Motorists Break the Law to Save Time. Bicyclists Break the Law to Save Lives.

Photo: David Sachs
Photo: David Sachs
This column is part of Streetsblog Denver’s Summer Reader Takeover, where we give you a platform to talk urban transportation. The author’s views don’t necessarily reflect those of Streetsblog Denver.

It seems like some people who drive hate people on bikes, and there’s little cyclists can do about that.

Psychologist Tom Stafford suggests two reasons why. First, while most cyclists responsibly and safely share the road with motorists and pedestrians, drivers tend to remember the people who give bicycling a bad name, serving to reinforce the stereotype that cyclists are jerks.

More interestingly, Stoppard suggests that motorists detest people on bikes because they “offend the moral order” by creating their own rules of the road that drivers can’t follow. It’s hard to disagree. In May of this year, Colorado legislators passed SB 144, which standardizes language for cities and towns that want to let bicyclists treat stop signs as yields where it’s safe to do so. Legitimizing the “Idaho stop,” as it’s known, is an admittance that the rules of the road were designed solely for motorists.

It’s no secret that cyclists tend to ignore traffic laws when appropriate. In a survey conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado-Denver, from a pool of 18,000 cyclists, 96 percent “admitted to some form of law-breaking in the transportation system.” So did nearly 100 percent of drivers. As the researchers so aptly put it, “Everybody is technically a criminal.”

But here’s the rub: The survey found that drivers, safely ensconced in a two-ton metal machine, typically break the rules to save time (77 percent). Most cyclists reported breaking the rules for reasons of personal safety (71 percent).

That doesn’t excuse behavior that puts pedestrians or other cyclists in danger (such as riding on sidewalks or stopping up their ears with earbuds), but Denver isn’t an oasis for cyclists, even if it seems that way to motorists. One memorable Denver Post headline stated: “Denver is inconvenient, annoying, slow and unsafe for cyclists.”

Sums it up nicely.

Chris Gombeski lives in Speer.

  • David B

    I hope that it is visible minority of drivers who detest cyclists. Unfortunately, I think the majority of drivers are simply oblivious, and it’s easy to attribute malice to incompetence. But in that group of drivers who do hate us, I think there is also a feeling that bikes are cheating the “system” even when they are clearly obeying the law, when bikes make more headway in traffic than cars do. I remember one occasion when a driver stuck in a long line at a red light cranked their wheels and drove to the curb just as I approached. They looked pretty livid when I bunny hopped the curb, rode past, and hopped back into the street. Definitely an exception in what I feel like is a general mix of dangerously inattentive, but generally good-willed drivers.

    That said, I’m leery of self-reported motivations in surveys. I regularly see cyclists run stop signs when there is no possible safety benefit (e.g. no traffic snorting up their tail), but the obvious convenience/speed benefit.

    It would be interesting to see an analysis of law-breaking from an observer’s perspective, where the behavior was evaluated for safety vs. convenience based on the context. As a subset of that, it would be really fascinating to see how often law breaking for each class of vehicles posed a potential danger for others. In the stop sign scenario, I tend to see a much higher incidence of cars blatantly running them when no other vehicles are nearby, and a fairly low incidence when there is cross traffic nearby.

    • TakeFive

      lolol… Priceless

      They looked pretty livid when I bunny hopped the curb…

  • JZ71

    Excuses, on both sides. Claim whatever reason you choose, you’re still breaking the law. And just like how “drivers tend to remember the people who give bicycling a bad name, serving to reinforce the stereotype that cyclists are jerks”, cyclists tend to remember the people who give drivers a bad name, serving to reinforce the stereotype that all motorists are homicidal assholes.

    “It’s no secret that cyclists tend to ignore traffic laws when appropriate.” No, nearly all road users “bend” traffic laws when it’s “appropriate” and when they can get away with it / when there’s no enforcement. And, yes, “Denver is inconvenient, annoying, slow and unsafe for” ALL road users. It would be more productive to find real solutions, instead of just trying to demonize “the other side”!

  • RedMercury

    You also have to ask whether there is another way besides breaking the law.

    Let me give you an example that I see: A cyclist riding down the road, “taking the lane.” There are cars parked along the right hand side and the cyclist is riding outside the “door zone.” This is a good thing. It’s all about safety, after all.

    Then we come to backed up traffic waiting at an intersection. The cyclist promptly cuts to the right and passes all the cars waiting in line at the intersection, now riding in the door zone–y’know, that place where it’s dangerous to ride so the cyclist just has to “take the lane” to avoid it. And, of course, if someone opens their door in front of the cyclist? “You should be checking to see if someone is there!”

    Anyway, let’s say the cyclist gets to the front of the line without getting doored. He has to run the stop sign or stop light for his own safety. He needs to get out in front of those cars and retake the lane. After all, assuming a stop light, once that light goes green, he’s going to be riding in the door zone because there’s a whole stream of cars passing him–y’know, the ones he passed while riding in the unsafe door zone. In fact, we need to install special stop lights for cyclists that will stop all other traffic and let them go ahead.

    Or the cyclist could just keep the lane and wait behind the last car. There. Now you don’t have to break the law. You don’t have to worry about riding in the door zone. It’s a much safer situation–and we’re all about safety, right?

    But suggest that to a cyclist and the answer is, “I don’t want to have to wait behind the car.”

    So, basically, cyclists do dangerous things because it saves them time. Then when these dangerous actions catch up to them, they whine about how dangerous it is for them and how they have to break the law for their own safety.

    “If everyone would just get out of my way, it would be much safer for me.”

    • David B

      I regularly see this as cyclist, and feel a little of the fast vehicle impatience myself, having already passed slow gutter cyclist, while riding at (downtown) car speed, taking the lane myself. They then creep by, jump the light, and then ride to the right, not properly taking the lane, but blocking it nonetheless. Generally it happens on 15th, where I can watch for an opening in my rear view mirror, and pass the whole works in the left lane, so it’s mostly annoying for the cars who are in the right lane to turn right somewhere, and cyclists who are fast, but not comfortable with passing on the left (the legal way, that is). I can definitely see why cars would be a little cranky with that behavior.

    • MT

      I’m not going to sit behind cars at a stoplight because I’ve seen what happens when a car rear ends a stopped car at a light, and I’m not going to get in the middle of that. I also don’t want to sit right in front of a tailpipe breathing exhaust that will kill me.

      Sometimes a little rule breaking is for safety, sometimes it’s for convenience. Mostly what it is is just trying to get by in a system that in no way whatsoever was designed with any consideration for you.

      People break rules in cars all the time, and always for their own convenience, even in a system that is designed entirely for their convenience. That rule breaking creates more danger than anything a person on a bike has ever done. Worry about the things that actually cause harm, stop crying about people on bikes.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    These survey results suggest that bicyclists are merely more self-righteous than drivers.

    As someone who both drives and bikes, I’ll admit that I’ve skirted some safety regulations in both cases, virtually all of it out of convenience. All of us on bikes have used the Idaho Stop from time to time, particularly in urban settings where stoplights at every block are not remotely timed to the benefit of people moving at a typical biking speed. This was not “for reasons of personal safety”.

    I’m in no way trying to exonerate drivers who are insensitive to sharing the roads with bikes (if not outright hostile to them), but these survey results only seem to support the notion that bicyclists are victims. Nope.

    When engaged in an altercation with a car, the bicyclist is going to lose 98% of the time. Obviously. But just because a bicyclist is weaker and more vulnerable doesn’t give him/her a”get out of jail free card. While the “power dynamics” (I hate that phrase) are clearly in favor of the driver, I don’t see how it could be possible, outside of a case-by-case evaluation, of determining the degree of fault in a given situation.

    Many cyclists cycle out of convenience. So it goes without saying that many cyclists break laws out of convenience.

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