Our PR Problem: Self-righteous Spandex-wearing Scofflaws


“Bicycles Also” signs like this should not really be necessary, for a lot of reasons.

I can’t tell you how many times people complain about “cyclists” who run red lights, blow through stop signs, ride without lights at night or and don’t pay for the roads.  If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that cyclists should be taught the rules of the road and given a test like motorists, I could retire and move to Copenhagen where those things actually happen.

But it surprised me to still hear these tired myths brought up in response to sincere requests to level the playing field when innocent people riding bicycles or walking are killed by someone driving a car who has been proven to be negligent. It is one thing to complain about “scofflaws” and quite another to tell someone who has lost a loved one or friend that anyone walking or bicycling deserves what they get because roads are meant for cars and all “cyclists” are self-righteous, spandex wearing law breakers.

Last Tuesday at the Bike Fed’s Lobby Day in Madison, that actually happened to a person who had taken the time off to travel to the Capitol because friend bicycling legally and safely on a straight, rural road in broad daylight. When meeting with her elected representative, the legislator balked at supporting the Vulnerable User Law. He went on to tell his constituent, that even though the driver admitted guilt and has been charged,”bicyclists” don’t obey the laws and although it may be legal to ride a bike on the road, the roads were meant for cars and people deserve what they get if they choose to roll the dice and ride somewhere other than trails.

To the credit of our citizen advocate, who had the support of a Bike Fed staffer and one of our paid lobbyists in the meeting, she responded with facts and a rational argument that all road users have a right to expect people in cars to obey the laws. In fact the group did such a good job making the case for Vulnerable Users Law, that the legislator eventually apologized and said he would likely support the bill if it comes to a vote on the floor. While that is great, and it shows the importance of talking to the people we vote for about issues we care about, it also points to a genuine public relations problem bicycling has.

There seems to be an almost universal perception that as soon as someone puts a leg over a bicycle, they stop obeying traffic laws. I think this is because the laws that are easy to break and get away with on a bicycle are much more obvious. Having studied traffic safety for more than a decade, it is my contention that people break the traffic laws they can get away with, no matter what mode of travel they are using. People in cars know they can get away with driving 5-10 mph over the speed limit and that they don’t have to stop for someone trying to walk across the street in a crosswalk. People walking know they can cross against the “Don’t Walk” light at a signalized intersection if no cars are coming, and people on bicycles know they can run red lights or stop signs in similar situations. But what are the actual statistics? Are people on bicycles more likely to break laws than people in cars?

These scofflaws are actually in the minority.

When I was the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator for the City of Milwaukee Dept. of Public Works, part of my job was to investigate complaints about speeding on neighborhood streets and when people said they had trouble crossing a street at a crosswalk. Before I could respond with a solution to these complaints, I needed facts so we did studies to check for speeding and to see what percentage of people failed to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. I also did bicycle counts at intersections where I checked to see how many people obeyed the traffic signals.

So what did these studies find?  Get ready for a big shock, but my studies found that in general, people riding bicycles tend to be more law-abiding than people driving cars. The percentage of people riding bicycles that made illegal maneuvers (ran red lights, rode on sidewalks, or rode against traffic) through the intersections where we did the counts varied from 11% to 48%.  To say it another way, the majority of people who ride bikes obey the law. This definitely runs counter common perceptions.

(Click to see larger image) As you can see, every car recorded to the right of 25mph is breaking the law. More cars are going above the posted limit than at or below the limit. So most people driving cars are breaking the law.

What about people driving cars?  How law-abiding are motorists?  Milwaukee DPW has done a lot of radar speed studies because so many people complain about speeders on the street where they live.  The results of the speed studies vary, but in almost every case the results show a bell curve shifted to the right of the posted speed limit, as in this speed study to the left. While the results of the speed studies I did varied, they did not vary as much as the bike counts.  In some speed studies, the median speed is at or just below the posted speed limit by a mile or two per hour, which means that in the best case scenario a little less than  half of the people driving down our neighborhood streets are breaking the law by speeding.

The other major traffic complaint concerns failing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.  You may have noticed many cities have begun to put in curb extensions (“bump-outs”) and R1-6 in-street “Yield to Pedestrians: State Law” signs.  You can see these bump outs and sign in Milwaukee, Madison, Wauwatosa, the Wisconsin Dells and in many other communities across the state. These are typical engineering responses to complaints where people say they can’t get across a street because the cars won’t stop for them when they are in the crosswalk.

