Let’s Stop Blaming “Scofflaw Bicyclists”

All too often, motorists attempt to justify their poor treatment of bicyclists by blaming so-called “scofflaw bicyclists”, as if somehow it’s OK to mistreat one bicyclist simply because some other bicyclist disregarded the law at some point in the past. Even if there were large numbers of bicyclists who disdain the law (this has certainly not been my experience), it would still not justify the mistreatment of bicyclists by motorists.

What I believe is really at work here is the fact that bicyclists are vulnerable and somewhat powerless when up against motorists, and that this inequity emboldens a few motorists to abuse bicyclists in a way they would never consider if they were face-to-face with the same person outside of their vehicle. The anonymity of being inside a car causes some people to behave more aggressively than they would otherwise, and when up against a bicyclist who has very little ability to defend or retaliate, it’s just all too easy to mistreat the bicyclist. In my opinion, it’s these underlying attitudes, not the behavior of a small group of mysterious “scofflaw bicyclists” who are “ruining it for the rest of us”, that are fueling the mistreatment of bicyclists by motorists.

Bob Mionske summed it up best when he said, “If every cyclist obeyed every traffic law, do you think we’d have harmony? No. Look at how motorists treat each other.”

42 Responses to “Let’s Stop Blaming “Scofflaw Bicyclists””

  • Evan says:

    I admit that I get irritated when I’m out riding and I see another cyclist blow through a red light or do something else that I would get outraged with if a car did the same thing. I try to show drivers that I follow the law just like I expect them to, but I realize that even if all cyclists minded their Ps and Qs, some drivers would still get pissed off at us.

    I think the fixation with the “scofflaw cyclist” comes from drivers that think that all cyclists feel superior to them. So they get this idea that we’re all hypocrites, thus the “scofflaw cyclist.” It allows them to resist change–after all, if only one cyclist out there breaks the law, why should they change the way they drive?

  • Duncan Watson says:

    I agree with you Alan. It is guilt based projection on the part of motorists.

  • Jay says:

    I certainly agree that the anonymity of being in a car certainly changes behavior. Compare “road-rage” to “pedestrian-rage.” The latter doesn’t exist! Pedestrians don’t generally get into fights about who cuts who off and so forth as they walk down the sidewalk – same for bikes, for the most part.

    On foot, and on a bike, you can see someone’s eyes and face, and you’re not hiding behind a large metal shield, and you behave in a less aggressive way than when you’re in a car. You see the other person as a person, not a vehicle.

    I can attest to this – I certainly feel more confrontational in a car than I ever would be face to face on the sidewalk, or on a bike.

    Unfortunately, this won’t change. I was speaking to a very “progressive” teacher this weekend, and she was relating how she got so mad and wanted to run a biker off the road who was blocking her on a relatively narrow block. I didn’t get into it too much with her (a friend, and a party wasn’t really an appropriate setting to “get into it” with her), but in mind, roads are for cars. Simple as that. The roads are for cars, the bikes are out of place, and slowing her down. Bikes shouldn’t be on the roads, interfering with the primary purpose of the road – to transport cars.

    My prediction – this won’t change. Bikers will continue to have less of a problem in dense, expensive cities where car ownership is less ubiquitous, but everywhere else? Good luck!

  • Alan says:

    @jay

    You may be right, this may not change. It may take separated facilities to solve the issue. I just hope that in the meantime we recognize the behavior for what it is; we certainly don’t want to blame cyclists for something that isn’t their doing.

    Alan

  • Helton says:

    I think it has all to do with the engine. When I commuted by motorcycle few years ago, I could say my behaviour was a lot different it would be otherwise. Just after “falling back” to non-motorized and pedestrian commuting, I can see motorcycles as being considerably menacing, noisy, excessively unpredictable (while it would be “agile and responsive” on rider’s perspective)… The engine (or the fact of being in control of an engine) alters the perspective, makes one desire to ride always in a cruising speed which most of time is above the speed limit of urban motorways, and every other users of the way are potential “opponents” who might get in your way and force you to slow down. The world beneath your wheels seems like an object, an anonymous stretch of distance to be throttled over, with nothing in between except a little twist of the hand (or the foot). And that’s VERY dangerous in terms of a false perception of a reality where many people are SHARING the public space, and not (or sould not be) struggling for the best opportunity to pass.

