The Myth Of The Law Breaking Cyclist

Written by Boston Biker on Aug 14

I had one of those light bulb over your head moments today.

With all the silly stories in the Globe lately, the general talk among people I meet, and even people commenting here my mind has been working overtime on the following problem: “What can we as cyclists do about the rampant law breaking going on among our peers.” I started thinking, should we use peer pressure, should we push for ticketing, should we this or should we that. I was really racking my brain about what “we could do.” Then something strange happened.


I was out for a nice easy recovery ride after my little trip to The Cape, I had moved over to the left lane because a bus had “asserted its right” to the right lane (basically it just shoved itself in there, what was I going to do, its a f-ing bus, they win), ahead of me the light turned red, so me, the bus, and everyone behind me and the bus came to a stop (as people are wont to do at red lights). Suddenly the jerk behind me in the passenger seat reaches over and begins to honk the horn (for his wife who was sitting there calmly) and begins to scream at me out of the window. I show him the red light, he continues to rage, I show him my middle finger, he loved that. He voiced his opinion that I should get out of the road because I was slowing him down (and other incomprehensible mumblings about hurting me and killing me) I asserted that he was an impatient jerk and that if he continued to threaten me I was going to have to assert my right to use the entire lane (upside his head) and I also made it clear that I was capable of defending myself and will not sit ideally by while he issues threats of violence (PS. his kids were in the back seat while he ranted, I used no profanity and never raised my voice). He ranted, I called him a impatient jerk and told him he was a horrible example for his children. The light turned green, he instructed his poor wife to speed off…only to be stopped at the next red light in about 100 feet (Harvard square I love you), and that is when the light bulb went off in my head.

You run red lights, they complain, you stop at red lights they threaten to run you over. I realized that this whole “concerned motorist” horse puckey, is just that, horse puckey. Several other motorists sat and watched this lunatic threaten to kill me because I STOPPED at a red light. Did they wonder “what will cyclists think about our road-user group” or “how can we present a better image of ourselves” or “what will the general public think of us if this man gives a bad name by behaving like this.” Hell no they didn’t.

Pedestrians don’t worry that they are going to give pedestrians a bad name when they walk out into traffic (a group of them almost got killed not 10 feet from me today because all of them looked left and then walked into traffic, the only reason they were not all flattened by that cab was because I screamed “STOP HEY STOP!”). Motorists certainly don’t give two hoots about what the general public will think when they make turns with no signals, get waaaay to close to cyclists as they pass, speed, open doors into oncoming traffic, and all the other great things they do every day to endanger themselves and others just so they can get to work 1 minute faster.

I say “we cyclists” stop caring as well. When someone tells you “I see so many cyclists run red lights” tell them “No you don’t you see a series of individuals that choose to break the law” If someone says to you “cyclists this” or “cyclists that” tell them “bullshit, there is no ‘cyclists’ in the same way there is no ‘motorists’ or ‘pedestrians’ there is only individual people who choose to obey or disobey the law.”

By placing people into big anonymous groups (motorists, cyclists, pedestrians) we are overlooking the personal responsibility of each user. ‘Cyclists’ are not to be blamed, individuals who break the law are. I think we should bring it down to a personal level. For instance when that asshole behind me was talking about running me over because I had the audacity to follow the law I didn’t blame all motorists, I got right up in his face and blamed him. It wasn’t the guy behind him in the car that made him act like a violent asshole. Similarly if you drive a car and you see some guy on a bike run through a red light, don’t blame cyclists, blame that guy.

So the question was “What can we as cyclists do about the rampant law breaking going on among our peers.”, and the answer is NOTHING. There is nothing you can do to make someone you have never met and will most likely never meet follow the law. You can’t make them behave, and you shouldn’t be asked to. It is an unreasonable request. If someone ever says that to you, ask them what car drivers can do to make sure other car drivers behave, the answer NOTHING. The only thing you can do is follow the law yourself. If you stop at red lights, if you signal your turns, and get in the correct lane, if you yield to pedestrians, if you follow the rest of the relatively few laws bikers and drivers are supposed to follow, you are doing enough. You can’t make everyone else behave, and you shouldn’t be asked to.


