Bicycling Scofflaws: Are You One?

Chances are if you are reading this you are part of the solution and not the problem. The vast majority of club and race team bicyclists operate within reason of what the law and safe practice require. As a LAB certified traffic skills educator I can say most of us probably have room for improvement, but that is a different topic.

This is about those who run red lights and stop signs without so much as a cursory squeeze of the brake handles. I’m not talking about riders who come to a red light which doesn’t sense them, wait out a couple of cycles and then treat it as a stop sign (technically illegal in Virginia). Or those who do a “California stop.” I’m talking about those of us who blaze through as if they are on their way to a half off sale down at the local bike shop or treat cycling as an extreme ‘X’ sport.

I understand the arguments about cyclists having better visibility and that we can’t create the kind of carnage and mayhem that a one ton car can make. And I do support steps taken in states such as Utah such as allowing bicyclists to treat certain traffic controls as yield or stop signs.

However, this is Virginia and until the law is changed we should abide by it unless a compelling case can be made that doing so would put a cyclist at grave risk. I don’t believe stopping for red lights or stop signs fits that description.

One would think that compliance is in our own best interests. After all, no one wants to be hit. But lately I’ve had more than one cyclist tell me that they routinely disregard these, rationalized by a perceived need for maintaining momentum.

It’s unfortunate that most police departments are strapped for manpower such that this isn’t enforced more. This disregard negates efforts to build respect with motorists by those who do ride lawfully.

How many times have you seen a motorist radically maneuver in an effort to avert a crash with a red light runner? If a driver and their family crash into a fixed object or another car in an effort to avoid a red light running cyclist, has any less damage and injury occurred than if a car had created the same situation?

A final point to consider is that I’ve been hearing of more cases where motorists or their insurance companies have sought compensation from at fault cyclists following a crash. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, after all we live in a society that puts a high value on personal responsibility. A bike operated on a public street or highway is considered a vehicle and as drivers of vehicles we should be held to the same standards we expect of others.

Same road, same rules, rights, and responsibilities. It works. Just do it.

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76 comments… add one
  • What you don’t seem to understand is that by creating all of these rules and courtesies that bicycles have to follow but other road users to not you are, whether you like it or not, creating a situation in which bicycles are second class road users. The reason I am so angry about the original article and the majority of the comments is as follows
    Focusing on the lawlessness of cyclists in the context of all total road users is crazy. Its like blaming domestic cats for declining bird populations. The bottom line is that blaming cyclists for bringing the ire of motorists on themselves is deeply stupid and wrong minded. It may be true that there are cyclists who piss off motorists and sour motorists view of bikes, but the point is that this is not the big problem as the article and your comments suggest. The actual issue is that motorists at large are selfish jerks who think that they have more of a right to go as fast as they want than I have a right to be out there at all. They demonstrate every day to cyclists that they would rather risk my life than to lose 15 seconds waiting for an appropriate time to pass. They aren’t pissed off at scofflaws they are pissed of at our very presence. I don’t get honked at when I cruise through a read light with no on coming traffic, or when I filter through traffic. I get honked at, buzzed, called a faggot when I’m just riding, obeying the law, and minding my own business. Just this morning I was sworn at for doing crossing an intersection when it was my turn. So I rode up to her window and asked nicely what it was I did that she objected. She sat there and ignored me until the light changed. I have no problem being courteous to motorists if I can expect some consideration in return but the fact is that I can’t, so screw it.

    I’m not “straw maning” anyone, its not my fault that you or anyone else were unclear, that’s why I quoted you rather than paraphrasing. If you cant react in time to objects that are obstructing the road that is literally the definition of driving too fast. As I said that’s the reason rearenders are legally, and with good reason, the driver who did the rearending’s fault.

    To clarify, I don’t think that cyclists can just do anything they want, hanging out on blind corners/hills, darting in front of cars, salmoning, and I DON’T engage in behaviors that either put myself or motorists in danger, EVER.

