Study: Scofflaw Bicycling: Illegal but Rational – Why do Cyclists Break the Rules?


By Charles Pekow — How many of us cyclists can honestly say we’ve never cruised through a stop sign? Probably about the same percentage of drivers who never exceeded the speed limit or pedestrians who haven’t jaywalked. Breaking the rules saves time and energy and isn’t deemed a safety violation if no one else is coming. And we don’t face much chance of getting prosecuted. And even if we do, we know we’re not going to get the death penalty.

A recent study of bicycle rule-breaking has found that though they technically violate codes, “far fewer bicyclists than expected fit the stereotype of the rude and reckless bike messenger.” Many flaunt the law because they perceive it to be safer to break the rules than to comply with them, researchers from the universities of Colorado and Nebraska found. They also want to save energy by not having to stop and restart.

The project surveyed 18,000 riders online. Scofflaw Bicycling: Illegal but Rational found that “younger people and males tend to exhibit higher levels of illegal bicycling behavior….” But local traffic conditions and culture played a more important role in determining who breaks rules than demographic or income factors, says the report, published in the Journal of Transport & Land Use.

“100% of our sample population admitted to some form of law-breaking in the transportation system (i.e., everybody is technically a criminal),” including walking and driving violations, the report says. But the reasons differ by mode. The vast majority of drivers speed and pedestrians jaywalk mainly to save time, respondents acknowledged.

But more than 71 percent of cyclists, cited “personal safety” for breaking the rules. “Saving energy came in second for bicyclists (56 percent) followed by saving time (50 percent).” “Increasing visibility” came in fourth, cited by 47 percent of bikers.

The authors also suggest that cyclists “feel marginalized,” even in the most bike-friendly cities. Take Boulder, CO, for instance. The League of American Bicyclists awarded it platinum status, the highest level awarded as a bicycle friendly community. And Matador Network named Boulder the second most bicycle friendly city in the USA (after Chicago) saying it “seems like a cyclists’ utopia” (

But bike lanes still amount for only 12 percent of Boulder’s vehicle infrastructure. The authors say that many people still look down on bicyclists and complain that “the transportation field continues to co-mingle bicycling and walking despite their distinct infrastructure needs and safety issues (which) further suggests a disregard for bicycling.” Efforts to increase bicyclist visibility, such as Bike to Work Days can backfire as such activities “can seem more like institutional consolation prizes for disenfranchised groups.”

But the authors also warn that “one popular opinion is that if bicyclists want to be taken seriously as road users, they need to obey the rules of the road like anybody else.” On the other hand, they note that drivers violate rules more, figuring that running a red light or parking in a bike lane doesn’t impede safety.

But while we might not realize it, we could instill anger in drivers when they see us run a red light.

One question not addressed: Do cyclists who break the rules also do so when they walk or drive?

Find the report at


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