Bad Cyclists Are Irrelevant

You know about the bad cyclist. The one who doesn’t wear a helmet, ignores traffic signals, and flouts the rules of the road. And there’s more. They violate common decency and common sense and just don’t get that there’s a world out there.

Sometimes, drivers let you know you’re this person. They slow down, roll down their window, either hurl expletives at you or tell you what you’re doing wrong. Because it’s their right as a driver.  They pay taxes, after all.

You’ve certainly been forced to account for this person, usually by acquaintances, co-workers, fellow party guests. This mythic baddie is either related to you or a good friend, and you can both explain the person’s behavior and tell them to change their ways the next time you see them. Maybe it’s because these people believe cyclists are less than human, which apparently, is a thing.

Cyclists often complain about the bad cyclists as well. Supposedly, they make other cyclists look bad and worse, make it harder for cyclists to gain acceptance, or worse, make it harder for various street designs to be changed, because if cyclists aren’t behaving well, then the roads shouldn’t be safer.

I agree that the optics are bad. But these bad cyclists are irrelevant to any discussion about bikes. Or, rather, they’re as relevant as the bad drivers you never bother to have acquaintances, co-workers, fellow party guests to account for. And those bad drivers might well be more common than the mythic bad cyclists, at least in Denmark.

The activities of bad cyclists are not so bad. They might be annoying, and they might cause people to feel scared in the “that #$@* almost hit me” kind of way, but those complaints don’t mean much. Annoying? Lots of things are annoying. “Almost” hit you? Almost doesn’t count for anything. The most common explanation for both claims is that non-cyclists typically do not know how to react to cyclists. This is a risk homeostasis issue. The people complaining typically have not accounted for the risk and they don’t know what they should do. They were standing in a bike lane, or crossing the street against the light, or were too busy with their head in their phone to notice the cyclist. The plus is that the cyclist was noticed, and being noticed is safer than not being seen.

Smart cyclists would rather slow a car down and risk a honking or a yell from an open window, then risk a car coming too close. Think of it this way. You’re riding on a narrow road. There are lots of potholes where the cyclist is expected to ride. She can ride there, and risk crashing, can ride there and suddenly swerve out to the middle of the road, and risk getting hit, or can move out in the lane, possibly slowing down automotive traffic behind her, but making it safer for both. Yes, the driver has to slow down for some seconds, but it’s not a highway. According to the law, the road is to be shared. And hitting the cyclist would be bad for both the cyclist and the driver. They might hate the cyclist, but a hit-and-run accident is nothing a driver wants, and an accident means stopping and waiting for police and possibly ambulance, which takes far more time than the few seconds it costs to slow down.

The biggest complaint seem to be the alleged ignoring of red lights. Yes, the cyclist broke the law. What of it? Drivers break the law all the time, and it pretty much starts when the driver turns on the engine, and continues pretty much until they shut the car down. They ignore red lights, too. They speed, turn without signaling, ride over double yellow lines, tailgate, drive while texting, and more. Cyclists rarely honk at a driver and tell him to get off the road just because they broke a traffic law.

That drivers are serial law-breakers never comes up when drivers discuss the behavior of cyclists. Apparently, society has accepted that lawlessness, or at least accepted the risk it brings.

And, to be fair to cyclists, cyclists are actually not ignoring red lights. They’re utilizing them to improve their safety (or they believe in the Idaho Stop). Cyclists who ride through reds often view them as a possible tactical advantage. They realize they can get a clear roadway without having to worry about lots of cars bearing down on them. Everyone wants a clear road ahead of them, even drivers. Ironically, many cyclists get honked at by drivers speeding to get up to a red light, and then those same drivers complain when the cyclist goes through the red to get away from the speeding driver.

And even if that’s not enough, think of this. The person bearing the risk in ignoring the red is the cyclist, not the driver or pedestrian. If a cyclist hits a pedestrian, the cyclist gets hurt. If the cyclist gets hit by a car, the cyclist loses. And loses big.

The flip side is if a driver screws up and hits a cyclist. The cyclist loses then as well.

Cyclists do not want to hit anybody. It’s gonna hurt the cyclist, no matter who or what they hit. As a friend of mine liked to say, “no cyclist ever won a battle with a quarter panel.”

This is the big reason why “bad” cyclists are irrelevant. They are not a risk to the general population: they are a risk to themselves. Less than 200lbs of bike and rider traveling at less than 20mph, often times much less, is orders of magnitude less dangerous than 4,000lbs or more, sometimes much more, of car and driver traveling over 20mph, oftentimes much more. Cyclists might be responsible for, at most, a handful of deaths in the United States every year, while drivers are responsible for over 40,000 deaths annually, along with 4.5 million injuries serious enough for a doctor to be consulted.

If you want to know how small the risk of a cyclist causing injury to others is, look at the statistics gathered. The federal government does not report on cyclists who have hit pedestrians. Most states don’t seem to report on it, either.

Bad cyclists are not a real risk to anyone but themselves. When people bring them up, they’re distracting from the mayhem of automotive traffic.

We need to change the subject.


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