(Click to see larger image) As you can see, even after a media campaign and installation of sign in the middle of the road, 61% of motorists still broke the law and did not yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.

There have been a couple pretty good studies done to check the effectiveness of these signs.  The first study was done in Whitefish Bay by Bay Ridge Consulting.  In that study, before Whitefish Bay installed the in-street yield to pedestrian signs, 94% of motorists failed to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.  The study then checked twice after the signs were installed and a there was a media campaign to alert people about the law requiring motor vehicles to yield to pedestrians.  In the final check, the yield compliance rate increased to 39%, which is a big jump, still not very good odds if you are betting your child’s life when they walk to and from school.

(Click to see larger image) In two of the study locations, 100% of the drivers broke the law and failed to yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalks.

The second yield compliance study was done more recently by Mark McComb.  He looked at a wider variety of crosswalks, some with the in-street yield signs, some without, some crosswalks in the City of Milwaukee and some outside the city. His results were more disappointing.  The best result he got was 23% of motorists yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk at Oakland and Olive.  But at two study locations, none of the cars yielded to pedestrians. So while I agree that we would all be safer if everyone (people walking, people riding bikes and people driving motor vehicles) would obey all the traffic laws all the time, it is pretty clear that people will break the laws they think they can get away with if they think it will add convenience to their lives.  People riding bicycles are no worse than any other user of our roads.  In fact, our studies suggest people who ride bikes are more law-abiding by quite a large margin than people who drive cars (often these are the same people).

So why do we have this reputation as arrogant scofflaws? Perhaps it is because the culture of driving a car is shared by the majority of adults and that speeding and ignoring people trying to cross the street is part of that shared experience. In fact, speeding is so accepted that it is called ‘driving with the flow of traffic,” and people know they can drive 5-10 mph over the posted limit right past a State Patrol car with radar out without fear of a ticket. Driving a car through a red light is still not generally accepted behavior (though it does happen quite frequently), so perhaps to a person sitting at a red light behind the wheel of a car, it seems more flagrant, or a personal insult when someone on a bike rides blows through the intersection. The problem is compounded by the fact that while most adults drive cars and share a car culture, they don’t ride bicycles for transportation. Although about half of the adults in Wisconsin ride bicycles, the vast majority only ride recreationally. Because they don’t ride to get anywhere, they don’t share the same culture of “driving a bike” where lots of people blow stop signs because they are in a hurry to get to work, the store, etc.

I hope this blog posts helps give you some statistical ammunition for the next time someone calls all “bicyclists” scofflaws. I hope you can now respond with the facts that while people are people, and they tend to break the laws they can get away with breaking if it gets them where they are going faster. And despite the fact that my studies show people on bikes are generally more law-abiding than people in cars, we do have a very real public relations problem. One simple way we can all do our part to fight break the myth is for each of us to always obey the rules of the road when we are on our bicycles and in our cars. Try always driving the speed limit or slower, even on the freeway. When your passengers complain that you are a slow poke, remind them of the law and that you also stop for pedestrians in crosswalk and stop for red lights when you ride a bike.

No matter if you are behind the wheel of a car, on a bike or on foot, we can hold ourselves to a higher standard. But even if you can’t promise not to speed when behind the wheel, for now, go spread the good word, bicyclists are law-abiding, red-blooded, apple pie eating Americans.  We are the good guys.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

10 thoughts on “Our PR Problem: Self-righteous Spandex-wearing Scofflaws

  1. I am sorry but my anecdotal experience riding in Madison and environs about 7000 miles per year does not match your assertions. Bikers seem just as bad as cars in terms of not yielding the right of way and blowing through stop signs, particularly the spandex wearing people.

    In fact, and I admit this is a pet peeve, cars often stop when they should for bikers on the trails who are blowing through stop signs and the drivers get mad at me when I yield the right of way. When I ask a biker who isn’t stopping why they don’t when the stop sign is right there, they tell me that I am not a cop. With all due respect, the stereotype of self-righteous spandex riders is very true in Madison, especially on the west side on the Southwest Bike Path and they have the cars trained to ignore the signs on the bike path and give bikes the right of way when bikes either have stop signs or should yield to a car coming from the right.

    Maybe it is different elsewhere, but it is hard to be a part of a biking group which frankly is indeed self-righteous. Just my two cents., and I bike a lot more than I drive and have been a member of the Bike Fed for years.

