Canada's Condominium Magazine

Method in the madness: law-breaking cyclists, motorists believe they are being rational

Let’s start by admitting that we all do it. Break the law, that is, when using the roads. Whether we are walking, driving a car, riding a bicycle or using some other form of transportation on land or water, 100 per cent of people admit to jaywalking, running a stop sign, speeding, or doing something else they shouldn’t have done. Most of the time, thankfully, our illegal acts do not have serious consequences. Often they go undetected. But one group, namely urban cyclists, gets a lot of bad press, mostly from angry motorists, and the feeling is certainly mutual.

A new study sheds some much needed light on the situation by asking the important question: how do road users explain their illegal behaviours? More specifically, the study attempts to get to the bottom of the often contentious issue of why cyclists seem to break the law so often, and with such impunity. And it turns out there are different reasons at play. It also turns out that they really don’t break the law any more than other road users.

Most motorists and pedestrians say the main reason they break the rules of the road is to save time. Cyclists do so for other reasons, the main one being personal safety. Saving energy and saving time were distant second and third reasons given by cyclists discussed in the paper “Scofflaw bicycling: Illegal but rational,” published in The Journal of Transport and Land Use.

The overwhelming majority of bicyclists break the rules, but they do so in a rational way, convinced that little harm will come to them or anyone else, and, more importantly, convinced that they are an “after-thought” in the car-dominated transportation system within which they must operate. Cyclists, in other words, make decisions to break the rules, such as riding on sidewalks, because the infrastructure they are forced to deal with was not designed for their needs. Bicyclists are the most likely road users to report near-hit crashes (one every 9 kilometres in one study), making self-preservation an obvious reason for illegal behaviour.

The most prevalent response as to why bicyclists break the rules was “personal safety” with more than 71 per cent of respondents citing that as a reason. Saving energy came in second for bicyclists (56 per cent) followed by saving time (50 per cent). Increasing one’s visibility was the fourth most cited response (47 per cent) for bicyclists breaking the law. While the overwhelming majority of bicyclists break the rules, the open response answers suggest that most do so in situations where little harm would come to themselves or others and are often motivated by concerns for their own safety because they feel like an afterthought in a car-dominated transportation system.

This does not prevent cyclists from being demonized for what many see as flagrant disregard for the rules of the road. Research shows, according to the authors, that nothing angers car drivers more than seeing cyclists running red lights. Never mind that numerous studies, not to mention the most casual observation, show that car drivers frequently run red lights and speed, while at the same time saying that such behaviour is unacceptable. (Male drivers, no surprise here, are more likely to speed than females.)

Most drivers who run red lights and speed do not believe their behaviour is dangerous. Research seems to support that belief: the average driver is involved in an injury crash just once every 57 years, and just 1 in 80 is ever involved in a fatal crash. However, red-light running by drivers is the single most common cause of all urban crashes, including those with fatalities. The victim, whether injured or killed, is almost never the driver, but someone innocently attempting to cross the street.

As for cyclists running red lights, other studies cited in the paper show that this behaviour is relatively rarely the cause of bicycle-motor vehicle crashes, ranging from 2 per cent to 6 per cent. Overall, the chance of an innocent road user being injured or killed by an unlawful cyclist is much lower than by a lawbreaking driver.

Of course, not all cyclists are equal, and their behaviour on the road varies depending on a number of factors. Younger males are more likely to break the rules than older ones. Those with higher incomes are less likely to engage in illegal behaviours. Cyclists riding for recreational purposes also show lower levels of unlawful behaviour than those who ride for a living, such as couriers. Even having young children at home was found to indicate lower levels of illegal bicycling behaviour.

The paper concludes that drivers break the rules of the road as much as, or more often than, cyclists do, but that society sees their decisions as “rational,” even though strong causal links have been established between lawbreaking behaviours and crash rates, injuries and fatalities. The overwhelming number of cyclists are making the same decisions, behaving not recklessly but rationally, say the authors.

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