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Cyclists break traffics laws to stay safe, study finds

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A new study published in the Journal of Transport and Land Use, details when, how, and why cyclists decide to break traffic laws.

While many studies have sought to understand the reasons motorist break the law, fewer have focused on cyclists. Wesley E. Marshall, an engineer and sociologist from the University of Colorado, and Daniel Piatkowski, an urban planning professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, wanted to better understand rule-breaking cyclists and the factors associated with their unlawful behaviours.

“Everyone breaks the law, but things like going over the speed limit in a car are socially acceptable; we don’t see that as criminal,” says Dr. Wesley Marshall.  “When cyclists break the law, are they behaving like this image of a bike messenger’s reckless behavior, or are they behaving rationally, like a jaywalker?”

The researchers reached 18,000 cyclists and then sliced the data to analyze lawbreaking by demographics like age, education, ethnicity, income, and even whether they own a car.

The most significant result was that 71 per cent of the time, when cyclists break traffic rules, they do so for reasons of personal safety. This compares to the most prevalent response amoung pedestrians and drivers who site saving time as the reason they disregard traffic laws.

77 per cent of drivers and 85 per cent of pedestrians say they break traffic laws to save time. This compares to 50 per cent of cyclists who responded that saving time was the reason they break traffic laws. Saving energy was the next most common response with 56 per cent of cyclists giving it as a reason they break traffic laws.

Marshall said that the most surprising thing his study suggests is that where someone lives matters more than who they are.

“Typically, you’d think that demographics would be important, and they were, but where they lived and rode mattered the most,” he says. What’s more, Marshall, who recently moved to Sydney, Australia for a six-month sabbatical to study traffic safety there, suspects that place can change a rider’s habits. “I’ve been riding a lot here and I’ve been behaving more like a Sydney rider,” he observes. “The social norms of place matter.”

The study also stated that after analysis of the results and review of the literature that despite the perception that cyclists need to obey the rules in order to be taken seriously as road users, drivers tend to break the rules as much if not more frequently than cyclists and are motivated by a desire to save time unlike cyclists who are concerned for their personal safety. Like other road users, when cyclists disobey traffic laws they are doing so rationally.