One of the things that drew me to the Twin Cities metro, and to St. Paul, is the cycling friendly community, and while St. Paul lags Minneapolis in many respects, it is still leagues ahead of most cities in this country and all the places I have lived. That being said, there is a virulent strain of anti-cycling sentiment that is often perpetuated around here, particularly in online commentary, a sentiment that can be characterized as the “myth of the scofflaw cyclist”. So, is the myth true? Furthermore, what are myths, and why do we tell them?
First, we should all be clear that cyclists do break the law, specifically and almost singularly in the realm of violating red lights and stop signs. They do this at rates that are not insignificant, and also happen to be identical to the non-compliance rates of drivers, at roughly 9%. Another study, performed here on Streets.mn, documented a non-compliance rate of around 37%. The congruence of these statistics in at least one data set has not been emphasized for the sake of moral equivocation, but merits mention given the vocal driver indignation towards cyclists over this shared behavior.
Despite the similar violation numbers, perceptions about the danger of the behavior differ between drivers and cyclists, which is the line of distinction here. Cyclists, generally speaking, do not view stop light-and-sign running as particularly dangerous, depending on circumstances, when done by a cyclist. Drivers, however, view signal violation as very dangerous – or at least hierarchy violating – when done by drivers, and extend the attitude to cyclists. And despite perceiving this activity as so much more dangerous, they run signals at the same rate, which hints at deeply flawed decision-making.
An analogous comparison as measured by intra-group attitudes would be to look at driver speeding, an activity that drivers view at the same level of risk for themselves as cyclists view signal violation. Cyclists, however, consider speeding to be highly dangerous, because of all driver behaviors, speed plays a greater role in fatal mishaps than any other factor. In this case, drivers violate this law over 50% of the time. In other words, an inter-group comparison of two behaviors regarded with equivalent intra-group risk reveals that drivers violate the law more than 50% of the time, while cyclists do so 9%, or up to 37%. Still, that is not the point either.
Driving poses distinct and singular hazards when it comes to inflicting damage and fatalities though. Running signals is the most common cause of urban crashes, but it is speeding that increases the lethality…the connection between speeding and road safety is not merely statistical, it is causal. Furthermore, drivers fail to yield to pedestrians greater than 50% of the time. The majority of the victims of drivers are innocent. Cyclists, no matter how many lights they run, simply do not kill others. In the cases of vehicle-bicycle crashes, a cyclist violation of a signal is causal in around 3% of those mishaps.
Insofar as these groups explain their behavior, comprehensive studies have shown that cyclists tend to choose which traffic law to break in the name of safety, while drivers most often break the law merely because they are in a hurry – an excuse that cries out for moral education, particularly given the potentially lethal outcomes.
As a law-breaking cyclist myself, I can attest to the safety factor. When sitting at a red-light with motor vehicles, after cross traffic is safely clear, I cross so that I am safely moving by the time vehicle traffic is flowing with me again. Cyclists are the most vulnerable when at an unstable low speed, i.e. starting and stopping. Signals pose the additional hazard of drivers making attempts to squeeze round me in both directions to make turns or push forward on the signal, or when they jump off the light suddenly and close aboard while I am unstable. Treating a stop sign as yield is done for similar reasons. The result is greater safety for me, and honestly easier flow for drivers who will enjoy the benefits of having me clear the intersection earlier and subsequently accelerate to my safe operating speed clear of drivers. In fact, this behavior, known as the Idaho Stop for the state where it was made statute for cyclists in 1982, has been demonstrated to improve cyclist safety. The apparent local violation rate of up to 37% doesn’t identify how many of those violations were “Idaho Stops”, a behavior that is considered rational, acceptable, and even the safest course of action among many cyclists.
So cyclists do break the law, but the law-breaking cyclist is still a myth. Myths are not falsehoods, but rather stories that explain the world according to the perspective of the story-teller. Of course it’s true that some cyclists break the law, but some follow the law, and some drivers break the law, and some pedestrians do. Drivers who vehemently object to the presence of cyclists on the road never miss the chance to point out examples of this myth, and they do so in order to explain why cyclists are a cultural outsider deserving of being discriminated against. These drivers are aided by a popular culture that often portrays cyclists as being abnormal, or cultural outsiders – see, for instance, The 40 Year Old Virgin – and they are often willing, even when responding to academic studies, to describe cyclists as “bike nuts”, “f**s”, “over-zealous eco-warriors”, and “a f***ing waste of space”, or worse, in a Sirius XM radio show, hosts outright say they want to “trash” their cars “with the blood of cyclists“.
The myth of the scofflaw cyclist exists for some people because truth of the situation is far too complex to support a conclusion that cyclists deserve being discriminated against. The myth exists only to explain and underpin a society in which cyclists are unworthy of protection, or justice, or compassion, and why drivers are not, and should not be, accountable for their actions.
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