stop at a busy intersection.

You notice this when suddenly a second car waiting behind the one that just pulled into the intersection (it having come to a complete stop) pulls through the intersection because it had been there before others arrived and does not want to wait until each car at the corner has had a chance to cross in turn.

I would go so far as to categorize the ‘momentum preservation‘ argument as an expression of personal laziness. If exertion is a problem for a bicyclist then he needs to consider a different mode of transportation. If having to regain your momentum an aggravation that you feel could best be rectified by either eliminating or moving the stop signs along your route, then once again you may have chosen the wrong mode of transportation. Or perhaps you have reached that point in your life when an electric assist motor is in order.

Perception is Everything

If a woman insists that despite being a new hire at a firm she be given a chance at the CEO position simply because of her gender she may have to rethink her career trajectory.

If a cyclist demands that motorists be sober when driving but takes every opportunity to ‘grab a few beers‘ before heading home on his bike he might have to decide that his personal pleasures need to take a back seat to his societal values regarding safety.

We need an adult outlook on how our movements members conduct themselves. We cannot lobby for the need to have ‘safer‘ streets while at the same time acknowledging that we do not consider stop signs applicable to our mode of transport.

Our movement’s success might hinge on understanding the plight of Caeser’s Wife.

Not wanting to be licensed and required to carry insurance in the same manner as scooter and motorcycle riders is not a good selling point for the movement’s push for the recognition of bicycles as meaningful methods of transport.