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When Cyclists Break the Law, It’s Usually to Keep Themselves Safe


One of the most common complaints that we all hear from drivers, officials, and policymakers about cyclists is that cyclists break the law all the time.

Of course, as cyclists we tend to refute these claims.

Surprisingly, there is very little data about why and how often cyclists break the law. So what ends up happening is that we cyclists continue to be seen as rule-breakers who think we are above the law, which leaves the people in a position to help keep us safer less inclined to help us.

However, a study recently published in the Journal of Transport and Land Use is working to change that. The study, which is tellingly called “Scofflaw Bicycling: Illegal But Rational”, gives an insight into what it is truly like to be a cyclist and what informs the decisions that cyclists make when they are out on the road.

In an article on Bicycling.com, Joe Lindsey quotes the study’s author Dr. Welsey Marshall:

“When cyclists break the law, are they behaving like this image of a bike messenger’s reckless behavior, or are they behaving rationally, like a jaywalker?”

When driving a car, most of us see certain kinds of law-breaking as acceptable. For example, many of us drive over the speed limit from time to time, without any guilt or expectation of punishment, because they see it as something that’s “not that bad” or that they have a good reason for doing.

However, the same drivers don’t apply the same nuance to cyclists.

What the study shows

From Bicycling.com, here are some key points from the survey:

“Using a survey methodology called snowball sampling, they reached 18,000 cyclists and then sliced the data to analyze lawbreaking by demographics like age, education, ethnicity, income, and even whether they own a car.

The top-line finding? More than 70 percent of the time, when cyclists break traffic laws, they do so because they feel they need to in order to stay safe. Drivers, meanwhile, break traffic laws at an equal or even higher rate, but do so most often (77 percent of the time) to save time.”

As you can see, the study backs up the idea that drivers break the law as often as cyclists. However, they do so for different reasons.

Unsurprising to most cyclists is the idea that cyclists break the law (or do other things that some might see as unsafe) to stay safe. We all know how often we have to swerve out of the bike lane in order to avoid a double-parked car, or speed through an intersection to avoid being hit by a distracted driver.

Cyclists are extremely vulnerable on the road, and often have no choice but to evade danger however they can, as quickly as possible, in order to avoid devastating injury.

Also perhaps unsurprising to cyclists is the fact that the study found that 85% of cyclists are law-abiding or commit only minor infringements (such as rolling through a stop sign when no other car or pedestrian traffic is present).

There are other interesting details in the study as well:

“The trove of data includes tidbits like how recreational riders break traffic laws slightly more than those who ride for “utilitarian” purposes; unregistered voters are (narrowly) the most flagrant rulebreakers; and unsurprisingly, that those who admit they have almost no knowledge of road rules are by far the most reckless.”

The study also found that the cyclists’ behavior depended on their location and the demographics of their location. That is, if you ride among people who are likely to ride recklessly, then you are more likely to ride recklessly as well.

What happens next?

Interested by the location-based findings from the study, Marshall wants to look further into the effect that location and demographics have on cyclist behavior.

He says, “It’ll be interesting to start to disaggregate by people and place, and explore the idea of ‘If you move from Sydney to New York, do you start to behave more like a New Yorker.’”

Bicycling.com concludes their report on an uplifting note — one that is likely to speak to what cyclists have long known about how they ride through the city:

“We’re not trying to be jerks; we just want to get home without getting hit.”