    My issue with your line of reasoning throughout your comments seem to place a lot of value in upholding the status quo at the expense of the status of bicycles. If I’m riding route 5 and cars are pissed because they can’t pass me due to on coming traffic. Your suggestion would be to differ to the emotions of the drivers and to spare their anguish at being held up for a couple of minutes by pulling my bicycle off the road. My point is that they shouldn’t be upset about that in the first place. Kowtowing to motorists’ frustrations is tantamount to giving your kid cookies before dinner because he’s whining about it. Instead of placating drivers false sense of ownership over the road how about we instead establish our presence with authority. Drivers aren’t going to gain respect for cyclists if we give them what they want all the time, just like your kind isn’t going to learn anything about spoiling their supper with cookies buy letting him eat them before dinner. Cyclists are not in the wrong for riding their bikes, drivers are in the wrong for being impatient, and frequently reckless. This whole attitude you have about courtesy seems to quite obviously puts bicycles in a subordinate position which is exactly the problem in the first place, instead of increasing good will, all it increases is the attitude that cyclists have to defer to the needs of motorists rather than the other way around.

  • Alexander. . .
    My post states that my experience has been mostly great when it comes to cyclists, the three issues I’ve had happened in the past year or so (that’s a lot for a small amount of time). The Ashland Ramble (which is the course I’m speaking of) is on roads where the speed limit is 45-55 in my area and trust me, coming around a corner at that speed does not allow time to stop for someone or something in my lane.
    To clarify a bit more, my statement was the ATTITUDE of some cyclists that intnetionaly refuse to obey the rules of the road could be dangerous to my daughters because they are young and inexperienced – do you seriously not agree with that? Just like the drivers who tailgate or honk at them because they are doing the speed limit. Same idea of bad attitude, hope that clears it up a bit for you. My whole position is to have roads that accomodate both, to make it more safe for all vehicles on the road. I certainly worry about the cyclists out here on these roads with all these young drivers, I have to ride with them, I’m sure you used to be a young inexperienced driver yourself, it’s hard enough without added attitudes of other drivers or cyclists. I feel the conditions of some bike paths are 100% unsafe (Ashland Ramble, for instance) there are only ditches on either side of a narrow road, I think it should be upgraded.
    Take care and be safe!

  • I appreciate your clarification, my issue is with the point of view of many of the arguments in general, not yours exclusively. The suggestion that cyclists are the ones who need to be working harder to make the roadway safer for motorists is extremely offensive to those of us that are forced to tolerate the craziest people behind the wheel of the biggest cars on a daily basis. Which isn’t to say that cyclists always or even frequently do what’s safest, but blaming them for problems the troubles that they face on the road is skewed, scummy, and gives motorists an extremely dubious excuse for feeling frustrated with cyclists. As though there were even close to as many bike scofflaws as there are motorist scofflaws.

  • Of course bicycles have less rights on the roads, cars are lethal, bikes are not. A car will kill a bicycler, whereas the car will only sustain a biker-shaped dent. If you want to put yourselves in danger, you have only yourself to blame when you eventually get in an accident. Its like with boats. The bigger boat has the right of way, always, since the bigger boat can command it. Also, no one wants to drown.

  • What a fascinating theory of rights! I think you’re confusing rights with responsibility. In the concealed carry community when you carry a gun and thereby make yourself deadlier than those around you, you do not suddenly have more rights than others. What you do have is a greater responsibility to act with care and thoughtfulness because you are in control of a deadly weapon. Im not sure if you actually don’t understand the difference or if you really believe that might makes right. If so I hope when I see you on the sidewalk that you get out of my way because I’m bigger and stronger than you.

    And by the way, large boats have right of way not because they are more dangerous but because big boats are harder and slower to turn than small boats. The analogy doesn’t translate well to the roads as both cars and bicycles have advantages and disadvantages in the realm of maneuverability.

  • If you have a concealed weapon, you don’t get more rights than others, but you are exercising a right others aren’t, the same goes for the right to drive, and drive on safe roads where everyone obeys the laws, including misguided bicyclists. Try your wannabe-condescending attitude on someone else. I’m not confusing anything. You’re the one arguing breaking traffic laws.

  • Slick backtracking

  • You should look up backtracking. I was commenting on an analogy you made. That’s not backtracking. I was merely illustrating how you were actually supporting my point.