  • AJ Smith says:

    “If every cyclist obeyed every traffic law, do you think we’d have harmony? No. Look at how motorists treat each other.”

    Agreed, but I believe the majority of motor vehicle versus cyclist accidents are probably the fault of the cyclists. I do not have the data to justify my belief; however, it seems that most of the accidents I read about are a results of cyclists not “driving” defensively and in accordance to the rules of the road. As cyclists, we are about two orders of magnitude lighter than the vehicles passing us; we must respect that fact in the same manner as we require their respect. I’m not attempting to defend motorists and the dangerous behaviors I myself have experienced, but, in a collision, they usually win.

    Overall, I have found that cyclists with a non-aggressive posture on the road earn the respect of motorists. In cases where the behavior of a motorist results in a near miss, a calm word of advice and constructive criticism usually results in an understanding. To be blunt; giving the middle finger NEVER has, or will, help our cause.

    aj

  • Treadly and Me says:

    An argument you often hear about ‘scofflaw cyclists’ is the one that goes, “If cyclists want to ride on the roads, then they should obey the road rules.” The implication here is that because some cyclists flout the law, all cyclists should be banned from the road. This is incorrect. Like all other drivers, my responsibility is ensure that I follow the road rules—I cannot be held responsible for the behaviour of others.
    If the right of any class of vehicles to use the public highway were contingent on all operators of those vehicle obeying the road rules all of the time, then bicycles wouldn’t be the only we could disqualify motor vehicles from the road.

  • doug in seattle. says:

    AJ — A UK (?) study recently suggested that drivers are more often at fault. US data, which overall implicates cyclists, actually suggests the opposite once you take out all the children and just consider the adults.

    Also, even the data itself might be unreliable. With a dead cyclist and no witnesses with a clear idea of what exactly happened, what’s to stop a driver from lying? Also, it’s pretty evident that police are generally biased against cyclists when judging crashes.

    Personally, I’ve seen no correlation between lawful riding and more “respect.” In fact, my most terrifying experiences have been when I was trundling home on quiet streets, taking the lane like a good Vehicularist. Death threats, chest pounding, and one incident of outright violence when I was shot by a BB gun.

    Of course, I must agree that screaming, using the finger, and getting revenge is an utterly useless enterprise.

  • Neil O says:

    “What I believe is really at work here is the fact that bicyclists are vulnerable and somewhat powerless when up against motorists, and that this inequity emboldens a few motorists to abuse bicyclists…”

    I respectfully don’t think that’s the whole story.

    First, I assume the vulnerability upsets motorists because they DON’T want to do any harm. A bicycle on the road makes the motorist feel at risk because the stakes are higher if they make a mistake.

    Secondly, I assume motorists believe most cyclists do so by choice (versus necessity) and are thus making a statement about the environment, sustainability, etc. The motorist feels like their lifestyle is being rebuked.

    Thirdly, assume motorists believe driving a car is necessity (versus choice). The motorist probably feels unable/unempowered to rethink their work commutes and conduct more of their lives on foot/bus/train/bicycle. It’s a shame, but I think most people assume they aren’t in a position to make these life choices.

    The net result is that motorists feel as if bicyclists are acting selfishly, putting motorists at risk when we take to the streets, and we’re doing so to make a point about a lifestyle that the motorists feel unable to adopt.

  • Keith Moore says:

    This reminds me somewhat of this article:

    http://www.cs.utk.edu/~moore/opinions/how-to-discourage-people-from-thinking.html

    The technique described is typically used for political arguments, but it applies to the “cars vs bicycles” debate as well.

    (Note: I am not the “Keith Moore” who wrote the above linked article.)

  • Dolan Halbrook says:

    @Neil

    Great post.

    I think I’d add one more, possibly contentious, point to yours. I think on average cyclists tend to break the laws of the road more often than drivers, strictly speaking. Now mind you these rules were written with cars in mind, and as we’ve discussed before, don’t always make a whole lot of sense when you apply them to cyclists (for example, full and complete stops at each intersection, not that drivers do that either on average). However, it’s rare to see this behavior penalized except in the random bike-sting. Drivers, though, are far more likely to be caught for deviant behavior.

