Where are these ‘legal’ drivers, anyway?

Happy Distracted Driving Awareness Month, everybody.

Here’s an Internet trope that frequently pops up whenever bicycles are mentioned in the news. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

I’m a pedestrian, a cyclist, and I drive a car. Bikes might be only 1% of the traffic, but they’re responsible for 99% of the traffic violations I SEE EVERYDAY. Car drivers are licensed, responsible, and OBEY THE LAW. Maybe one in 50 drivers break the law.

What kind of fairy tale land do these people live in where the vast majority of motorists obey the law? Here’s what I see every single day I’m on the road.

During lunch today, I biked around the block at my office. I counted 12 cars leave the office parking lot — EVERY ONE OF THEM RAN A STOP SIGN and EVERY ONE OF THEM ROLLED THROUGH A RED LIGHT and EVERY ONE OF THEM FAILED TO SIGNAL THEIR TURN. Two of them nearly mowed down a crowd of pedestrians walking to lunch and VIOLATED THEIR RIGHT OF WAY. (An aside — besides stopping short to avoid getting hit by the speeding cars, I betcha this right-of-way violation was not noticed by the walkers. If I had pulled the same move on my bike, however, and startled them as I whizzed closely by, they almost certainly would have gotten a little upset at scofflaw cyclists endangering their lives. We call this “modal bias.”)

For those keeping count, that’s at least 38 moving violations by 12 drivers in the span of about 90 seconds. Instead of the one in fifty proportion of scofflaws to legal drivers I’ve seen in online claims, these guys are batting 1.000.

Here’s another violation I see every single day I go to the office.

Car in the crosswalk

This driver is violating California Vehicle Code 21453, which says drivers must stop before the stop bar or the crosswalk at a red light. This guy was also talking on his cell phone and his turn signal wasn’t on. This is in a left turn lane where the light is always red until a car stops on the detector loop, so it’s not like he was surprised by a yellow light and couldn’t stop before the crosswalk.

So tell me — where is this land of make believe where drivers don’t constantly endanger the lives of everybody around them?

Please understand I don’t get particularly uptight about the scofflaw behavior itself. If I did, I’d probably be unable to function, and I imagine it’s part of the reason most of us ignore the lawbreaking. It’s the rank hypocrisy that people believe they’re much more law abiding inside of a car that drives me a little nuts sometimes.

And for some real irony, SF Citizen holds a phone to shoot video while driving down Castro Street in San Francisco and then presumes to lecture cyclists on traffic safety. While a cyclist kills a pedestrian in a rare bad year in San Francisco, car and truck drivers routinely kill at least one every month, but there’s rarely never any outcry from the public, city council or the media when that happens. When’s the last time Matier & Ross published anonymous tips about a random car fatality in San Francisco?

I’ve never created a “Rant” category, so file this one under Musings.


  1. Couldn’t agree more. The bike fatality coverage definitely has to do with its rarity, as backward as it is that’s the kind of attention getting news world we live in, I don’t think it’s right I’d like to change it as much as you. I think a lot of car drivers feel threatened by bicyclists because it makes them have to pay more attention to their driving surroundings something they would rather not do. I’d like to see more traffic cops at busy intersections not cameras, more road diets, and separated bike lanes.

  2. This is what is happening in the mind of the driver: 

    Driving is a legitimate, normal activity that normal people do. Cycling is a deviant activity that deviant people do because they think they’re better than everyone else / poor / stupid / whatever. So of course drivers breaking the law is normal and OK, but cyclists should really be out there in the first place so they deserve to be punished.

  3. “…his turn signal wasn’t on. This is in a left turn lane…”I don’t know what the law says in this regard, but I’ve always thought that a turn signal in a left turn lane was redundant and unnecessary.

    Otherwise, great article! There are some people like this on the Bicycling Reddit page, that claim that they’re cyclists too but go on to say how cyclists shouldn’t take the lane when there’s no bike lane and should be on the sidewalk. To that I say, “No. You’re not a cyclist. Get off this subreddit.”

  4. If a motorist slows from 30MPH to 10 at a stop sign, he clearly slowed down a lot and nobody will think ill of him or her. If a cyclist slows from 12 to 10, it appears much worse. Even to a pedestrian. More often, the cyclist simply continues the cadence right through the stop sign. It would seem good form to at least make the pretence by backpedaling prior to the sign. At least most motorists at least tap the brakes for a bit. We must recognize that, as a small minority, cyclists seem strange and scary to quite a few people.

