- A new study out of Denmark found that cyclists break traffic laws at much lower rates than drivers.
- Out of more than 28,000 Danish cyclists, only 4.9 percent disobeyed traffic laws when bikes lanes were present, the study found.
- On streets without bike lanes, that figure rose to 14 percent.
- Previous research found that 66 percent of Danish drivers break traffic laws.
Stay in a discussion about commuter cycling long enough, and you’re bound to hear a common refrain: Drivers don’t necessarily hate the idea of sharing the road with cyclists, they just hate how cyclists break so many dang rules.
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It’s the age-old stereotype of the “scofflaw cyclists,” the ones who flout traffic laws as if they’re entitled to act however they want on the road. But are cyclists really more prone to breaking the law than other travelers?
Research so far says no: A Florida study last year found that cyclists actually obey traffic laws at slightly higher rates than drivers. In 2017, a study by two U.S. professors in the Journal of Transport and Land Use noted a similar breakdown—and concluded that when cyclists do break laws, they do so largely because they feel they must in order to stay safe.
Now, we have evidence that on streets with good bike lanes—the kind of infrastructure proven to make trips safer for cyclists as well as drivers—the law-breaking drops dramatically. According to a new study out of famously bike-friendly Denmark, cyclists on streets with designated cycleways broke the rules less than 5 percent of the time. That number rose to 14 percent on streets without cycleways.
Conducted by the consulting firm Rambøll for the Danish Road Directorate, an agency that oversees Denmark’s national road network, the study used video cameras to capture the behavior of more than 28,500 cyclists at major intersections throughout the country. Cyclists were twice as likely to break the law in smaller towns with fewer bike lanes (8.3 percent versus Copenhagen’s 4.2 percent). The most common offenses were turning right without the right of way and riding on the sidewalk.
A previous study done by the Danish urban design firm Copenhagenize reached a similar conclusion. Analyzing 80,000 cyclists, it also found that only about 5 percent broke traffic laws.
Now, how do these cyclists compare to others on Danish roadways? While the Rambøll study did not look at driver behavior, prior research by the Danish Road Directorate found that 66 percent of the country’s drivers regularly broke traffic laws (most often by speeding). That’s more than 4.5 times the amount of cyclists on streets without bike lanes, and almost 13.5 times more than cyclists on streets with bike lanes.
Of course, Denmark, and especially Copenhagen, is already much friendlier toward cyclists than many other places, which likely had an impact on the results. By contrast, Florida, the site of last year’s study finding relative rule-breaking parity between American cyclists and drivers, had less than five miles of protected bike lanes in the entire state. It also had one of the highest per-capita rates of cycling deaths in the country.
But the best way out of this deadly reality seems to be improving streets to make them safer for cycling—not asking individual cyclists to act more well behaved. While knowledge of traffic laws and riding etiquette is always important, it can’t replace quality bike lanes. The numbers increasingly back this up.