Why do cyclists ignore the law?

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Bike Stop Sign In my intro post on this site, there were lots of comments, and some of them focused on poor riding habits of cyclists. One commenter asked me to address the question “Why do so many cyclists ignore the basic rules of the road?”

The commenter is certainly not alone in his opinion; it’s something I’ve heard lots of times, mostly from people who don’t bike often.

It’s a valid question, but I don’t think it’s the right question. I see it everyday: the thing that seems to get everyone hot is when cyclists blow stop signs. Perhaps equally as angering is cyclists riding on sidewalks. I’d add to it cyclists who talk on their mobiles while riding, those who don’t yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, those who ride the wrong way through roundabouts, and so on.

Yet I don’t see those same people asking why motorists are always blowing stop signs — which, on the bike routes, they are. Motorists are also guilty of regularly: going the wrong way through roundabouts, not yielding to traffic already in roundabouts, pulling out of parking spots without signalling — heck, without even looking –, burning red lights, pulling U-turns in the middle of busy streets, etc.

And what about pedestrians!? Crossing the road against red lights. Crossing the road without looking at all. Stepping out from behind parked cars. Crossing diagonally through intersections at a shuffle.

And don’t get me started about the running groups, jogging down the middle of the road, in the “wrong” direction, when there are perfectly good and clear sidewalks on both sides.

I bring this all up because the “Why do cyclists ignore the law?” question misses the point. It’s not all cyclists. It’s not just cyclists.

Further, I don’t think there’s a good answer to the question. My opinion is that the main reason we see these problems is relatively simple: There are no consequences. Whether motorist, cyclist or pedestrian, it’s extremely unlikely that the will VPD ticket anyone for any of the actions I’ve mentioned above. Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be any concern from anyone that they’ll face any consequences. And, there doesn’t seem to be much concern over causing inconvenience, fear, or injury to others. It’s the inward-looking “me-first” attitude of many Vancouverites.

What’s your take? Have I missed the mark? Why do the riding habits of cyclists make so many people mad? Do you think cyclists are held to different standards than motorists and pedestrians? What do you think can be done about it?

Last modified: October 17, 2011

26 Responses to " Why do cyclists ignore the law? "

  1. Alex P says:

    My theory is people, in general, do what is both convenient and easy to get away with. Speeding in a car for example. With almost no special effort required a car will easily go over the 50 km/hr mark along Broadway or 4th, and almost certainly you’ll get away with it. While out shopping, it’s pretty convenient and easy to get away with crossing Broadway mid-block instead of at the pedestrian signal. And on a bike, as in a car, it’s convenient and easy to roll through the stop.

  2. Anthony says:

    That first paragraph should read “The commenter *is* certainly *not* alone in his opinion; it’s something I’ve heard lots of times, mostly from people who don’t bike often.”

  3. Taraneh says:

    Changes made, folks. Let’s get debating. As a cyclist, I often like to get ahead of cars at stop signs and red lights for safety, bc when I stay next to them they overlook me or purposefully squeeze me into the curb. Although I haven’t “blown” a stop sign, this enrages drivers who like to fling verbal abuse. My point: Cycling on the phone/sidewalk is obviously a bad choice, but when a cyclist goes on yellow etc. it’s often a premeditated move motivated by their own safety. When a driver makes the same decision, it’s often motivated by convenience/impatience and is a sure fire way to hit a cyclist/pedestrian with a few tons of metal.

  4. christine says:

    I think that your thoughts are bang on. Vancouver is notorious for bad cyclists, bad motorists and pedestrians who feel it is their right to cross any road at anytime. I don’t see a solution real time soon. Only when the population doubles or triples will people have to become more vigilant. Just go to Rome, London or Paris, they know how to drive, ride and cross streets.

  5. Lindsay says:

    In parts of the US e.g. Idaho, cyclists are allowed to treat stop signs as yield signs i.e. not stop, if determined to be safe. There was no increase in accidents or injuries to cyclists after this change was enacted. The argument in favour has to do with cyclists maintaining moment, their better view ahead and, generally, their lower speed. As a cyclist I’d love to see that here but it’s hard to see many motorists being happy about “special treatment” being given to cyclists.

  6. Prefer to remain anonymous says:

    I frequently cross the road at 1st & Cypress (four-way stop) with my toddler. It’s unbelievable how often we’re almost run down by cyclists flying through the stop signs there.

    I’m terrified that one day one of us will be run down by a bike and suffer a serious injury or worse.

