The Trouble with Those Scofflaw Cyclists

Cross-posted from Startled Disbelief.

Coming up next week on Life, the Universe & Everything Else we have a great interview with Ian Bushfield of Sense About Science’s AllTrials Campaign. In the meantime, an article came across my feed recently that I’ve been meaning to link to.

Image from Wikimedia Commons by ProfEDH (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Image from Wikimedia Commons by ProfEDH (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Like many other skeptics, I’m an avid cyclist. (In fact, next month I’ll be riding 60k in support of Habitat for Humanity. You can donate to the cause here!) When I hop on my bike, whether I’m heading to work, taking my daughter to day-care, or just out for a nice ride with my family, there are a few things that I typically worry about. In roughly this order, I want to:

  1. be safe
  2. avoid being a jerk
  3. get where I want to go quickly and efficiently
  4. enjoy the ride
  5. not reflect poorly on other cyclists

And it seems to me that #5 is not something I should really have to worry about. I certainly don’t worry about making other motorists look bad when I’m driving! But cyclists need to be on their best behaviour: it seems like every time a cyclist makes a mistake (or—let’s be honest—just behaves like a jackass), the problem is somehow emblematic of an issue with all cyclists; but when a motorist rolls through a stop-sign or fails to signal a turn, that doesn’t reflect poorly on motorists as a whole (despite it being arguably far more dangerous).

And that’s assuming that the cyclist’s infraction isn’t entirely imaginary: I can’t count the number of times I’ve been honked or hollered at for failing to stay in the rightmost lane (because oh, I don’t know, I felt like making a left turn, or didn’t feel like making the required right). While most cyclists also drive, it is not the case that most motorists also cycle, and in-group bias and stereotyping seem to play a large role the way motorists respond to cyclists.

All of which brings us to the aforementioned article. It’s called Why Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things by Carl Alviani over on Medium. It combines my love of cycling and my frustration with the basic cognitive errors with which we all struggle, and I’ve been hoping to read something like it for a long time.

So what is it about people riding bikes that provokes so much fear and anger? I’ve posed this question to several friends and acquaintances over the years, and the answers I get mostly fall into three categories:

  • they’re a threat to pedestrian safety
  • they flout the law
  • they interfere with an otherwise smooth-flowing system

There’s also the occasional fourth—that they’re freeloading on roads that drivers paid for—but this has been debunked so many times that that particular red herring is, thankfully, starting to die off.

Of the other three, the first two fall apart pretty rapidly in the face of statistics. The CDC reports that 59,925 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles between 1999 and 2009, while bikes (which are used for about 1.6% of all trips in the US) killed 63 in that same period, or roughly 0.1% as many.

The few studies that look at specific violations have found that people on bikes do roll through stop signs about 15% more than drivers do (at least in Oregon), but also that drivers roll through them almost 80% of the time, suggesting this is more of a human fault than a cyclist one. Meanwhile, a host of other infractions are almost exclusively the domain of motorists: speeding, dooring, aggressive driving, violating the three-foot passing law, etc.

Read the whole article. It’s worth it.

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