There are simply a whole lot of individual people (walkers, bikers, drivers) who are impatient, assholes. Lets be frank, they want to go where they want to go, and they want to do it right now, and they don’t give a damn who gets in the way, or what happens when they break the rules. You can’t change the way they act. The only thing we can do is change your own behavior. If you don’t like it when people make turns with no signal on, next time you get in a car, turn that signal on. If you don’t like it that people on bikes run red lights, next time you get on a bike don’t run red lights.

Boston has a problem, an attitude problem. People love to act like jerks. They are like little kids. Me Me Me! Me first, my desires are more important than yours, the rules don’t apply to me. This expresses itself in a lot of ways on the street, no matter what mode of transportation they use. We can’t change these peoples behavior. But if we want a different reality, if we desire a more useful transportation system, if we want streets that are not filled with violence and anarchy, we have to change. That change starts with our own behavior.

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Posted in advocacy, bostonbiker, education | 22 Comments »

22 Responses to “The Myth Of The Law Breaking Cyclist”

  1. By Dan Pugatch on Aug 14, 2009 | Reply

    i get jaded alot. i yell at fellow cyclists who run red lights that i hope someone hits them and they have plenty of time in the hospital to brush up on laws.

    i also tell girls who dont wear helmets they’d be sexy if they did. seriously if she doesnt wear a bike helmet how do you know she used a condom with that guy she took home from the bar the week before she met yo???

    my brain has been spinning too lately we need to collabortate.

  2. By Aswad Uhuru Murphy on Aug 14, 2009 | Reply

    Finally, a calibrated and pristine thought. I read these boards all the time and rarely contribute. I enjoyed your latest piece.
    As a longtime rider here in Dot and Boston, my first instinct is survival. And all I’m trying to do is get to work. I’m all for letting people do what they want. As long as they ask the stupid quesion..hey, whats the worst thing that happen? Maybe everyone ought to apply that self-editing technique.
    So run through the red lights, get on the sidewalk, do all the shit you know you ought’nt. Just don’t be an asshole about it. Get home safe.

  3. By Whalehead King on Aug 15, 2009 | Reply

    Nice essay. There is plenty of room for everyone if they use common courtesy and common sense. More laws aren’t the answer, since the laws as they are are often ignored and sometimes inappropriate. It’s a wide road with plenty of space for everybody. Keep sharp, drive safely, don’t cause any accidents.

  4. By Aaron Pikcilingis on Aug 17, 2009 | Reply

    I see your point, and I agree that it ultimately comes down to personal responsibility. I don’t agree, however, that (a) there’s nothing we can do about it and (b) that we shouldn’t try to do something to fix what you call–and we all agree–a problem.

    The idea that we’re all responsible only for ourselves tends to lead to the notion that we’re also responsible only to ourselves, which is the source of the whole problem.

  5. By Boston Biker on Aug 17, 2009 | Reply

    To clarify: The “point” of this (if there was one) was that it is unacceptable to paint all cyclists with the same brush of responsibility for individual actions is unreasonable and a double standard not shared by other road user groups.

    I agree with you Aaron that it is a problem and something needs to be done about it. I just see people saying “what are cyclists going to do about this” and never saying “what are motorists going to do about this” or “what are pedestrians going to do about this” other user groups tend to get a pass “ohh that guy was just an asshole” were as cyclists tend to get painted in broad strokes “ohh those cyclists are assholes”

    I am also not advocating breaking the rules, (sorry Aswad I totally disagree with you)

    I hope that makes sense.

  6. By geoff on Aug 17, 2009 | Reply

    I loved this write-up! I’m hoping that you’ll send this in as an op-ed. just make it clear that the point is that it is unfair to group people based on their transportation choice.


  7. By Aaron Pikcilingis on Aug 17, 2009 | Reply

    That does make sense. I’m all for trying to reach everyone to make this a better city for everyone to get around in, regardless of mode. We are cyclists, so I have this feeling that the group we’re mostly likely going to be able to touch are other cyclists. Certainly in this venue.

    But I think the reality, at least right now, is that globe reporters and lawmakers and most drivers are going to see us as a group and attribute the behavior their perceive “most” cyclists engage in as the behavior of any individual cyclists they encounter. That’s why a discussion with a driver usually involves a complaint about how I run red lights, even when the discussion is about why I’m in the middle of the lane instead of on the sidewalk. It’s just like how I assume every driver at the BU bridge is an idiot at merging, even if it’s only 9 out of 10.

