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Why do some cyclists break the law? US academic surveys 18,000 people to find out

Results due out in summer - but US professor says early results are that proper infrastructure is solution

Why do some cyclists choose to break the rules of the road? That’s the question an academic at the University of Colorado Denver is hoping to answer – and more than 18,000 people have participated in a survey to help him find out why.

Wesley Marshall, a professor of civil engineering at the institution, is currently sifting through the responses to his so-called Scofflaw Survey, with the results due to be published over the summer.

Already, however, he seems to be leaning towards the finding that people riding through red lights, or cycling on pavements, aren’t doing so because they are hell-bent on breaking rules – it’s because they want and need infrastructure that all too often is currently missing.

He told Colorado Public Radio: “Not all bicyclists that break the law are these hooligans that are out to be sort of anti-society. I think a lot of people do it for very practical reasons.”

He said that people on bikes are more likely to comply with road signs and traffic signals when they are aimed specifically at cyclists.

“If we give these people a system that’s built for and really meant for cars, you might see more people breaking the law,” he explained.

He went on to say that some cyclists may ignore a red light because the alternative is fighting for road space at a junction with a car.

But he cautioned that people breaking the law when on a bike are likely to be viewed in a more negative light than those who do so while driving a car.

“Everyone breaks traffic laws, “he said. “It's just that cyclists are judged more harshly.

"People speed on the way to work [while driving cars],” he added.

“And even if it's a few miles over, they are speeding; they are breaking the law.

“But society doesn't judge those people as criminals.

"With bicyclists, a lot of people feel the same way.

“They don't really think it's a big deal to go through a stop sign when there are no other cars or pedestrians around."

The sample size – comprising cyclists, motorists and pedestrians – is a large one, and because of that it’s likely that Professor Marshall’s final report will make for interesting reading.

In the meantime, cycling advocacy groups across the US are already reported to have asked Professor Marshall for localised results.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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