    The big red stop sign means stop for everyone.

    I’m not saying cyclists are bad and car drivers are good. I think only an idiot could a statement like that. But if cyclists are to be on the roads, they too must follow the rules. Same goes for cars, pedestrians, skateboarders, etc.

  7. Walk, Bike, Drive says:

    You had me right up until that last sentence. Let us say that *some* humans that may reside or visit Vancouver are willing to ignore the rules/laws or other simple courtesies. Certainly, not by any stretch of the imagination all people one might encounter in Vancouver. Oh, and a little kind of human trait-we notice and recall the things that strike us in a negative way more so than we notice and recall things that are in line with the way we believe they should be.

    In the last two days alone, I have observed a cyclist on a busy sidewalk growling at pedestrians to get out of her way, two cyclists who had their young children in the trailers behind their bikes riding on the sidewalks, one cyclist that blew a stop sign but then there were at least 50 cyclists that were riding responsibly, safely and courteously. I could provide similar numbers for drivers and pedestrians.

    Let us not box and label people into “cyclists are bad, “drivers are bad” , “pedestrians are bad”-some people always, sometimes, often or rarely do some or all of the above. We can monitor and change our own behaviour and we can role model what we think is the best choice.

    As a person who walks, cycles and drives and has been injured by a driver blowing a stop sign through a cycling route I think we are all human and we can all do our best. Pointing fingers doesn’t quite et us where we need to be-observant of our own and others safety.

  8. C says:

    Having just relocated from Kits to Vancouver Island, the cycling problem gets worse in the smaller cities simply because people aren’t used to cyclists. I appreciate what you wrote that there are just as many bad drivers and pedestrians as bad cyclists. I don’t think that cyclists are any worse than other methods of transportation, it’s just that the hate for cyclists is louder because of numbers.

    I agree that there are many cyclists who don’t know what their rights and responsibilities are because there’s no manual you have to read before you become a cyclist. That being said, I feel that drivers need to be educated more about the rights cyclists have to the road. I think that a lot of drivers don’t realize that cyclists have equal rights to the road as they do.

    Vancouver’s efforts to a be a more bike-friendly city is great, the benefits of cycling to the individual and community are obvious. However, as with all new things, there needs to be the education to supplement the changes.

  9. Prefer to remain anonymous says:

    Walking home now, and in the time it took to walk past 1st and cypress intersection I counted 9 cyclists go through without stopping, 4 of which came too close to pedestrians who were crossing.

  10. Eric says:

    1. Pedestrians pose no direct threat to their surroundings.
    2. Cars pose a great direct threat due to their weight and size.

    I think bikers occupy a weird space between pedestrians and drivers, because if they hit a car, they are likely to only injure themselves and if they hit a person, it will likely be a non-critical injury. There’s simply less offensive risk involved with a bike than a car. That’s why people break the laws and why police don’t waste their time enforcing it.

    That being said, motorists, bikers and pedestrians alike can indirectly cause accidents. It’s the aforementioned direct causes that lead bikers to believe that they should not be held to the strict standards of automobile operation.

  11. Anthony says:

    @Lindsay I think yield signs could be used to great advantage here, particularly on the bike routes. Yield signs work just like stop signs – unless there’s no opposing traffic. Many cyclists (including me) treat some stop signs as defacto yields when there’s no one there anyway. The danger is when there is opposing traffic or pedestrians. Many cyclists still blow the stop sign, rather than stop and let the traffic/pedestrian cross.

    @anonymous I agree with you. The 1st/Cypress intersection is one that brings out a lot of bad behaviour – mostly bikes, but I’ve had cars blow the stop sign or turn into the path of bike/pedestrians too. I’m not too sure what the solution there is. It’s not a good location for a traffic circle, but I don’t think it has enough traffic for a full-on stop light.

    @eric “Pedestrian pose no threat to their surrounds” I have to disagree there. Pedestrians regularly step off sidewalks, between parked cars into my way on the bike routes without looking at all. A collision between a cyclist at 25 kph and a pedestrian is lose-lose for both. Particularly, there have been a few incidences this year (here, Toronto) where pedestrians have been killed as a result of a collision with a cyclist.

    I’m quite happy with all the comments here. I cynically expected more of the vitriol I encounter while cycling rather than reasoned commentary. Over the next few months, I’ll be addressing some of the education bits of the issue, starting with everyone’s favourite: traffic circles.

