Why Don't Columbus Cyclists Obey the Law?

I've been out with the flu for a few days (no, I'm not oinking), and I missed this surprising post from Jeff Stephens of Consider Biking back on October 9th. Suffice to say that Jeff took some time to sit back and watch the behavior of our city's cyclists, and was dismayed at what he saw.

I'm in complete agreement with Jeff on this issue. Simply too many Columbus cyclists do not obey the law. But let's look at the reasons that Jeff proposed in his commentary:

Why are you riding this way? Are you so self-absorbed, that the world revolves around you? Are you just opportunistic since the bicycle gives you the opportunity to cheat traffic? Are you “expressing yourself” with your nonchalant coolness, hipness, whatever? Or, do you just not know any better? Do you just follow the example of the guy/gal in front of you because you’re new to urban bicycling? (I think it’s the latter.)

Jeff's statement breaks the possible reasons for this behavior down into two extremes:

1. Those who know the law and don't follow it.

2. Those who don't know the law.

And there are probably groups of people who fall into both categories.

The very first thing I did when I started this blog was a rather thorough discussion of what the law is as pertains to cyclists in the city of Columbus. Links for those posts are below.

I wanted to know what exactly was expected of me as I commuted by bike, and what I could expect from the people around me. And a quick look at the law was the easiest way to do this.

But the topic here is WHY? To quote Jeff again:

And don’t give me the “loss of momentum” or “it’s safe because there are no cars” or “cars break the law too” arguments. I’d heard them all ad nauseum. We ought to be better than that. Hold ourselves to a higher standard.

All of the reasons above are nothing but excuses, excuses that aren't going to hold water if you ever actually are stopped. And excuses aren't going to keep you safe when you miss seeing that oncoming truck as you blow through a red light.

So what if you're going to lose momentum? So what if there are no cars? So what if cars are breaking the law, too? The point is that the law exists, and it doesn't exist to try to keep you down, or anything like that. The point is that traffic law is created to keep people safe. If there's one point that I've been hammering on since the day that this blog began, it's this:

The current traffic code in Columbus, if enforced and followed, is more than adequate for ensuring the safety and proper operation of bicycles in this city.

Now, whether the city's police are doing what they should to enforce the law is an entirely different matter, one that I've also tried to get across since starting this blog. But that's neither here nor there in this case. Proper, legal riding has gotten me to a point in my daily riding where I don't fear for my safety because I know that I'm doing what drivers expect and they're doing what I expect. I'm predictable, assertive, and know my place on the road. Most of the time, safety concerns don't even come to mind.

But ignorance of the law is another issue. Sure, you may never have been taught the law as it pertains to bikes. In our car-obsessed culture, that's a fair thing to say. I can't recall ever having been taught bicycle law when I was growing up, either, other than "keep to the right" and "don't ride on the sidewalk downtown" (I didn't grow up in Columbus - that was the law where I grew up).

But even if you've never been told the law as it pertains to bicycles, you can't honestly (key word: HONESTLY) get on your bike and think that the law doesn't apply to you. Somewhere in that head of yours, you know that there are laws that pertain to bicyclists.

But it's your own fault if you don't look it up and use that law to your advantage. Did you know that people getting out of parked cars are responsible for making sure they don't award you the door prize? Did you know that you only have to stay as close to the right side of the road as is practicable? Did you know that there is no "minimum" speed limit that would prohibit a bike from operating on anything except an expressway in Ohio?

So ignorance of the law is no excuse, either. If you're on the road without knowing the law, you're negligent. So either you're negligent or you're a knowing lawbreaker. There's no middle ground, other than you may be both (knowing only some of the law but breaking it anyway).

So perhaps it's most proper to say that there's really only one reason that people have for their scofflaw cycling habits: willful disregard of the law. Either you know it and disregard it, or you don't know it, and you disregard the need to find out what it is.

Either way, you're a menace on the road: a menace to your own safety, and a menace to those who do follow the law and have to deal with the repercussions of your behavior.

So let's discuss this. Those of you who don't follow the law of the road when cycling: why don't you?

People, not speed.


