The bicyclist as a scofflaw is a common misperception


By Jonathan Krall

Jonathan Krall

As a supporter of healthful bicycling, I am often asked why people who ride bicycles so often disobey the law.

The short answer is that, in an effort to get to their destinations, almost everyone breaks the law in ways they consider “safe,” even though “safe” is not always safe.

Here in Alexandria, some have reacted to cyclist rolling stops by taking the law into their own hands. In the most recent case, a gentleman wrote a letter to the Alexandria Times (“Cyclists will break the law as long as they can get away with it,” May 23), describing his verbal assault upon a cyclist in the midst of a rolling stop.

Such behavior is itself dangerous. Earlier this year, a person on foot was reportedly physically grabbing and pushing cyclists at an intersection in Old Town. Again, it was people doing rolling stops on bicycles who were assaulted. The police were called, but the vigilante was not caught.

My concern is that these assailants targeted cyclists based on the myth that people become scofflaws when they ride bicycles. After all, there is nothing about contact with a bicycle that induces temporary insanity. Then again, perhaps I don’t ride the most exciting type of bicycle.

People on bicycles are often viewed as interlopers on our streets. Reacting emotionally, some drivers view them as unnecessary obstacles while some pedestrians view them as outsized threats. Traffic studies, on the other hand, show that people who ride bicycles react to the perceived danger of bicycling by sensibly choosing caution over recklessness.

For example, this caution extends to the use of alcohol: A study of fatal crashes showed that intoxication rates were 63 percent for pedestrians, 52 percent for drivers and only 33 percent for cyclists. This is discussed in the book “City Cycling,” co-authored by Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech, who teaches graduate studies in Alexandria. Sadly for the fashion-sensitive among us, cyclist caution also favors rather garish clothing

The mistaken idea that cyclists are less cautious than others has its root in two facts. First, while drivers and pedestrians generally have clearly assigned space on our streets, cyclists do not. In an effort to squeeze the round peg of bicycling into the square hole of our roadways, the law generally allows cyclists to use either traffic lanes or sidewalks.

Cyclists also are allowed to ride next to lanes of stopped cars (in the absence of a bike lane, moving toward the front of the line enhances visibility and safety). Cyclists are required to ride to the right of the lane but are encouraged to ride in the center of the lane when it narrows.

Taken as a whole, the practice of bicycling seems inconsistent, even as most individuals ride legally. This general inconsistency is mistaken for general carelessness.

Second, because bicycles have safety advantages over cars, a “safe” rolling stop on a bicycle is faster than a “safe” rolling stop in a car. The cyclist’s view is not obstructed by the walls and roof of a car, and further, cyclists can view cross-traffic without pushing their vehicle several feet into an intersection. Because people commonly assume that typical driver behavior is safe and correct, these faster rolling stops are described as reckless.

As it turns out, the opposite is true. Rolling stops on bicycles are legal in some jurisdictions, most notably the state of Idaho, with the caveat that the usual right-of-way rules must be obeyed. Where legalized, crashes have not increased.

As Americans drive less and bicycle more, we have an opportunity to redesign our roads for people instead of cars, thereby improving safety for all. 
 Continuing to squeeze the round peg of bicycling into the square hole of our traffic network is not the answer. Assaulting cyclists is absolutely not the answer. Let us instead keep calm and, if needed, report lawbreaking to the police.

The writer is a member of 
the Alexandria Bicycle and 
Pedestrian Advisory Committee.



  1. I have to admit to using a “rolling stop” at times when crossing through Old Town. There are situations where a full stop at a stop sign will mean leaving the stop with a car, and riding next to the car as we cross the intersection and move along the street. This is the least desirable, and probably least safe positioning to be in. Often a rolling stop will allow me to position myself slightly in front or slightly behind (and to the side) of a car moving through the intersection, which is a much better situation.