    In other words, there are a whole lot of drivers seeing cyclists blowing stop signs, etc and thinking — why does that guy get to blow the stop but I can’t? Regardless of how safe blowing a stop is on a bike vs.a car that very act is going to engender a division.

    As for cyclists blowing stop signs, I see it on a regular basis. Most often it’s a pretty innoculous thing, provided they at least slow down first, but it does bother me as I feel like it’s silently pissing off motorists and making things more dangerous for all of us.

  • Tamia Nelson says:

    I see a very large percentage of scofflaw drivers passing my office. I live on the inside of a curve on a residential street that is illegally used to cut off a corner formed by state highways. Most of the drivers (and I do mean most — something like 50-80 percent depending on time of day) drive on the wrong side of the road, too fast, and talking on cell phones (illegal in NY). They don’t come to a full stop at the sign down the road, either. But I don’t hear any blustering shock jocks or commentators talking about those scofflaw drivers and encouraging listeners to “get ‘em.”

    If drivers were required to ride a bike for a month, eg, if they lost their driving privileges for that time, for each infraction, they’d perhaps develop a new point of view about cyclists and cycling.

  • Neil O says:

    @Dolan

    It would be interesting to see statistics of scofflaw drivers versus scofflaw motorists. We’ve all seen many examples of both, but I couldn’t honestly say one group is more likely to break a law than the other.

    But your point is well taken that scofflaw bicyclists add a critical factor: Not only are motorists feeling more “at risk” when bicycles are on the road but, for goodness sakes, some cyclists seem to be intentionally rolling through stop signs and cycling the wrong way. These are behaviors that arguably increase risk of accidents, thus reinforce the motorist attitude that cyclists are acting selfishly.

    Anyway good point, thanks-

  • Keith Moore says:

    A few months ago I read an excellent article (which I forgot to save and unfortunately cannot find a link now) about the “us vs them” psychology that exists between drivers and cyclists.

    The author’s hypothesis: Drivers tend to give other drivers (“one of us”) a lot of slack for minor infractions (such as rolling through stop signs without coming to a complete stop), while getting angry at cyclists (“one of them”) that do exactly the same thing.

    The same thing happens when roles are reversed, but to a somewhat lesser degree as many cyclists also drive regularly, thus blurring the “us/them boundary” from their perspective.

    In the end, we’re all scofflaws and hypocrites.

    Drivers want cyclists to follow the laws 100% while giving themselves a little “flexibility”.
    Cyclists want drivers to follow the laws 100% while giving themselves a little “flexibility”.

  • Bob says:

    I argue from anecdotal evidence, which I’m guessing AJ does, too, so…

    I must disagree. Based on my recollections of both cycling and driving, I believe that random samples of 1000 regular commuter cyclists and 1000 regular commuter motorists would show adherence to traffic regulations to be higher among the cyclists. I don’t know how one would go about measuring “adherence” across the two samples, but I bet the problem is only difficult, not impossible. (If the data exist to show I’m mistaken, I would like to know about them.)

    Somehow the promise of safe and speedy independent travel offered by the automobile in its early years has been twisted into a right not to be delayed or otherwise inconvenienced on my way from A to B. Anything that impedes the exercise of this right–city bus, taxi, FedEx van, tractor-trailer, pedestrian, or cyclist–is a menace against which there ought to be a law. The assumption by motorists that cyclists are just making a point is a secondary effect of this rights-driven (no pun intended) point of view rather than a cause.

  • William says:

    I don’t agree that this can’t change, because I’ve witnessed it. Over the past 8-10 years in Portland, I’ve seen and felt a HUGE difference in the way cyclists and motorists interact on the road. I was reminded just how huge this difference was when I moved to San Francisco and felt totally unsafe and out of place again. This isn’t just a matter of better facilities, either. True, Portland has those – but Portland drivers are also more aware of cyclists and generally accept sharing the road with them. Separate facilities have probably helped create this balance, but in practice most biking in Portland still involves sharing the road.
    While I agree with Alan’s OP about the scapegoating that goes on, I also think that in San Francisco the next step after new bikes lanes is going to have to be a more mature culture of sharing the road. Cyclists here sometimes act with a sense of entitlement and ignore the simple fact that at the end of the day we are all using a shared resource for the purpose of transportation. This does nothing to help the situation, and when I witness it it makes me feel more unsafe and unsure about how I will be perceived as a biker. It’s why I never attend critical mass.
    I can understand why folks act this way. Most of us feel marginalized, attacked, or jeopardized at times on the road, and we want that to change. However, from my perspective we are in a social stalemate until both sides begin to accept one another and learn to deal with sharing the roads. To me, saying that that can’t or won’t change is only testament (without separate facilities) to how entrenched both sides have become.

  • tdp says:

    The ranks of cyclist are no different than the ranks of drivers; how many drivers do you see making California stops? The only difference is that instead of 20 lbs of steel going through a stop, it’s with 4000 lbs of steel. Doesn’t make it right but shows the hypocrisy of those who complain about cyclist not to mention a tendency toward racial bias’s (i.e. blaming an entire race for the actions of a few).

  • Paul says:

    @Dolan Halbrook

    I believe I can quickly get you to retract your claim that, “average cyclists tend to break the laws of the road more often than drivers”. First, what percentage of the time do you think an average cyclist is breaking the law? 5%? 10%, 15%? Pick your number. OK, what percentage of the time do you think the average driver is speeding? 50% 60%, 70%? That’s only one infraction. One that is the cause of many injuries and deaths.

  • Matt says:

    I agree with Paul. I am both a cyclist and a motorist and routinely operate both kinds of vehicles. Motorists break the law constantly, primarily by speeding and failing to come to complete stops at Stop signs and red lights. If you want to annoy other motorists, declare Speed Limit Day and drive the speed limit, or a little under, all day long and come to complete stops at all Stop signs. You might induce heart attacks and will probably get honked at. Motorists regard speed limits as suggested minimums, not legal maximums.

    For my amusement, I’ve paced dozens of cars through Stop signs, you know, the ones we as cyclists are supposed to come to complete stops at, and 6 mph seems to be pretty typical.

  • Dolan Halbrook says:

    Hmm… how about we just say both drivers and cyclists break the law quite often and leave it at that :) I’m going from anecdotal evidence, as a year-round commuting cyclist but also someone who drives on weekends and grew up in LA, behind the wheel as soon as I hit 16.

    In the end it doesn’t really matter who ends up breaking the law more — it’s all about perceptions. As was brought up before, if “they” see “us” breaking the law by blatantly blowing a stop sign, it’s gonna create resentment. I don’t want to see that resentment aimed at me (and yes, I’ve seen that firsthand more times than I’d like).

    At the end of the day does that mean cyclists are held to a higher standard by the majority of people on the road? Yeah, it does. But that is the way it is in the US and will be for a long time to come, so we’re better off as a whole accepting that, and riding to a higher standard. Unfortunately I see that higher standard flouted day after day (and this is in the “bike capital” of Portland, no less), and I have the distinct feeling, every time I see that frustrated motorist’s expression, that I’m not just a little bit less safe.

  • tdp says:

    I think we should be held to a high standard and chide any of our fellow bikers for breaking the law for reasons of legality and reasons for social perceptions, however, at the end of the day drivers are the ones wrapped inside of 4000 lbs of steel and for THAT I will always hold drivers (including this one) to a higher standard while driving.

  • Jamie says:

    I don’t think this just applies to cyclists but rather to minority groups in general. Unfortunately, it seems that human nature is to judge a minority group by the actions of a few renegades; a stereotyping. Also, I think the problem is that those that ride in large groups in their strip don’t suffer the abuse of the motorist they wait till they see a lonely commuter.

    Stereotyping and cowardice seems to be a common thread to my point not just towards cyclists but any minority group.

  • Eddie says:

    So much angst. Where can I find a “I’m a Scofflaw. Deal with it.” t-shirt?

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  • Paul says:

    I just don’t care anymore. I can’t drive and never will. I live in the UK and every week you can read about ‘lycra louts’ in newspapers, every time I ride into town I suffer abuse and reckless driving that endangers my life.

    Oil will run out soon enough, and motorists will cry as their lifestyle blows up in their faces. There is no such thing as a considerate motorist. They all, without exception break the Highway Code, mostly by speeding which is the number one cause of accidents and death for pedestrians and cyclists.

    So I don’t care anymore. I’m not interested in dialogue anymore, I’m not destroying the planet. I’m just biding my time till no one can drive.