  1. This post doesn't clearly enumerate the laws cyclists are breaking in Columbus. I'm guessing the major infractions are running red lights and stop signs. Secondary to that is probably riding the wrong way, riding on sidewalks, and riding at night without lights.

    Let's just chalk it all up to a lot of n00bs getting in on the currently fashionable Aggressive Urban Cycling Culture.

  2. Jeff's post stated that 9 of 10 cyclists he saw were running red lights and riding in the parking lane. So yes, you're partially correct on that account.

    Most of it does come down to education, that's for sure. But my point is that if you're going to ride the road, you should take the time to see what you're allowed to do and how you should behave. Anything less is laziness and, frankly, disrespect for others on the road - particularly those cyclists who DO follow the law.

  3. check out my blog - Regarding Retro Reflective helping bikers ride safer at night or in the dark.

  4. its way more fun to ride safely with no regard to the laws than following everything to the letter. Get over it. You should limit your attempts to reduce lawlessness to things that actually reduce safety and not lawbreaking in general.

  5. Okay, Allan, I'll bite. What are those things?

    Running red lights? Dangerous.

    Riding on the sidewalk? Dangerous.

    Riding against traffic? Dangerous.

    Like I said - the traffic laws are there for our safety and the safety of everyone on the roads. If you can't have fun without breaking the law, perhaps you need to reassess your values.

  6. Mikael Colville-Andersen, the cycling advocate from Copenhagen was in NYC recently and commented about how running red lights and breaking traffic laws was just inconsiderate and rude, and how important it was in a "transitional bicycling culture" to set a good example as "advertising" for bicycle culture. It really resonated with me.

  7. Absolutely true, Cycler.

    I liken this to another instance of me being in a minority trying to get attention and respect: being a soccer fan. Lots of soccer fans like to try to act like English football hooligans because it's "more fun." And as long as they're not causing problems for others, I generally have the attitude of let them have their fun.

    But soccer and commuter cycling have something in common - the appearance to the majority (i.e. baseball/football/basketball fans and motorists) of being activities of outlaws. When people hear about soccer, and they don't go to lots of games, they think of hooligans because that's what gets the news and it's an easy label to slap on. And when they hear about urban cycling, they think of "scofflaw cyclists."

    So in both cases, if we want respect, it behooves us to act in a way that is above the norm. Respect for soccer fans might mean more coverage of games on ESPN or local sports news. And respect for cycling might mean better treatment by police, more bicycle-friendly legislation, and complete streets infrastructure.

    So I agree with you and Mr. Colville-Andersen. We need to be courteous, law-abiding, and safe, not only for ourselves but for the sake of ALL cyclists, until we get the respect of motorists and those who legislate for our roads.

  8. Generally I find this to be the case...

    Cyclists who intentionally break the law - rolling a stop sign or running a red - in the majority of cases are not creating a safety hazard.

    Motorists who intentionally break the law - "Only had a couple of beers", talking on cellphone or texting (which is sadly not illegal everywhere... yet...), speeding, are without argument creating a safety hazard.

    The next key differentiator is that the if the cyclist creates a hazard - they are generally creating a hazard for themselves. The motorist creating a hazard is creating a hazard for everyone else.

    Question - approaching a 4 way stop - do you line up with the cars and wait your turn? Filtering/passing on the right is illegal. Do you then get to the stop line and put your foot down?

    I certainly don't treat stop signs that way. And I confess to running the occasional red light - given that there are some red lights I cannot get past without running - the sensors do not pick up my bike and there is no crossing button.

    I am probably in the vast majority - yet the prevailing wisdom seems to be that the vast majority are riding with blinders on, through redlights and stopsigns at full speed. This characterization is not even close to accurate, it's pure exaggeration for impact and effect.

  9. Re: running red lights/stop signs - sure, some of the time they're not creating a safety hazard. But I've seen my fair share of cyclists who will do things like ride over the stop line, pull into the crosswalk to their right, roll through the crosswalk, and then back out onto the road - in effect going straight. Or they'll turn right, do a U-turn, and then come back and turn right again - in effect, going straight.

    For four way stops, yes. I line up with the cars and take my turn. I do the same at any stop, basically.

    For stop light detectors that don't detect cyclists - if you wait a long enough time and it doesn't turn, I believe that the law states that the light is then considered defective and you can then roll through it when it's safe to do so.