    • Jack,

      I have not done or seen any compliance studies in Madison, so I can’t comment specific to those rates. You may be absolutely right, or your remembered personal experiences may differ from actual rates if you did a bike traffic study. Without real statistics, it is hard to really say how bad the problem really is. I am sure you are correct in that there is a significant percentage of people who fit the scofflaw stereotype, but exactly what that number is we cannot say.

      When I managed the traffic-calming program for Milwaukee DPW, I got tons of complaints about speeding on residential streets. In nearly every case, people who lived on the street were absolutely sure that the vast majority of people were driving 40-50mph down their quiet residential street posted 25. Irate home owners demanded stop signs, often asking: “How many people have to die before you do something?” In most cases the bell curve for speeding looked like the one in the story above, with a small percentage of people driving way over the limit, but most speeding by 5mph or less. We also looked at crash reports, and in most cases, there were fewer than 3 crashes a year at the intersection where they wanted the stop sign. I could show people those graphs, the raw data, and point to the radar box we installed, but many still believed the problem to be far worse than it was.

      That is because emotion plays a big role in people’s understanding and judgment. It is just the way we are wired. There are fancy terms, like affect heuristic, to explain it, but bottom line is if somebody on a bike blows through a stop sign when we are stopped, patiently obeying the law, it sticks in our memory and clouds our impression of others.

      It sounds like you are riding a lot, riding safely and riding legally. You are setting a good example, helping to break the stereotype and being the change you want to see in others. That is about all an individual can do. As a member of the Bike Fed, you help support our education programs, where we teach kids and adults to ride legally and safely. We also try to promote facts, while we encourage people to obey the laws. So you talk the talk, walk the walk and put your money where your mouth is.

      If everyone did that, we might just be able to beat the stereotype and loose our PR problem.

      Thanks for reading, writing and riding!

    • Mr. Longert,

      The key word in your comment is “anecdote”. An anecdote is not data; it is a story. The OP provided data.

  2. I to am guilty of not stopping at the signs on a residential street, but slow down as I approach the intersection to check for cars. Major artieries, always stop, at least I think I do.
    My husband on primary roads seems to think he is immune to the signs then complains how he was almost hit by a car. Of course I feel his omissions are worse than mine, but maybe not.

    For the record, I do not cross the street at the crosswalk or corner, and quite sure I drive over the speed limit in many cases.

    The important thing to note is that it is spring, and whether car, bike, running, roller blades, skateboards, we are finally able to enjoy being outdoors having been cooped up for what seemed to be an endless winter.

    We all need to be more cautious and courteous. Happy riding.

  3. why not have police assigned specifically for traffic violations? Money is the problem you say. Well in my town an officer would easily bring in more money in traffic tickets than his/her salary.

    • Dennis,

      I agree with you 100% in principle. We should always try to address traffic safety issues with a combination of the 5 “E”s: Education, Enforcement, Engineering, Encouragement and Evaluation. Sadly, education and encouragement have not been funded at a level that they can have much of a long term impact. As I mentioned on my interview on NPR yesterday, my 17-year-old daughter recently took drivers education. She was not taught anything in the class about laws that relate to bicycles or pedestrians. She passed her written test, which did not have any questions about bicycles or pedestrians on it. So much for education in our society.

      As for enforcement, law enforcement is one of the most expensive programs in the budgets of most municipalities. Law enforcement agencies have been forced to work very hard to maximize efficiencies. The revenue generated by a traffic ticket does not come close to covering the cost of enforcement. That revenue is divided among a lot of different things, depending upon the violation. State statutes determine the amount of the base deposit for traffic violations, excluding traffic violations charged under local ordinance. This procedure ensures uniform base deposits for all Wisconsin state and county traffic citations.

      The result of all this is that most local law enforcement agencies can no longer afford to devote squads just to enforce traffic violations. I wish that was not the case and I wish we did a better job with driver education. The Bike Fed works with law enforcement agencies to help train them on best practices for enforcing laws related to bicycles. We also teach classes to Drivers Education instructors. But we have very limited resources to run those programs.

      50% of the base deposit goes to the county where the citation was issued.
      50% of the base deposit goes to the state common school fund.

      For traffic citations issued for municipal traffic violations, 100% of the base deposit is distributed to the municipality that issued the citation for a municipal traffic violation. But state statutes already cover most moving violations and local ordinances cannot supersede state laws. So for most tickets, very little money goes back to a local police department.

      Here is some additional info from the WisDOT website on where your ticket money goes:

      Court support services fee
      A $68 court support services fee goes to the state to offset county court costs.

      Court cost
      A $25 court cost fee goes partially to the state and partially to the county where the citation was issued to fund overall justice system costs.