  • Sharper says:

    Dolan’s pretty much got it right. I’m pretty sure I’ve pointed out here before that Rob Cockerham of Sacramento did an informal survey of the stop sign in front of his house. Results: 3% of drivers came to a complete stop. Compare that to the 80% of cyclists (read here at ecovelo, if memory serves) that come to a complete stop, and it’s clear who is the bigger scofflaw.

    But really, we’re all scofflaws, so that’s not the real issue. I get yelled at and honked at while driving when I come to a full and complete stop at stop signs or when I stop (apparently abruptly to the drivers behind me) for pedestrians in a crosswalk, just the same as when I get yelled at and honked at for riding 20 miles an hour on a 25 mph city street (with lights timed for 25) by drivers who pass me doing 40.

  • Sharper says:

    Huh. Just found this ecovelo post that referenced the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s conclusion that motorists and bicyclists are no better or worse than each other at stop signs.

  • Doug P says:

    What’s often missing in this debate is simple politeness. When a cyclist approaches a 4 way stop where there is a motorist about to take his turn, and the cyclist cuts the motorist off and runs the stop, that is not the same thing as rolling thru a stop at a few miles per hour. Where one can say both behaviors are illegal I contend that basic standards of decency are being flouted by the cyclist. And therin lies the real reason for the ire of motorists. If a motorist arrives first at a 4 way stop, IT IS HIS TURN PEOPLE! (Yes I’m yelling) Being a cyclist does not imbue us with any special rights to be a JERK!

  • William says:

    @Doug P
    Well said. The other day I was biking with some friends and two of them did just this to a motorist while I stopped and waited. Sitting at that stop sign and exchanging looks with the motorist was pretty embarrassing. Worse yet, a small percentage of motorists in this situation might get angry and do something stupid or dangerous – or might even blame another cyclist later on who had nothing to do with the situation. When on the road, we should all consider ourselves to be ambassadors to a wonderful emerging mode of transportation. The way we act WILL affect the way we are perceived.

  • Sharper says:

    @Doug P.
    I would contend that when I come to a stop sign on my bicycle at the same time as a car approaching from the street to my left, and the car zooms ahead so they don’t have to wait for me (which happens often enough), they’re no better than your bicyclists. To update your conclusion, being a road-user does not imbue anyone with any special rights to be a JERK.

    We’re all jerks, though, anecdotally as you and I suggest, and as traffic studies have shown. Everything I’ve seen suggests to me that “scofflawism” is an excuse to mistreat or refuse cooperation with bicyclists on roads, not a reason to do so, and that bicyclists aren’t the only class of users that are affected, they’re just the easiest class to so mistreat.

  • Ray says:

    Being in Boston, aggressive driving and shouting and rude “hand-signals” are a normal part of driving. Any additional harrasment I get while astride my bike is a normal part of the environment.

    It’s the stupid and dangerous driving that gets me angry. The same people who don’t like the hectic atmosphere of driving in the city should not anticipate any improvement while cycling. Let it roll off of you, most of it is just bluster. I do have to tone down my commentary and reactions at times, and thankfully I’m getting better at it.

    Nobody responds favorably to rudeness, so best not to be angry if you really want to actually communicate your point of view to a driver.

  • Alan says:

    “Being a cyclist does not imbue us with any special rights to be a JERK!”

    True. And neither does sitting behind the wheel of car. The problem is that a car is a deadly weapon, and when it’s used aggressively, people are likely to get seriously hurt if not maimed or killed.

    Alan

  • Doug P says:

    The point I am trying to make is that simply being polite has consequences, as does being a jerk. Rules of the road dictate safe and legal behavior, while simple politeness dictates treating each other with respect. More respect= better behavior, and I repeat, being a cyclist (or motorist) does not excuse rude behavior.

  • Doug P says:

    And, @ Sharper,
    I specifically stated that when a car arrives FIRST at a 4 way stop it has the right of way. Of course if he ran you over to get there it is not the same. Although, to say because someone once in a car did you wrong entitles you to rude behavior- you are using the same failed logic as the motorists who assume all cyclists are jerks because some act that way.

  • DerrickP says:

    I’ve also noticed recently a trend in the aggressive vehicles… For me (at least in the last month or so) most of the vehicles that have swerved, honked an angry honk, yelled or come too close have all been vehicles with larger engines. It had seemed like sports cars and big pick-up trucks tend to “own” the road more than the mini-vans and compact vehicles. You could say it’s a “size” thing, but even small cars with big engines tend to buzz close. I wonder why. Is their identity somehow tied to the road? Are we a threat because a bike is the opposite of horsepower? Has anyone else noticed this?

