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Wednesday, September 30, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Getting There

Cyclists are just as law-abiding as drivers

A cyclist casts a shadow on the tarmac prior to the start of the eleventh stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 116.8 miles with start in Pau and finish in Cauterets, France, Wednesday, July 15, 2015.  (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
A cyclist casts a shadow on the tarmac prior to the start of the eleventh stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 116.8 miles with start in Pau and finish in Cauterets, France, Wednesday, July 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Cyclists suck.

That's the gist of some comments on any Spokesman article about bikes, bike lanes or bikeways.

More specifically, commenters get very, very angry about what they see as a total disregard for laws by those pedaling anarchists. But a whole slew of articles hit the Internet recently to put this tired, anecdotal argument to rest.

To review the charge: Cyclists break laws.

To respond: No they don't, at least not anymore than drivers, pedestrians, etc.

As a cyclist, I follow the rules, ride with traffic, wear my helmet, have my lights, signal my turns and take quieter streets whenever it's possible. And I get a bit miffed when I see someone riding their bike on a downtown sidewalk, or the wrong way down the street.

You know who else earns my ire? Drivers who flout the law. And there are plenty of them. Rolling through stop signs. Speeding down a neighborhood street. Talking on the cell phone.

But arguing with anecdotes gets us nowhere. Let's take a look at some facts and statistics.

First, from CityLab:

If breaking the law is a knock against cyclists, then it’s a knock against everyone who uses city streets. Some bike riders do run red lights (though it’s often because the signal doesn’t recognize them) or pop onto the sidewalk (though it’s often because they don’t have bike lanes). Then again, drivers are no strangers to blowing lights—one in 10 run reds in New York City—and doing so is the most common cause of crashes in U.S. cities.

So sure, some cyclists are just jerks. That’s true of any group of humans. What must be recognized with regard to bike riders is that much of what’s mistaken for jerky behavior is better attributed to the frustrations of city travelers long denied space on urban streets.

And Wired:

Let’s get this one out of the way first, because it’s the one you hear most often: “I can’t respect cyclists because they ignore stop signs” or “Cyclists don’t seem to understand the rules of the road.” And yeah, when I’m on my bike, I sometimes bend traffic laws and see other cyclists doing the same.

The question is, how often does this happen? And how angelic are drivers? The data is a little hard to come by: Nobody, as far as I can tell, has placed a camera on the shoulders of drivers and cyclists and measured how well they follow the rules of traffic. But there is some information. One British study found that six out of ten cyclists admit to running red lights. Last year, New York magazine sent an intern out to see how cyclists handled traffic lights at three intersections. She found only 14, 22, and 36.6 percent of riders stopped at red lights, respectively.

The truth is that we’re just not that great at not breaking the law. Cyclists neglect to follow some rules, mostly rolling though stop signs and going through red lights if there’s no cross traffic. Drivers tend to forget the following things are illegal (at least in California): Speeding, tailgating, not signaling, not stopping before a right turn, getting behind the wheel while drunk, texting or using a cell phone without the hands-free option, double parking, throwing trash (including cigarette butts) out the window, failing to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk, making a U-turn when there’s a ‘No U-turn’ sign, honking your horn just because you’re angry, and yes, running red lights and rolling through stop signs.

I’m not saying two wrongs make a right. That drivers break the law doesn’t make it okay for cyclists to do so. I’m trying to point out that traffic laws are some of the least important and most commonly disregarded rules on our books. Drivers break them every day, casually, and usually without much thought. But the way some people talk about rule-breaking cyclists, you’d think our traffic laws were equivalent to the Bill of Rights, Geneva Conventions, and Magna Carta rolled up into one.

My conclusion is, chill out. Most people see cars breaking laws every day without saying “I don’t respect drivers” or “Drivers really need to learn the rules of the road.” Sitting on a bike seat doesn’t somehow turn you into a monster anymore than getting behind the wheel does. Cyclists don’t break the rules because they’re bad people, they do it because they’re people.

Lindsey Wallace, writing for also took that issue on:

This is probably the most frequent argument I see. Motorists complain that cyclists are constantly shirking the law by rolling through stop signs and running red lights. Sure, I see cyclists doing this when I’m out on my bike, and I sometimes do it too. When it comes down to it though, motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians are all people going places, and they all break laws in their own ways. Studies have show no real difference in the rate of rule-breaking between groups. Pedestrians jaywalk. Cyclists roll through stop signs and run red lights. Motorists speed, tailgate, not signal, not stop before turning right, drive while drunk, drive while distracted, and others. One group breaking laws doesn’t make it okay for any other group, but no one says that motorists don’t deserve to be on the road because they break laws. Just because you notice bikes breaking laws, doesn’t mean they are doing it any more than other modes. Rule-breaking is a human trait, not reserved for cyclists alone.

Nicholas Deshais
Joined The Spokesman-Review in 2013. He is the urban issues reporter, covering transportation, housing, development and other issues affecting the city. He also writes the Getting There transportation column and The Dirt, a roundup of construction projects, new businesses and expansions. He previously covered Spokane City Hall.

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