      Crime lab and drug assessment fee
      A $13 fee on all violations that have a penalty assessment, except safety belt violations, goes to the state to fund crime laboratory activities.

      Penalty assessment
      The penalty assessment surcharge is 26% of the base deposit. Revenue from each dollar of penalty assessment is divided as follows:

      46 cents goes to the law enforcement training fund within the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
      12 cents is used to develop alcohol and drug abuse education programs by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and the Department of Health Services.
      16 cents goes towards matching federally funded anti-drug enforcement programs and youth diversion programs by the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance.
      10 cents goes toward training correctional officers in the state prison system through the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
      5 cents goes toward program funds for the Office of Justice Assistance.
      11 cents goes toward program funds for the Department of Justice.
      Jail assessment
      The jail assessment surcharge is 1% of the base deposit or $10, whichever is greater. The minimum $10 surcharge is included in the total deposit for all traffic citations except safety belt violation. The fee goes to the county where the citation was issued and is used to construct, remodel, repair or improve county jails.

      Justice information system fee*
      The justice information system fee of $21.50 goes to the state to help computerize the criminal justice system. In Milwaukee County, the JIS fee is an additional $3.50.

      A more specific example:

      Citation distribution for speeding 11-15 mph above posted limit = $175.30

      Court support services fee $68
      Base deposit $30
      Court costs $25
      Justice information fee $21.50
      Crime lab and drug assessment fee $13
      Jail assessment fee $10
      Penalty assessment $7.80

  4. Thanks for sharing those studies I get into these arguments quite often, almost always prompted by motorists who insist they do nothing wrong but they bicyclists are rampant law breakers. It’s easy to stereotype the “other” when you have no understanding of what it’s like to drive a bike on the street.

    First, traffic laws were instituted to control cars as they became more popular and began terrorizing and killing people, and they are generally don’t make sense for bikes. Every bike advocate thinks they have to preach traffic laws in order to have credibility, but that’s not why car drivers don’t like being around bikes. They dislike it because just by being on the road we force them to drive more carefully and attentively, which takes efforts and sometimes a small delay. Also, because most of them don’t also bike, when we do important things like take the lane in places, they think we’re just being rude. Following red lights is not going to change that.

    Second, there is a double standard. Car drivers like to claim bikes should follow the same laws to ensure fairness, but the system is inherently unfair to us anyway. Bikes get penalized in society for this stigma, even while drivers get away with all sorts of violations as you mentioned and nobody ever uses this to reject spending trillions on subsidies for car driving. Yet somehow when bikes disregard one law that’s convenient for drivers (traffic signals) we should be denied safety, equity and other basic rights. Also, when I am driving my bicycle, I always have to be alert for everything around me, so if I can be trusted to avoid errant drivers and road conditions, there’s no reason I can’t be trusted to yield the ROW and then safely proceed against a signal. And if I proceed when safe and don’t hurt or scare anyone, who cares?

    Third, it is not our job to worry about other bicyclists following laws. One thing we need to accept in life is that we usually can’t change others’ behavior, which is why yelling at motorists or other bikers is ineffective. (Although if a bicyclist does something unsafe, a little friendly tip, “hey, you might not realize but it’s a lot more dangerous to ride the wrong way because of cars turning from side streets, etc.” is often appreciated.) Instead, as bicycle advocates we should be focusing on improving safety for bicyclists and creating a culture where it is easy and respectable to ride a bike anywhere for any reason. The more we preach traffic laws which don’t even make sense for us, the less respect we will get from the bike community, and the more we’ll be marginalized and distracted from talking about important things that will actually keep people from dying on the streets. Because let’s face it: bikes are not going to remain stopped at all red lights just because the driver-dominated political systems wants them to, and that is almost never a factor in crashes and near misses.

    The best thing we can do is get more people (and especially regular drivers) on bikes.

  5. The Missouri driver’s manual has a page devoted to rules about cars and bicycles. So questions about these rules can appear on the driver’s test. This helps new drivers learn the rules/laws related to bicycles. However, it does not help older drivers who do not have to retake the test when they renew their license. Other states could learn and improve on this model.

    • The Wisconsin manual also has rules for cars, bicycles and pedestrians. The problem is that the test questions are selected randomly and there is no requirement for the test to include any questions on bicycling or walking. In practice what happens is there the vast majority of written drivers tests that people take never include any questions on bicycling and walking.

      Does Missouri require written tests to include any questions on bicycling and walking?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *