Toward Understanding the Moral Double Standard of Law-Breaking Drivers

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published December 17, 2012

An insightful article by a Guardian columnist who was ordered to attend a "speed awareness" course gets right to the heart of why most motorists see nothing wrong with speeding, but hate cyclists for "breaking the rules".

It eloquently explains much of what I have observed about the inconsistent attitude of motorists towards law-breaking by motorists and cyclists.

Some choice quotes:

Driving a car is almost certainly the most dangerous thing that any of us do in our lives. Certainly, it's the most dangerous to other people. Even the ghastly Mexican drug wars (60,000 killed since 2006) are not more lethal than the traffic there, which kills about 17,000 people every year.

On the absence of a moral dimension to the lectures:

[T]he emphasis was entirely on self-interest and the unpleasant social and financial consequences of being caught again.

Related to this was the extraordinary lack of remorse or even interest shown by some of the participants.

On moral outrage:

The only time there was an outbreak of moral outrage was when one of our number confessed that he sometimes rode a bicycle. Cyclists, we rapidly learned, were vile, dangerous outlaws who shot red lights, paid no tax, rode on the pavement and behaved with utter disregard for the safety of anyone else on the road.


[The drivers] don't see anything wrong in cheating, nor in other drivers cheating. Only in their hatred of cyclists is a vestigial mark of any moral sentiment.

I think this helps to explain so much of the antagonism towards rule breaking by cyclists - and acceptance of rule breaking by motorists - that we've seen whenever cycling comes up on RTH.

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By alhambra (anonymous) | Posted December 17, 2012 at 17:06:55

from a legal theory perspective, the breaking of traffic laws is an expression of legal realism, which says that rules are not only what are written, but are what people make of them, in practice and in enforcement. Thus the implicit 15 kph over rule; go over 15 kph over and you're out of that morally ambiguous zone and any driver would think a ticket is just. Stay within it and there is the impression that a ticket is not really fair.

For cyclists there's something similar going on. However certain traffic laws are not well designed for cyclists. The need to make a full stop, rather than slowing down to a slow roll, is pretty well useless given the additional energy and hassle needed to get the bicycle balanced from full stop, so hardly anyone does it. The perceived risk to the bicyclist going the wrong way down a one-way is tiny compared to a car doing it. These are forms of the same ambiguity, but drivers assume that the 'rules of the road' are the same for everyone, forgetting that they have their own zone of normative ambiguity.

Also drivers have a streak of idealism in them in that almost no driver will break certain laws even if the chance of either harm or enforcement is low, for example, passing on a shoulder. In Hamilton I've noticed that people are far less willing to weave in traffic compared to Toronto, for example to jump ahead three cars in a traffic jam if there is an open lane. We have a norm here based on these same realist notions that that is simply not something you do.

So I don't think drivers are in a moral vacuum, instead they are falsely imposing their norm on another group in a very positivistic way, given that bicycles technically are vehicles under the law. I would view this however as not a moral scheme but basically how people relate to law, since I suspect the majority of people don't view driving within the boundaries of the laws, written and practiced, as moral action. I'm not saying there aren't moral problems with this kind of 'abdication' but on the other hand a great number of our actions are taken on trust that laws are moral parameters.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted December 17, 2012 at 17:18:10 in reply to Comment 84051

I agree entirely: it is a case of a clash between two different social conventions of what is and is not acceptable independent of the actual laws. The difference in perceived and actual risks is very significant between motorists and cyclists. Motorists tend (generally) not to perceive speeding as something very dangerous (even though it often is, especially to others). Cyclists are mostly increasing the risk for themselves, which changes the moral impact of their decision. And, as you point out, many traffic rules were designed with the risks and capabilities of cars in mind, not cyclists.

With respect to speeding, the article, and my experience, shows that people feel the risk of getting caught is much greater if they exceed the limit by 15km/h, but speeders generally don't feel much remorse for exceeding the limit by much larger amounts. They just know they are taking more of a risk (i.e. a risk of getting caught, not a risk of causing harm to themselves or others). And that is what this article points out.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2012-12-17 17:22:58

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By alhambra (anonymous) | Posted December 17, 2012 at 17:49:34 in reply to Comment 84053

It will be interesting to see what happens in the not too far off future when cars will be automated - presumably they won't be allowed to speed. The rates of accident for these cars will also reduce so dramatically that it may be hard to insure other cars.

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By Whatev (anonymous) | Posted December 17, 2012 at 17:07:06

I think that this really comes from a sense of ownership of roads by these problem drivers (not all drivers, that is). That is, these problem drivers feel that roads and streets are for driving on and nothing else. Pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders, stop signs, traffic jams, etc. are seen as an impediment to driving, and thus counter to the whole point of the road. Therefore, if you can manage to find a way to avoid or "get around" these impediments, that is okay.