    I don't recall reading anything in the traffic code that says a cyclist has to put their foot down to be considered to have stopped. A track stand, in my opinion, is just as good (as long as you're not wandering all over the lane, into the crosswalk, etc.). The intent to stop is what's key.

    Before reading Jeff's column, I'd have agreed with you on the numbers, murphstahoe. And perhaps he just happened to catch an anomaly of bad cyclists. But I have most certainly noticed that lawbreaking among cyclists has gotten worse since I started cycling three years ago. I think more people are doing it and haven't taken the time to see what the law is and what's expected of them.

  10. This all ends up being self-flagellation, rather than something that enhances safety. Unless of course you believe that a sudden rash of track-standing at stop signs, non-redlight running, non-sidewalk or wrong way riding cyclists will suddenly cause flowers to bloom and drivers will embrace their two wheeled brethren rather than buzzing by you with inches to spare on their rush to the next stop light that they will dutifully stop at.

    If you believe that, I have news for you. If you get hit by a car, and lose a tooth, putting it under your pillow will not turn it into a quarter.

    Don't get me wrong, I am all for smart/safe cycling and am a pretty savvy urban commuter who has suffered the mean streets of San Francisco for 12 years. But this stuff is the opposite of advocacy - it just fuels the excuse machine of the bad drivers. If I had a quarter for everytime I had a dustup with a driver who was AT FAULT who then responded with "You cyclists all run the stop signs" instead of "Sorry, my fault" , I'd put one under your pillow for you.

  11. No, it's most certainly not. And I'm under no illusions that it is. But it's certainly not going to help the cause of getting cycling into the mainstream here.

    And I think it's a much better idea for those of us who WANT cycling improvements of all kinds to take on the task of trying to clean things up from within than it is to let motorists do it from without.

  12. Just reading around today I came across this article that talks about how a tendency to obey the law may actually lead to increased rates of death for women cyclists...


    quote: "In 2007, an internal report for Transport for London concluded women cyclists are far more likely to be killed by lorries (trucks in the US) because, unlike men, they tend to obey red lights and wait at junctions in the driver's blind spot.

    The report said that male cyclists are generally quicker getting away from a red light - or, indeed, jump red lights - and so get out of the danger area."

    Yes it's dangerous and not courteous to run a red light when there is oncoming traffic, but there isn't a cyclist alive who can't cross against a light or stop sign safely and respectfully.

    The Idaho stop just makes sense, and this study would argue, keeps the rider safer as they can remove themselves from danger spots. Food for thought that sometimes blind obedience of "the law" which may be antiquated or geared toward another mode of transportation altogether, may be what is in need of changing, not the behavior of the majority of safe riding and respectful cyclists.

  13. Word to Allen and Murphstahoe. Why the need to bike on bike hate. Is all this law-abiding safety-mindedness causing an adverse side effect of self-rightousness?

    Get over yourself. You go ahead and ride the way you like, I'll keep riding the way I do, and you can keep the smug to yourself.

    This is all fuel for the next driver who almost hits me to pull some "yeah, well all cyclists are outlaws with no right to ride on my car's presious streets" out of you know where.

  14. "In 2007, an internal report for Transport for London concluded women cyclists are far more likely to be killed by lorries (trucks in the US) because, unlike men, they tend to obey red lights and wait at junctions in the driver's blind spot.

    The report said that male cyclists are generally quicker getting away from a red light - or, indeed, jump red lights - and so get out of the danger area."


  15. As others have stated, there are very valid reasons to ignore the laws that have everything to do with safety. It's much safer to be in front of a car than next to it, so in some situations jumping a light makes perfect sense, only after coming to a stop of course.

    The laws are not designed for general road safety, they are designed for automobile safety, and at best cyclists are an afterthought, at worst the laws are actively detrimental to cyclists. The majority of laws take no account of the needs of cyclists.

    Many lights are timed to speed as much auto traffic as quickly as possible. That is completely counter to what is safe for cyclists.

    When the laws are designed for the needs of cyclists, I will follow them. Until then I will bike safely, irrespective of what the law says I should do.

