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Bicyclists may have an explanation for breaking traffic laws

In recent months, we have written about the growing clash between bicyclists, pedestrians and drivers in New York City. Although bicyclists and pedestrians are now beginning to end their truce, these two groups used to consider themselves “on the same side” in a fight against automobile culture. Everything from infrastructure to traffic laws was designed with cars in mind, and that continues to leave bicyclists and pedestrians in serious danger.

The city is currently experiencing a significant anti-bicyclist sentiment due to the aggressive riding practices of certain cyclists. Some bicyclists pose a threat to pedestrians while seemingly flouting the traffic laws that drivers are expected to abide by. But is this characterization fair, or even accurate?

It’s true that if bicyclists ride too aggressively or in a dangerous fashion, they are at risk of causing a pedestrian accident. But when bicyclists seemingly disregard traffic laws, is it because they believe themselves to be above the law? This is often what drivers assume, but bicyclists are beginning to speak more publicly about the psychology of urban riding.

The Washington Post recently featured a column written by Emily Badger, a reporter who also seems to be an avid bicyclist. She recently wrote about her experiences in D.C., which seem quite similar to what bicyclists face here in New York.

Badger notes that when she and other bicyclists break traffic laws, they often do so in order to protect their own safety. In situations where they are forced to ride on streets built only for automobiles, bicyclists often feel compelled to break laws in small ways that minimize the risk of a fatal accident. At a stoplight, for instance, a bicyclist may ride through the intersection before the light turns green in order to establish herself in a lane on the next block.

Whether or not it is okay for bicyclists to break traffic laws is a matter of some debate. But it might help drivers to know that most bicyclists aren’t simply scofflaws. Rather, the choices they make are often motivated by the need to preserve their own safety.

As cities (slowly) rebuild infrastructure to include dedicated lanes and other amenities for bicyclists, accident rates will likely go down while compliance with traffic laws goes up. Until then, we must hope that New York’s drivers and bicyclists can work out some sort of lasting peace.

Source: The Washington Post, “Let’s talk seriously about why cyclists break traffic laws,” Emily Badger, Jan. 9, 2015

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