  12. Evan says:

    I have to take issue with you reasoning for why pedestrians pose “no threat” to their surroundings. Any accident involving a pedestrian will be most damaging to the person unprotected by a car body or even bike helmet- the pedestrian. As a driver or cyclist, you have a responsibility for the safety of people on the street vulnerable to you and your vehicle.

  13. Bill Barilko says:

    People disregard traffic laws because they can do so with impunity-as someone with a commercial driving licence who is also a long time city cyclist I’d like to see much more rigorous enforcement of cyclists who blow stop signs & ride on sidewalks-and not just because I live a few blocks from 1st & Cypress.

    Education of cyclists would help the city wide situation but without enforcement people soon slide back into their old habits.

    Increased enforcement won’t happen without a few nasty high profile accidents though-that’s the world we live in.

  14. Taylor says:

    I think a lot of what’s been said here is bang on.
    My take is that people forget everyone else’s perspective when they’re in their own ‘mode’. When you’re in car-mode, you are interested in going far, fast, and you don’t want anyone getting in your way because more time in the car means more $ spent.
    When in bike-mode, people think they’re god’s gift to the earth; eco-minded, slower moving, sustainable and quiet. They tend to forget that for pedestrians and cars, a biker is the worst of both worlds–too fast for walkers and too slow for cars, and like a car, a biker is interested in reducing the effort they have to use in order to move. This makes them want to roll through stop signs, bike on sidewalks when streets are crowded, etc.
    When in walking mode, people think everyone should just get out of their way. You’re being environmental, you’re moving nice and slowly, you’re quiet and unobtrusive, etc. Walkers forget though that they have the most maneuverability out of all methods of transport. They can sidestep on the sidewalk, turn slightly to increase space, move to the other side of the street, and choose to take more scenic routes vs. clogging up main arteries.

    If people remembered all of these differences and sensitivities when in any mode of transportation, everyone would be a lot safer and we’d all get a long a lot better 🙂

  15. Eric says:

    @anthony
    @evan

    To clarify, when I spoke about pedestrians causing a threat I specifically mentioned “direct” threat. Pedestrians won’t crush/kill/maim another person with their body. (though they be injured themselves or cause a situation that compounds into further accidents).

    In an environment with a mix of cars, bikes, and people, Cars are by far have the most potential for destruction. Since the city isn’t in the businees of taylor-making laws for 3 modes of transportation, bikers and pedestrians cherry-pick what they’ll obey, based on the destructive risk they pose to the people around them, which is minimal to none.

  16. St says:

    You’re way off if you think the risk of a cyclist to a pedestrian (or to another cyclist) is minimal to none. There are plenty of collisions between cyclists & cyclists and between cyclists & pedestrians every year in this city – that completely destroy the lives of the people involved. They’re not exciting enough for front page news, but they happen, and they suck.

  17. Eric says:

    Precisely – it’s not a big enough deal to make the news. What kind of numbers do you want? For every 100 auto-related deaths, how many cyclist-cause deaths? 1? maybe .5? It’s not even close.

    Trying to say that bikers or pedestrians are remotely as dangerous as a car is out of touch with reality.

  18. Myles says:

    I believe that the rules of the road are the rules for everyone on the road – Cars, Motorcycles, Trucks and Bikes.

    1. Why do (some) cyclist go around the right side of cars turning right? Once a car has already signaled right, and has started to move half way around the corner (waiting for pedestrians), some cyclists will “come out of no where” and jump into the crosswalk. This is so dangerous! If you are going to be on the road, stay on the road – you are not a pedestrian. You can’t have it both ways.

    2. As it pertains to “blowing stop signs,” If I come to a complete stop at a 4-way stop in my car, I should be permitted to proceed, so long as the intersection is clear. I should not have to wait to see if the cyclist – approaching from a perpendicular street is going to stop first. These days, I can’t assume that they will. And there have been many times that I have stopped and then started to go, only to have to slam on the brakes being cut off by a cyclist blowing the stops sign. It’s maddening.

    I respect cyclists on the road and I expect them to respect all the laws, as I do as a driver.

  19. matt says:

    Myles:

    If anyone, including you, ever comes to a complete stop, on the stop line, in Kitislano without a pedestrian actually in the road in front of them, I suspect that the sky will shortly fall. The typical best case I see is rolling over the line to nose out into the intersection, stopping to look for traffic. There’s a good reason the line is where it is: pedestrians. I’m quite sure for every time you’ve slammed your brakes for a cyclist, I’ve had to step back (sometimes *jump* back) for someone looking left while they’re turning right, rolling through a stop sign, over a marked crosswalk, or over the sidewalk coming out of a parking lot: all times when drivers are required to stop.