  • Paul says:

    It seemed to me that when gas was over $4 a gallon, cagers weren’t as aggressive. To me, this is evidenced by the precipitous drop in motor vehicle deaths per million miless traveled. In the past few months, it seems that the agression has been restored. I wonder what the FARS data will show for these last few months.

  • No says:

    @AJ – “cyclists not “driving” defensively does not make it their fault if there is an accident. e.g. If a car turn right across you, or pulls out when you are on a main road it is still the car drivers fault. Yes, there are actions you can take to minimise the risk and even to make it less likely to happen at all, but that does not make it the cyclists fault if they are not defensive.

    Don’t blame the victim!!

  • Sharper says:

    @Doug P
    I missed the subtlety in the car specifically arriving first in your scenario, but I think we both need remedial classes in critical reading. I never claimed, nor would have, that encountering a jerk on the road entitles one to be a jerk (indeed, that was the lede in Alan’s original post). My addition was that there’s documentation suggesting that all road users are roughly equivalent lawbreakers, at least as far as stop signs are concerned, so there has to be another reason that cyclists are disproportionately vilified for that particular violation.

    I suppose I should have made the bigger point that the trait of jerkishness is usually assigned by the offended, not the offender, often without the knowledge of the offender. To too many drivers, bicyclists, by riding on the street at all, are jerks, and the cyclist’s (or even another motorist’s) adherence to existing regulation and common sense doesn’t much change the driver’s determination. If you’ve lived a sainted enough life to have never angered another road user and have been rewarded with SUVs that stay in their lanes, cars that don’t rush ahead of you, and honk-free urban rides, I can only commend you.

    I’m starting to wonder now whether perceptions about lane widths are another component of cyclist-directed anger. Not only is a bicyclist likely going slower than predominant traffic, but on average, that bicyclist is only taking up 1/4 of a lane’s width, “wasting” that other 3/4 in a driver’s eyes.

  • John says:

    This has been a very interesting post to read, and an extremely relevant topic. I’d agree that there are scofflaws among cyclists (and motorists), and that the “scofflaw” label is often applied hypocritically and as an excuse by some motorists to justify their anti-bike attitudes. I also believe that practical, transportational cycling needs to become a larger part of our society’s transportation system for environmental, economic, and social reasons (a point of view probably shared by most people reading this blog). I also know (as an historian) that change is never easy and that movements for social change have never succeeded without also encountering significant resistance from segments of society that want to maintain the status quo. Currently in our society, motorists have enjoyed a near monopoly on road usage and have had this view of things encouraged by the existence of an urban infrastructure that reinforces this, a legal system with a pro-automobile bias, and a powerful advertising industry that portrays the free and unfettered automobile use of roads as a virtual god-given right.

    It seems to me that an important question is how bicyclists build a movement to make cycling a safer, and more practical transportation alternative than it currently is. I’m not sure exactly how we get there from here, but discussions like this are an important element. As with other movements for change throughout our history, there will be disagreements about how to bring this change about (i.e., coexistence, confrontation, or something in-between?), but the first step is to start thinking about ourselves as a movement and not let setbacks deter us from challenging the auto-monoculture. In an important sense, our very presence on the roads is a challenge.

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  • MohjhoRyder says:

    Its easy to judge and blame all cyclists for the inconveniences auto drivers feel at the hands of a small percentage of cyclists. The average driver becomes enraged at adolescent BMX riders bouncing off of city property, wannabee hipster fixed gear messenger types playing in heavy city traffic, clown clad road racers flying through pedestrian paths, and of course the fear and loathing at the poor and homeless as they try to make a living with their decrepit duct tape and bailing wire bicycles.
    As cyclists, all questions concerning bicycles and road use must be answered with calm intelligence and perseverance. All outrageous accusations leveled at bicyclists must be met quickly with a stern reply as befitting a citizen faced with loss of legal rights.
    Ride on!

  • Speedlinking 15 February 2010 :: Treadly and Me says:

    […] Let’s Stop Blaming “Scofflaw Bicyclists”. […]

 
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