The number one complaint about cyclists is that they run stop signs and stop lights. It is such a common complaint that I struggle to understand both sides of it. Do cyclists run stop signs so often? Why do they do it? And why does it bother everyone so much?

It’s this last that really puzzles me. I stop at stop signs. I teach cyclists to stop at stop signs. It’s for our own safety. If a motorist runs a stop sign—and I see them do so routinely—someone else can be killed. But if a cyclist runs a stop sign, he will be hard pressed to do more than cosmetic damage to a car. So why do cyclists running stop signs invoke so much anger, and motorists running stop signs only an “oh well”?

I was relieved to find that someone else has already written this article. Here are a few excerpts from “The Myth of the Scofflaw Cyclist” posted in 2008 in WashCycle, a blog about cycling advocacy in Washington, D.C.

“I'm not trying to claim that cyclists don't break the law,” WashCycle says. “Let me state clearly and upfront, they do. What I'm saying is that there is nothing unique about the frequency with which cyclists as a class break the law when compared with drivers or pedestrians. And even if cyclists broke the law more flagrantly than others, this would not negate the need to share the road.”

WashCycle reviews how motorists break the law. “First of all, they speed.” In one study, “less than 10 percent of the sites had more than 50-percent obedience with the posted speed…They drive drunk and distracted…and hit-and-run.” Motorists’ disregard for the law doesn’t justify cyclists’ disregard for the law. “My point isn't that two wrongs make a right or that drivers are worse than cyclists. My point is that it's hypocritical to call your neighbor rude, because his loud stereo makes it difficult for you to focus on your backyard chainsaw sculpting.”

Both drivers and cyclists run stop signs. “The overall compliance rate for stop signs was 22.8 per 100 vehicles, ranging from 1.4 per 100 for bicycles to 46.2 per 100 for commuter vans…Okay, we're both guilty here, but the cars aren't even stopping half the time.”

Cyclists run stop signs more often than motorists, and run red lights far more frequently than motorists. WashCycle asks why drivers don’t run red lights. “Is it because they love the law so much? Did you skip the previous section?”

“It's because their risk/reward calculation is coming up with a different answer. And that makes sense. In a car, you're several feet farther back from the intersection and you're often a foot or two lower than on a bicycle, meaning you can't see as well. In a car, you're in a soundproof enclosure, so you have no stereoscopic hearing. And if you make a mistake you aren't as maneuverable as you would be on a bike or on your feet. You can't just ditch to the sidewalk. Drivers don't jaydrive because, in their own estimation, they can't. If they could, I'm sure they would.”

“…cyclists aren't behaving any differently than drivers or pedestrians. They're taking liberties with law where they think it's safe to do so. Right or wrong, that is what every class does.”

That makes sense. But why do drivers get so angry that cyclists run red lights and stop signs? WashCycle wonders too.

“Drivers get - I feel - irrationally angry about this. I wondered why for so long; and then an anthropologist friend of mine helped me to understand. Running a red light is so dangerous for cars that it isn't just illegal, it's taboo. You're breaking a social construct. That means people find it objectionable and abhorrent. So if education is needed, maybe it's needed to explain why it's safer for cyclists to do it than for drivers.”

WashCycle proposes, “The way to end jaybiking violations is to decriminalize them” as Idaho has done, “to allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, and stop lights as stop signs.” Does it really make cyclists safer, he argues, to “sit through the whole light cycle when there [is] no traffic anyway?”

Decriminalizing “jaybiking” might solve the problem of cyclists breaking the law, but I do not think it will make drivers less angry about the behavior. “Riding on the road, riding on the sidewalk, riding in a traffic lane when a bike lane is present, riding on the road when a bike trail is present, riding in the middle of the lane, riding two abreast, riding without a helmet, riding too slow, holding up traffic, riding through a crosswalk, lane splitting, passing on the right...What do all of these things have in common? I've heard or seen each held up as an example of cyclists' disregard for the law. And they're all legal. Some are ill-advised perhaps, but all legal.” Drivers get angry over things cyclists do that are legal now, and that isn’t likely to change when running stop signs can be added to the list of things cyclists do that are legal.