    This is the point of the article – people are very quick to condemn cyclists in very broad terms, but essentially the same habit in drivers isn’t worthy of comment. This is despite the fact that in absolute terms, drivers do it more, and cause more accidents when doing so (even if you simply limit it to car/car accidents). Why is this not a problem? Why do self-described “obey all the laws” drivers not see themselves for the miniscule minority they very objectively are?

  20. Eric says:

    RE: Myles

    Perhaps cyclists sometimes go around “the right side of cars turning right”, because designated bike lanes are situated to the right of turning auto traffic. This is common downtown. I don’t think there’s a clear understanding that a cyclist is supposed to yield to a car turning across his lane, or parked in it while waiting for crosswalkers.

  21. Diana says:

    Regarding cars turning right while on a bike lane, cyclists actually have the right away and cars should yield to them. I was confused with this also and checked with @VancouverPD.

  22. Wayne says:

    As a cyclist, I admit I see Stop signs as de facto Yield signs. I slow down, but can see there’s nothing coming, so what’s the point in stopping? (If I stopped on the line, I’d be too far back to be able to see what’s coming anyway.) Of course, if there’s other traffic (with wheels or feet), then I’d stop, or at the very least give way; that’s just common sense. What often gets me confused and nervous is when drivers who have right of way stop for me. Are they simply being over-cautious?

    By the way, Christine made me laugh:
    “Just go to Rome, London or Paris, they know how to drive, ride and cross streets.”
    As a Londoner who lived and cycled many years in continental Europe, I think Vancouverites should appreciate how easy they have it here, and how scary it is to cycle in so many other cities of the world.

  23. Wayne says:

    While I’m here, some advice please. Just yesterday, I had cause to shout at a driver at this famous 1st and Cypress junction. He had actually stopped at the line (I think every approach was busy), but as I cycled up to his right (I was turning right myself), he pulled off to turn right without signalling, or presumably looking. I shouted “hey!” and “indicate!” to him, and the elderly driver braked and looked startled. He rolled down his window, and I said “you weren’t indicating to turn right”. He said he would do so next time and I said “Thank you”. A satisfactory result? Certainly more civilised than some exchanges I’ve been involved in before moving here.

    However, onlookers were muttering, and it made me wonder if I had actually been in the wrong to approach on the right of the driver. I wouldn’t have done if he’d been signalling already, but I suppose technically I should have stayed behind him and not cut in line. On the other hand, he’s someone who might take a little extra care of cyclists from now on.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts (and flames).

  24. Bike Hanger says:

    As Wayne said, as a cyclist I tend to treat Stop signs as Yield signs. If I’m on a quiet residential street I’m not going to expend the energy to stop and get back up to speed when I can clearly see there isn’t a car in sight. If there’s traffic then I’ll stop. Otherwise it’s a slow down, check for traffic, then go through.

  25. Neil Young says:

    I drive 15k a year, and ride 5k a year – and on both modes of transport, I stop at stop signs, admittedly I coast through a few yellows…but the point being this:

    – Bikes belong on the roads
    – Bikes must obey the rules as do cars
    – Without enforcement, cyclists will continue to bend the rules.

    While I 1st and Cypress is a a good example, the other two that seem to really confuse everyone is 8th and either MacDonald or Alma. Heading east/west – there are crossWALKS – yet drivers seem to feel the need to stop traffic and relinquish their right of way for cyclists. Maybe we should put stop signs on 8th – that should clear things up! 🙂

  26. Neil Young says:

    @Wayne – yep, you’re in the wrong – you should not be passing on the right:

    Passing on right

    158 (1) The driver of a vehicle must not cause or permit the vehicle to overtake and pass on the right of another vehicle, except

    (a) when the vehicle overtaken is making a left turn or its driver has signalled his or her intention to make a left turn,

    (b) when on a laned roadway there is one or more than one unobstructed lane on the side of the roadway on which the driver is permitted to drive, or

    (c) on a one way street or a highway on which traffic is restricted to one direction of movement, where the roadway is free from obstructions and is of sufficient width for 2 or more lanes of moving vehicles.

    (2) Despite subsection (1), a driver of a vehicle must not cause the vehicle to overtake and pass another vehicle on the right

    (a) when the movement cannot be made safely, or

    (b) by driving the vehicle off the roadway.