    As a disclaimer, I usually slow, but do not stop, at stop signs, although I will yield to a driver if they have the right of way. I stop & wait at 99% of red lights, but if it's safe, and it's a light I know is very long I will run it after coming to a complete stop. I use hand signals unless I feel the situation is safe (usually when I'm braking and or turning). I generally do not wear a helmet.

    Lastly, the Idaho stop law doesn't stop drivers from complaining about cyclists, it just changed what they complained about.

  16. @ Allen and Murphstahoe regarding London study and higher rate of female accidents:

    From: Carbon Trace
    The problem is easily solved, IMO:
1. Avoid advancing on the right of a stopped line of traffic.

    2. Take your proper place in traffic, i.e. in line behind the car in from of you.
3. Advance when allowed by traffic control.

    This situation also illustrates why bicycle lanes that end at intersections are dangerous.

    For the most part, you never want to be on the right side of a vehicle at an intersection unless you each have your own lane — that is a regular traffic lane.

    DanC adds: “advancing on .. stopped line of traffic”, is colloquially know as “filtering”, illegal in the US except California. The practice is obviously dangerous.

    Bicycle riders even have this problem in Portland, Oregon. The City Water Dept let cyclists ride in the truck cab so they could understand why it’s hard to see cyclist sometimes. 

    Another training video, might even be useful for cyclists!

    All drivers must exercise due care (especially commercial truck driver, hence the CDL) but what about the cyclists responsibility? Obeying traffic signals and laws protects all road users.

  17. The problem is easily solved, IMO:
1. Avoid advancing on the right of a stopped line of traffic.

    2. Take your proper place in traffic, i.e. in line behind the car in from of you.
3. Advance when allowed by traffic control

    This does not alleviate being right hooked by an overtaking vehicle.

  18. danc covered a lot of what I was going to say so I'm not going to reiterate what he pointed out.

    The article from Washcycle (the BBC report) is a little bit scattered (as far as what it's trying to say), but the gist of it seems to be that women may be more at risk because they're not as assertive enough on the road as many men. I believe that education (of both motorists AND cyclists) can take care of a lot of that problem. When I took my League of American Bicyclists Traffic Skills 101 course, we had a couple of women in our class who did not have a lot of experience with riding in the road - one had just gotten her bike recently and wanted to know how to operate it. By the time she finished the course, she was taking the lane, signalling, riding within the law, and was a fully competent cyclist.

    I like the Idaho Stop law. I think it's good law, and could absolutely work here with the proper motorist education. But it's not the law here. So the point there is really moot.

    Now education may be harder to come by in many places, but that's not the case here in Columbus, where we have a veritable plethora of cycling instructors now. Keep your eyes open for a LOT of Traffic Skills 101 and other classes coming up (including some in the next couple of weeks).

    Last comment for now: while I absolutely buy into the idea that "we cyclists gotta stick together" and I will always advocate for the rights and needs of cyclists and pedestrians over motorists (for reasons I've iterated in the past), I also strongly believe that we cyclists need to police ourselves to a great extent. If we allow motorists to police us, we're going to lose. Let's monitor ourselves and then we can move forward.

  19. For me in my community it's always due to willful and intentional violation of what I consider ineffective and inefficient laws that fail to reflect the very very low risk of bicycles not following these laws.

    I'm willing to pay whatever penalty is given to me to ride freely, but where I live the police recognize these laws as ineffective and inefficient as well so choose not to enforce them (and a ticket is actually the greatest risk of not following these bicycle laws). I've never hurt anyone and was only hurt once due to a motorist breaking the law (no signal). I believe the risk in automobiles is such that I always follow the law to the letter when driving a car.

    Most of the (rare) close scrapes I've had were due to pedestrians failing to follow the law for the same reasons - the laws are inefficient and fail to reflect the minimal risk of the event they try to prevent. In 99.999% of the cases a pedestrian isn't going to walk 1/2 a block to an intersection to cross the street. And I'm not going to come to a complete stop for no reason at an intersection. C'est la vie.

  20. To the c'est la vie crowd. Every time you flaunt the law in full view of traffic you place another stone in the wall of intolerance many motorists have toward bicycles. You may not care about that but your behavior reduces my safety.

