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Cyclists break traffic laws for personal safety and to save energy, study

Research suggests place matters more than individual characteristics when it comes to predicting a cyclists bahaviour

Commuters on bicycle in the city.

Commuters on bicycle in the city.

Cyclist often feel they need to frequently defend their and other cyclists behaviour. Be it because of minor infractions that are unmistakenly illegal like rolling through a stop sign or entirely legitimate like taking their lane on the road. A new study published in The Journal of Transport and Land Use details the reasons and ways cyclist tend to break traffic laws and the findings are not entirely shocking if you feel cyclists are making calculated, rational decisions in doing so.

Research Purpose

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. They also wanted to understand if cyclists, like drivers and pedestrians, were making rational choices to break the law or whether their behaviour was simply reckless and dangerous.


In order to collect the data, the researchers used what is called snowball sampling, a methodology that is good at reaching populations that are hard for researchers to access. The researchers collected data using a scenario-based online survey that received 18,000 responses. The data was analyzed to better understand lawbreaking in different demographics like level of education, ethnicity, age, income, and car ownership.

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Two cyclists in a busy part of the town


The most significant result the researchers uncovered 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.

In the overall data set four per cent of respondents could be considered fully law abiding. About 80 per cent of respondents engaged in minor infractions with 16 per cent engaging in major infractions. The authors define minor infractions as those with minimal risk or potential conflict with other road users. An example of a minor infraction might be rolling through a four-way stop. Only 0.6 per cent of respondents would be considered reckless and dangerous cyclists according to the data collected. As age increased, the likelihood of being an unlawful cyclist decreased.

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Interestingly, the researchers found that it is the unmeasured social and contextual norms of a city that tend to outweigh individual bicyclist characteristics such as race, age, income, or ethnicity when it comes to the level of illegal bicycling behaviours they undertake. Unsurprisingly, it is younger people, males and those comfortable riding in mixed traffic that are the cyclist most likely to exhibit unlawful riding habits.

While younger people, males, utilitarian cyclists, and those more comfortable riding in mixed traffic tend to exhibit higher levels of unlawful bicycling behavior, the overwhelming majority of bicyclists are not reckless, even when combining the high-risk factors the researchers found.


Overwhelmingly, the unlawful riding of cyclists is not considered reckless according to the study. Instead, the majority of infractions are calculated and done in circumstances that pose low risk to the individual and others. Most of these infractions are motivated by concerns for personal safety and to save energy.

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.

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The findings raise the question of why our cities and roads make cyclists feel unsafe, and how place matters in being a major factor in the behaviour of cyclists.