  5. Amen! I hear ya on modal bias! Cars do illegal things around and to me every day I’m on the bike. 

    I got pulled over by a cop the other day for rolling through a stop sign at a t-intersection. They camped out at Harrison & 15th all morning and gave me a lecture about stopping at stop signs. Today on the same route, I saw all the cars before and after me run the stop sign.I can barely make it through the yellows on Market, because the long intersections are timed for cars. And there’s always pedestrians who jump the green light and step out before their light goes on. This happens mostly because I stopped at the previous red light and couldn’t accelerate enough to make it through the next timed light. Anyways, most traffic lights are not even designed with consideration of bicycle start and stop speeds. Most yellows need an extra .5 seconds before turning red IMO. 

  6. If police enforced motor vehicle law most municipalities in the U.S. would no longer be broke.

    Here’s one from a pedestrian perspective. My street connects three major roads. So I go to Atwells Avenue an Knight Street in Providence, RI. A city councilman was struck by a car on this road in the recent past so they put in bright yellow/green signs, raised crosswalks at certain locations, etc.

    I tried crossing, had both feet IN THE CROSSWALK and counted 25 cars blow through. I wrote my city councilor about it. You see, a crosswalk violation is $175. In just two minutes the city would have gotten  $4,375 in fines!

  7. You didn’t even mention speed limit laws, which are a bit unusual in that most motorists are actually consciously aware of violating them but do so anyway.

  8. I think everyone should just get in the habit of signaling every time they make a lane change or turn (even into a driveway or parking spot) so it becomes a reflex, even when they think what they are doing is obvious to everyone else. Chances are it isn’t, and redundancy is a great thing with regards to traffic safety. The reality is that when a person is in a car their ability to communicate is significantly muted, so they have a responsibility to use the tools at their disposal consistently to let others know what they are trying to do.

    My main beef is when people don’t signal until they actually start turning. Meanwhile I am queued up behind them on my bike assuming they are going to go straight though, then have to maneuver right and around them while left turning traffic across the intersection refuses to yield to me even after I do a “straight through” signal. Start signaling BEFORE the intersection, not WHILE you are turning!

  9. We know cars are dangerous, we know cars can kill. Bicycles killing pedestrians is something new and different so of course it gets more coverage.  Also, in several of the car-ped deaths reported in SF recently, the ped was in the wrong–he or she darted into traffic from between two parked cars.  The peds slain by the bicyclists were in the crosswalk. And when a driver does behaves egregious negligence, there is an outcry.  Such as the DUI who injured a young Philly fan in the . 

    As more people take up bicycling, there are bound to be more bike-ped accidents, and yes, ped deaths that will result. 

  10. The irony of a sting at 15th/Harrison is delicious. The problem intersection is 14th and Harrison. It “looks” like a T intersection but it isn’t – the parking lot of Best Buy completes the cross. And the standard cyclist route there is 14th, into the Best Buy lot, and on to Divvision. Cyclists coming down Harrison and running this intersection cause some consternation for me a couple times a week.

    Then again we then go on to make an illegal left onto Bryant/Division 😉

  11. It is so true there is such a bias to bikers. I don’t know why people dislike bikers so but the real problem is not the bikers it is the motorists. While I am not saying more cars break traffic laws than bikers but on a bike you are moving 200 pounds at about 20 mph while in a car you are moving 10 times that at much faster speeds.

  12. The same percentage of accidents of bicycle vs pedestrian as car vs pedestrian are deemed “serious”

  13. This isn’t exactly a motorist only issue. Bicyclists break a constant stream of traffic laws too. And don’t forget the pedestrians.

  14. I got the insane giggles out of the Omaha, NE police department announcing ON TELEVISION that they would be executing a speed trap at a local school area.
    The police offical plainly stated that they would only pull over drivers going 10MPH over the speed limit in this 25MPH zone.

    The police basically telling everyone that they were going to let everyone break the law and the police would do nothing even with it happening right in front of them.


  15.  That’s an extremely presumptuous claim. Some people don’t even think of things in terms of normal/deviant, so you might want to consider the possibility that there’s much more information out there than you’re basing conclusions on.

  16. I sat 10 minutes  waiting for a bus a few days ago, and amused myself by counting the numbers of cars that blew through the stop signs at the intersection.  roughly 40 cars, about 3 came to a stop, about 5 rolled through at a walking pace, most slowed to roughly 10-15 mph, and a small number totally blew through it.  Of the 4 or 5 bikes coming through, 1 pedaled through without slowing, the rest rolled through very slowly or stopped.  That’s a small sample, but consistent with past experience.  

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