  2. We all take liberties with many behaviors, not just transportation-related ones. Cyclists are at greater risk because of their lack of surrounding hard surfaces’ protections. Why can’t we all just get along? Because 100+ years of combustion engine dominance in the US is an awfully hard habit to break, and most of North America’s transportation infrastructure still favors combustion engine operators. There will never be anyone who conforms with any (driving) laws 100% of the time unless there is 100% consistent or persistent enforcement. We all conduct some unsafe/irresponsible/questionable behaviors some of the time. The bigger question is who’s got the leverage, who’s taking the risks? You’re only entitled to endanger yourself, not others.

  3. If you watch cars and bicycles at stop signs, you will find that a great number of the cars fail to come to a full stop and often roll through at about the same speed that bicycles do. Since the bike doesn’t obviously decelerate, drivers interpret it as recklessness. As if using a 30 pound device could ever be as reckless as operation of a 3000 pound car!

  4. This is a refreshing article and discussion focusing on the safety of bicyclists vs pedestrians. Articles usually focus around the tangles between automobiles and bicyclists and usually make the statement that automobiles don’t respect bicyclists and don’t share the road.

    Pedestrian safety around bicyclists is a big issue in Old Town. All you have to do is stand at the intersection of King and Union Street on any given day and count the number of bicyclists that actually stop at those stop signs. Most don’t stop for the signs and many don’t even slow down for them. I believe there is a sign posted for bicyclist to remind them that they are required to stop at stop signs.

    In the several year that I’ve lived in Old Town I’ve witnessed many pedestrians having near misses with bicyclists while the pedestrian was legitimately walking within a crosswalk / on sidewalks and had the right-of-way . I’ve actually seen a few pedestrians hit by bicyclists and I’ve almost been hit several times while walking in the crosswalks and while walking on the Mount Vernon Trail. A 20+ pound bicycle and rider traveling at speed can do quite a bit of injury to a pedestrian. It can even damage a automobile and injure a driver if it causes a chain reaction accident.

    A cyclist blowing a stop sign as somehow making it “safer” reminds me of how many motorcyclist say the “reason” that they have modified their motorcycle exhaust to make it louder because it makes it “safer” to ride a motorcycle. It doesn’t. It’s just breaking the law and makes a lot of noise. If it made it safer then automobiles wouldn’t be required to have mufflers. For what it’s worth I’m an avid walker, bicyclist, and motorcyclist. I do have a car that I drive but do so very seldom in comparison to the other three modes of transportation. I do stop for stop signs and red lights while riding my bicycle, motorcycle, and driving my automobile.

    If bicyclist want to be respected on the road then they need obey the laws of the road just like they expect everyone else to do so. Pedestrians should also use crosswalks and cross when they have the right-of-way. Transportation laws are intended to make it safe for “Everyone” not just a few. Trying to justify breaking the law because others do so or because you think it is safer for you is not really a good excuse.

  5. I feel a rolling stop is almost never acceptable, but not for the most obvious reason (safety). We are all part of civil society, one that is supposed to honor just laws and be mindful of each other. One might feel safer when executing a rolling stop, but every driver and pedestrian that sees it happen sees them as breaking the law…..which they are. Enough with the explanations and equivocations; it’s time we stop trying to justify it, and NOT DO IT.

    • Alex; the reality is that if you observe an intersection, it is in fact cars that break the law nearly all of the time as they roll over the crosswalk boundaries, often endangering pedestrians even though such motorists should “NOT DO IT.” Add to this the sheer volume of deaths, injuries, and mayhem caused by motorists, and you have scientific evidence of a major crisis for society and indeed the planet when it comes to cars — compared to the preachings of those like you regarding the use of bicycles by people who pay taxes for motorist infrastructure (that these cyclists often cannot use for cycling or do not use re: cars), cost less in health care because they are not nearly as unhealthy as motorists, and who are probably smarter too (just a guess given the responses above from motorists versus cyclists).

  6. Excellent article! I plan to share it! I particularly appreciate the 11th (I think) paragraph that discusses the advantage of the unobstructed view of a cyclist. I’ve tried to explain that to people as well. Furthermore, I’ve explained to friends that (IMHO) a “feet on the ground” stop for a bicyclist is similar to a “put it in park and pull the emergency brake” stop for a motorist.