  • You said that cyclists have fewer rights than cars because of their size and deadliness. I pointed out that being an 800lb gorilla does not give you more rights. You agreed with that sentiment and then you implied that EVERYONE has a right to the roads “including misguided bicyclists”. You dont see the difference in your position from the former to the latter? I am exercising my right to the road when I ride my bike, a right that is SHARED equally with motorists.

    My problem is that you people seem to think that right is contingent on making motorists happy with me. My whole point is that I get abuse and am subject to flagrantly dangerous maneuvers from motorists typically when I’m obeying the law most stringently. Leaving drivers scratching their balls at a red light with no cross traffic puts space between me and those that would do me harm because they dont take their responsibility seriously. Waiting at a red light isn’t worth the trouble of being squeezed into the door zone or buzzed for taking a lane. In addition it gives me a head start and a chance to get up to speed. Bruce Gunn might even think that to be courteous.

  • Alexander,
    Let me clarify my position so we understand each other. I do not advocate car driver appeasement. I advocate mutual respect on the road and mutual obedience of the laws. When a driver ignores my right to ride, I assert my right but I do it in a manner that isn’t insulting.

    An example: On my way home from work tonight, I was riding a country lane that has no line markings, but is about 2 lanes wide, and a speed limit of 40 mph. I had a strong tailwind and was going about 40 mph. I was approaching a tunnel under a RR track. A car approached from the rear at what seemed like 55 to 60 mph. I could see we’d meet right at the tunnel, where the road was only 1 lane wide. He was not slowing and I was going the speed limit. I was not obstructing traffic in any way; rather, his speeding would have obstructed my traffic flow. So I pulled into the center of the road and forced him to slow, which he did. He didn’t honk or say anything. After the tunnel, he went around me with no altercation. Both were courteous to each other, but I asserted my rights.

    Another example: I commute down a 2 lane road with lots of traffic, but with a wide shoulder, 55 mph road. At one point, the shoulder is unrideable due to asphalt being churned up. So when I reach that point, I do not wait for the other cars, I move into the lane about 2 feet from the right and continue. This gives the cars room to move left and pass me since the lane is wide enough for the share law. With few exceptions, they move well left and we both go on with mutual respect. Neither is left with the feeling of annoyance. Nobody yells or honks. They realize I have a right to ride and they see I have tried to be accommodating at the same time.

    Compare that to, say, riding in a large club ride at 25 mph down a 55 mph road, in the middle of the one lane, blocking traffic for miles, ignoring the traffic jam building up behind this club ride. In many states, they would be legally required to pull over, as slow moving vehicles and bikes, at the next turn out to allow the traffic to pass. This is a real example used by a cyclist I know who was driving behind this group. Not only were they illegal for not pulling over to allow traffic to pass, they were rude for blocking so much traffic.

  • Alexander,
    We had previously been talking about riding 5 abreast and such. Since it relates directly to safety, I looked up the laws regarding that and found that it is not legal in any of the states I’ve seen yet (though I haven’t done an exhaustive review).

    Riding two abreast is typically allowed in certain situations and specifically written into state statutes, but those also typically prohibit anything more than 2 abreast.

    So it may be viewed as safer by some cyclists to ride 3, 4 or 5 abreast, but it is not legal in many, if not all, of the states in the USA. No idea what laws in other countries state.

    As examples, here is the Tennessee law:

    (b) (1) Persons riding bicycles upon a roadway shall not
    ride more than two (2) abreast except on paths or
    parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use
    of bicycles. Persons riding two (2) abreast shall
    not impede the normal and reasonable movement of
    traffic and, on a laned roadway, shall ride
    within a single lane.

    This Wikipedia article talks to the California law:

    Bicycling single-file is not requiredThere is no requirement in the California Vehicle Code for riding single-file. However, since CVC 21202(a) requires a cyclist who is riding slower than other traffic when none of the exceptions apply to “ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway”, under those conditions single-file riding is arguably implied. Enforcement of CVC 21202(a) is not consistent, however.[15] Side-by-side riding may also be regulated by local ordinance, as in this example from the City of Torrance:

    Persons operating bicycles upon a roadway shall not ride more than two (2) abreast except on paths or parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles

    Washington State says:

    Riding Side by Side – Cyclists may ride side by side, but not more than two abreast (RCW 46.61.770).


    I also found it is illegal to ride two abreast in national parks. Here’s a quote from a site run by a lawyer who is a cycling advocate:

    The quote in this article that applies is:

    “One of those readers, T.V., from Southern Cycling Operations, wrote with this observation:

    Since the rider was in a National Park, state laws do not necessarily apply. 36 CFR 4.30 provides the restrictions for bicyclists on roads in National Parks. 4.30(d)(3) prohibits “Operating a bicycle abreast of another bicycle except where authorized by the superintendent.” The park official was correct in informing the cyclists that they could not ride two abreast.

    We have encountered similar crackdowns in the Smoky Mountain National Park even when there is no automobile traffic. Being a National Park, the federal statutes take precedence.”

  • Alexander,
    You must live in a place that has a lot of angry drivers. I do not experience what you describe. When I’m courteous to drivers here, they are courteous back. I never have people honk or yell at me. Only time I did was when I cut a guy off and he simply honked.

    And yes, you did straw man me. The simplest example is the RR track issue. I was clear about riding along a road crossing a RR track and one of the riders moved into the middle of the road to block traffic unnecessarily. Then you brought up an unrelated issue about emergency vehicles needing to stop. That was your straw man since it had nothing to do with the conversation.

    Anyway, I’ve got things to do. Best wishes and safe riding.

  • You know Bruce, maybe we’re just talking past each other, because I found every one I you examples agreeable and reflective of my own riding style. I think a big difference here is that I seem to be commuting in downtown Richmond and am daily the target of a lot more driver hostility than you, and trust me when I say that it is not provoked. That hostility certainly colors my viewpoint on this issue. And I hope it helps explain my relutance to follow the letter of the law the same way I do when I drive. I hit red lights at empty intersections every 20-30 seconds and frankly I’m unwilling to make bicycling as tedious as driving. In part because i love riding by bike too much to undermine the experience and also in part because as I stated above a 230lb man and bicycle logically don’t bear the same level of responsibility as a 3230lb automobile. The same way a pilot flying a 747 bears more resposinility than a librarian driving herself to work. Drivers are resistant to accepting this fact in conjunction of equal rights to the road becaisthmus advantage that cyclists enjoy seems unfair. The advantage cyclists enjoy, however, is earned by trading the convenience of a seat, radio, and air conditioning. Earned again by the service to fellow citizens of less congestion, pollution, and reduced demand on petrolium. All i want in return is the benefit of the freedom and thrill only available when you push yourself around on two wheels. Is that so much to ask? I just want the cops to leave me alone when I ride my bike home after 3 or 4 beers at a friends house. Or the freedom to go through a clear intersection. Or the understanding of motorists when I’m half way up a long climb and don’t want to loose my momentum. Or even the simple ability to cut across a plaza to reach my destination without the risk of an upcoming intersection. Am I asking for special treatment or consideration because I’m on a bike? YES. Do cyclists deserve it? YES! In my view these perks are all part of a reasonable trade, and without them the incentive to ride is greatly diminished.

  • Alexander,
    You touch upon an issue that I think deserves a lot more attention but is so difficult to discuss because it’s so tough to quantify statistically or really in any reliable or verifiable manner – and that is the issue of motor vehicle envy towards bicyclists.

    I think it’s quite likely that a substantial amount of the ill feeling that motorists have towards bicyclists is simply because bicyclists have such a good time riding, often so visibly evident in the way the bike is actually ridden.

    They are stuck in their car, often getting fat because of it, and all these healthy, slim bicyclists, who don’t even pay for gas, speed past them in ways that car drivers simply cannot imitate, and it makes them crazy!

    I believe the reasons car drivers give for disliking bicyclists are often, maybe even usually, a sham – why they really dislike us is because of our freedom. A bicyclist rubs so many positives, so many alternative ways to live, so many available benefits in the faces of motorists that they can’t help but get enraged! It’s not an issue of safety but of freedom.

  • Alexander,
    Good reply. We’re understanding now. Your example of going through lights when nobody is around is a case where I agree with you on ignoring the law. Too many times, I’ve come to lights with no car in sight and no way to get the light to go green. So I check for cops and proceed. Or if cars are around, I might make a right, then a u turn, then a right to get myself across the street without breaking the law, yet without having to wait, and people see I’m not blowing a stop light. I don’t consider this a scofflaw practice.

    Your other example of cutting parking to avoid lights and such, I do as well. In reality it is not only a time saver, but self preservation. What cyclist would go to a busy intersection when the whole mess can be avoided by cutting through parking lots or along a sidewalk? Again, I don’t see that as scofflaw. It’s sensible and actually makes things safer for the cars since you’re out of the way. And frankly, I don’t trust drivers in busy places whether I’m in a car or on a bike. They are too distracted too notice a bike often.

    A friend had a walking incident recently that demonstrates this. He was crossing on foot at a crosswalk. An elderly lady was having trouble trouble turning left due to heavy car traffic, so she gunned it and hit him. She was too distracted by all the things happening that she didn’t see him. Nearly killed him, but he’s repaired now. Point is, any time I can avoid cars and busy areas while on a bike, I do it.

    As for running red lights with traffic around to beat the cars, maybe I don’t know what you’re meaning. If I were to run the lights on my way to work, I’d get flattened by the cross traffic. But if you mean you jump the light a bit to get ahead of the line, I see what you mean. When I come to knights, I pass the line of cars and go to the front, just to get through the intersection when it turns. I still end up in with cars all around. This one intersection is a particular pain because it’s at an interstate interchange. So no matter what I do, I get swarmed by cars and trucks. If the traffic is bad, I cut into a parking lot that parallels the road just to get away from the trucks. They make me nervous, since the shoulder is about 2 feet wide. Not safe.

    Anyway, ttyl.

  • Rivers, perhaps. And I love beating the cars to work. They’re stuck in long lines, while I ride on past. On days incomute by car and get stuck in the lines, I wish I’d ridden that day. Just being in the line builds stress. So beware drivers in long lines. They’ll sometimes snap.

  • Boy, River, I think you are absolutely correct. The cyclist-motorist argument is about 99.99% emotionally based. Cyclists inconvenience motorists very little if they get caught driving behind one–most cyclists want the car to quit breathing down their neck and will quickly make concessions to allow the car to pass. Even cyclists running stop signs, which I do not condone or practice, is usually done in such away that it does not require a motorist to brake or change direction (after all, you can’t count on the car to do that, and the penalty for misjudging it is steep). So why so much road rage at cyclists? So much driving is done for recreation or convenience (yeah, let the guy pulling his ski boat behind his truck tell you that roads are designed for cars and that his driving is essential!) that a minute or two of time should not create the anger that it does. Maybe it is the guy who has been told by his doctor to lose weight and get more exercise that really wants us “out of sight; out of mind” because the more people he sees exercising, the greater his guilt and the flimsier his excuse for not doing it. We just make people feel bad about themselves and they respond to it emotionally, not logically, and that is what makes them so dangerous.

  • Babs, thanks for so eloquently responding.

  • Youre a moron: it is NOT the same rules, rights or roads!! this is crystal clear if you ride a bike, and if you knew anything about the history of CAR roads and CAR traffic regulation youd know better than to blithely assert that bicyclists need to behave like cars!!! what utter bullshit!!

    try these primers first:

    Seiler’s, Republic of Drivers
    Furness, One less Car: the politics of Automobility in America

  • Felix Salmon has written an excellent opinion piece on this topic: [ ]

  • A blogger picked up a piece I wrote as part of this continuing scofflaw debate and has a long, thoughtful response. He appears to be coming down on the side of “It’s OK to judge all cyclists based on the actions of a few,” which I disagree with, but he presents a compelling piece.

  • More by Rick Bernardi at BicycleLaw.Com: Confronting the Scofflaw Cyclist

  • It should be illegal for bicycles to travel on any state roadway. I see so many riders disregard laws creating dangerous condition for vehicles who pay road use taxes, buy gas/diesel, carry insurance, obtain required licenses to operate a vehicle.

  • Equalizer 76, you have made a persuasive argument. You have written what just might be some of the finest wordsmithing the Internet has ever seen.

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