    With the share the road markings that will soon be in place there should be less ignorance and ambiguity about use of the road. I welcome local police taking a day to make examples out of you.

  21. I regularly break the law by riding on the sidewalk; something that I've been doing for the last twenty years that I've been bike commuting.

    I ride on the road when I'm on back roads where there isn't much traffic, but much of my route is on narrow roads that get a lot of traffic.

    I'm well aware of the arguments about sidewalk cycling, but I'll take those hazards over aggressive drivers crossing a double yellow to get around me. In the dead of winter when the sidewalks are ice-choked, I ride in the road and it's bad every time.

    Here is bad enough, but I'm from Florida, where I wouldn't dare ride in the road. I've heard drivers there say they feel justified in hitting cyclists if they're in the road- some of them to my face while I was riding. I was hit four times while I lived there.

    I know it's unpopular among cycling activists (which I'm not; I'm just someone who rides my bike alot) to say that bikes and cars shouldn't be on the same roads, but I don't think they should be. I was in the Netherlands this summer, and bikes didn't share the road with cars there, not on main roads at least. They had huge bike lanes separated from the road by parking or a foot-wide curb; AND they had bike-specific traffic lights (at bike level, which lit up with a bike symbol). Which, mind you, all the cyclists I saw (and there were loads) respected. I wish we had something similar.

  22. Gaia Iulia, you might like today's post about New York's bike lanes and the like. There's some interesting stuff there!

  23. first of all we need to discuss why traffic laws were created. for large, high speed, heavy vehicles. None of those adjectives describe a bicycle. The law states that a bike and vehicle are to be treated as equals. When in fact they are not created equal.

    One reason stop signs are there is to give the drive a moment to asses the area. A bicyclists has no blind spot and can quickly asses the situation around them. Where as a car has two blind spots and many other places where it is difficult to see properly.

    Next lets discuss the fear of hitting a pedestrian. A well trained bicyclists can stop with in a yard while going at a high pace. Where as a vehicle may take longer. Not to mention a vehicle will take up about 8 times more space on the road (width of a car being 8ft width of biker being a foot). So swerving in a car can to little to worse good, where as a bicyclists can easily swerve and stop without losing control.

    Now the biggest argument: the rolling stop. In addition to the arguments above I think it is important to discuss acceleration. A will accelerate to faster speeds in a shorter amount of time. For example a vehicle may be back at full speed before completely going through the intersection. Where as it will take more effort and more time for a cyclists to reach a lower speed. Thus cyclists pose less of a danger when rolling through stop signs.

    Just some food for thought because I think there is plenty (not all listed above) for cyclists to bend the law. Because the truth is bikes and cars are not equal so they should not be treated so.

  24. "Anonymous", I don't necessarily disagree with you about who the law was written for - obviously it was written for cars because the automakers have spent decades and billions of dollars to make them the dominant force on the road.

    But it is the law we have. And while I am all for cyclists being legally allowed to use rolling stops a la Idaho, it's not the law here right now. And one point is that people who are working hard to try to secure cyclists' rights in the law are being undermined by the lawlessness of a few people. Motorists are currently the majority, as I said, and probably make up most of the bodies that groups like Yay Bikes and Consider Biking are lobbying for changes. So if they see cyclists as an outlaw fringe, they're less likely to think highly of us as we look for changes for us.

    Second, we're living in a car world, like it or not. And the law that applies to a car needs to apply to us as well as long as we're not the majority - simply because it's safer that way. Sure, it's faster to pass stopped cars on the right, and to weave in and out of slow moving traffic because we're narrower and we can. But it's obviously not safe. If we ride in a way that motorists understand and expect, that's going to put us in much better stead than riding in a way that we would if WE were the majority.

    Third, some of your statistics about stopping and the like are way off. Example - at my recent cycling instructor seminar, we practiced a number of the emergency maneuvers that cyclists can employ in dangerous situations - like pedestrians crossing in front of us. If a pedestrian crosses in front of you, you're going to need 6-10 feet of space to stop, and that's if you know how to do a proper Quick Stop and don't fly over your handlebars as you slam on the brakes. That includes time to see the pedestrian and let it register - which, if you're riding at a good pace, can be considerable.


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