  8. By Adam Pieniazek on Aug 18, 2009 | Reply

    On a side note, I think we should implement laws here that bicyclists can treat red lights as stop signs. Meaning, if there’s a red light, the cyclist would stop, look both ways, and if the coast is clear can go.

    Technically, cyclists are supposed to stop behind cars at red lights, but I very rarely see this, and for a good reason. Imagine the chaos if every cyclist queued up and sat behind a car at a red light.

    Letting cyclists treat red lights like stop signs lets them get out of the way of drivers (though I personally think cyclists aren’t really in the way of drivers, if you can’t safely maneuver around a skinny piece of steel you probably shouldn’t be driving).

  9. By Also a Biker on Aug 18, 2009 | Reply

    Technically, cyclists are supposed to stop behind cars at red lights, but I very rarely see this, and for a good reason.

    Could somebody clarify this for me? I thought that under Mass. laws bikers had the right to pass a car on the right. Doesn’t this mean that it’s legal to pass cars stopped at a stoplight on the right, ride up to the stoplight and wait for a green without stopping behind any cars?

  10. By BostonBiker on Aug 18, 2009 | Reply

    Bicycles are legally allowed to filter forward on the right hand side at a row of stopped cars. This is legal, but can be dangerous, so you will want to be extra careful when doing so. And you rightly point out you still have to stop at the red light.

  11. By Also a Biker on Aug 19, 2009 | Reply

    Okay, thanks. I don’t always do this because of the danger involved (being doored by a parked car, being doored by somebody getting out of a stopped cab, etc.), but I wanted to make sure that I could on those occasions when it’s safe.

  12. By Paul Schimek on Aug 19, 2009 | Reply

    It is true that you can do nothing directly to stop others who violate the traffic rules (although I have been known to make comments to wrong-way riders coming directly at me, and at least a small percentage of these incidents have ended with the rider switching to the opposite side of the road). However the Police can, and in fact are required to, enforce the traffic laws. Therefore, what you can do is advocate for even-handed, effective, well-informed enforcement (as opposed to the current non-enforcement supplemented by occasional police harassment for bicycling lawfully).

    Giving tickets to bicyclists for wrong-way riding, not using lights at night, failing to yield when required, etc., will not only change bicyclist behavior but will help to reduce incidents such as the one you describe. Motorists would be less likely to be vigilantes if they knew the police were enforcing the law. He probably was one of those who thinks it is illegal for bicyclists to be in the left lane (or not in the bike lane). If we had better-informed police, maybe one would have even asked this guy to explain himself. Not likely, you might say, but right now I would say there is no chance of an officer doing. Anyway, the new law adopted this year requires all police in Mass. to get training in the rights and responsibilities of bicyclists.

  13. By Paul Schimek on Aug 19, 2009 | Reply

    One other technicality: a red light does not mean ‘stop’, it means Do Not Enter the Intersection. The intersection begins at the stop line. This means it’s perfectly okay to slow if you see a light far ahead, timing your speed so that you arrive at the light when it turns green.

    What’s not okay is stopping on top of the crosswalk, or halfway into the intersection — even though motorists and bicyclists do this all the time.

  14. By Kerry on Aug 19, 2009 | Reply

    I too would love to see you submit a version of this as an op-ed to the Globe. It’s about time they balanced their coverage of the issue.

  15. By Geneva Boyer on Nov 5, 2009 | Reply

    wow Dan Pugatch.
    You’re quite the male chauvinist, aren’t you?

  16. By Yorick on Aug 17, 2010 | Reply

    Check out this frightening article about rogue cyclists wreaking havoc in NYC…

    Food for thought, huh?

  17. By dotriderblog on Sep 27, 2010 | Reply

    Think the point is Boston’s roads are dominated by a scofflaw culture and it doesn’t matter what mode of transportation is used. Cars, bikes or feet have their law breakers. Generalizing doesn’t work except to say the general tendency is for a large portion of folks using the roads to violate some form of traffic control. Now there would be some data to collect at a traffic count. How many people ran a light in an hour and what mode of transport were they using. I bet the %’s would be eerily similar…

  18. By Joe on Feb 23, 2011 | Reply

    I think you need to read this:

  19. By Mike on Feb 24, 2011 | Reply

    If you want change we need to encourage more and more birth control. All this road rage, all these problems between bicyclists and drivers are because there are TOO MANY PEOPLE.

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