I liked the billboard I saw on the internet that said "You aren't stuck in traffic. You ARE traffic," which serves to highlight that when we choose to drive our car, we are all part of and the cause of the same set of problems (congestion, frustration, etc).

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted December 17, 2012 at 18:45:31

I basically agree with (what I understand to be) Nicholas' point, but I think that it's disingenuous to talk as if there is not another kind of lawlessness found amongst a significant minority of cyclists but vanishingly rare amongst drivers: the absolute disregard for rules or courtesy.

I expect that we've all seen cyclists ...

  • run four way stops even when there are already cars lined up
  • run red lights
  • move from road to cross walk to road
  • run cross walks with stop signs without yielding to pedestrians
  • turn the wrong way up one-way streets or ride on the wrong side of the road

I've seen all of the above in the past four days. I rarely see any of the above from drivers (not that I don't have a whole litany of complaints about drivers, particularly from my two-wheeled perspective).

As drivers, we tend to break the law in terms of degree: we go too fast, primarily. But many cyclists simply break laws whole-hog, and in very unpredictable ways. Pretending that these are the same sorts of law breaking comes across to the already-unsympathetic, I fear, as jesuitical.

Part of the problem, I venture to suppose, is that cycling is still regarded largely as the special province of children and the down-and-out - people who are cycling because they can't drive. That perception is shared by drivers and these cyclists themselves - I think that these cyclists feel themselves outside of the system. Certainly, it's generally barely-adult undergraduates and the down-trodden (if I may judge by demeanour, dress and facial expressions) who commit most of the flagrant acts of road anarchy that I listed above*.

* With the special exception of the spandex-clad set who hold momentum as the highest good.

Comment edited by moylek on 2012-12-17 19:00:27

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted December 18, 2012 at 09:32:12 in reply to Comment 84055

The problem with argument of degree is that any amount of speeding is illegal, and not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign is just as a illegal as rolling through slowly on a bike.

Maybe the argument of degree is more about risk? In that case the motorist breaking the rules "slightly" (e.g. running a red light) almost always poses a greater risk to others than a cyclists "completely" breaking a rule (e.g. by rolling through a red light). He or she (mostly he) is risking himself far more than he poses a risk to others.

I think this is part of the problem: motorists believe that they are allowed to speed a certain amount, roll through stops, accelerate through amber lights (when they could stop). All these actions are illegal (not semi-illegal) and often far more dangerous to others than the sorts of law breaking of cyclists. More fundamental, the sorts of rule breaking cyclists engage in would in fact be extremely dangerous for motorists to engage in, and this is part of the reason for the strong disapproval (even though the risk posed by cyclists is far less). As the article points out, even motorists who engaged in such dangerous and repeated speeding that they were ordered to take a speed awareness course were not remorseful about their behaviour, which put others (as well as themselves) at extreme risk.

I am always extremely law abiding on a bike, but I realize that certain laws (like coming to a complete stop at a stop sign) just make no sense for a bicycle.

I do agree, however, that it would be better if cycling became normalized to the extent that cyclist behaviour was more predictable by and safe. But it would still be the case that motorists and cyclists would develop their own social conventions of what's acceptable and this would still annoy motorists (especially when cyclists managed to travel faster).

By the way, recent surveys have actually shown that the average cyclist is wealthier and better educated than the average driver, so the perceptions probably need to change!

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2012-12-18 10:14:24

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted December 18, 2012 at 10:28:47 in reply to Comment 84076

By the way, recent surveys have actually shown that the average cyclist is wealthier and better educated than the average driver, so the perceptions probably need to change!

I almost find myself saying "that may be true in Paris, London or Toronto ... but this is Hamilton!"

In fact, I do think that undergraduates who bike like children and the down-and-out who bike like they are outside the system are a disproportionate part of the cycling ecosystem in Hamilton. But Hamilton is hardly unique in regarding cyclists as lawless, so it's not a necessary assumption.

It appears that nothing changes the mind of the public toward cycling the way that that public infrastructure does - so that's what we need for many reasons.

But I still think that ever time I come to at least a semi-stop at a stop sign, every turn and lane change I signal, every stoplight I obey is a little step toward counteracting the stereotypes.

In the past year, I have three times had drivers roll down their windows to express their thanks or wonder at my signalling a turn - it's not a lot, I grant, but it's something.

Comment edited by moylek on 2012-12-18 10:50:47

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted December 18, 2012 at 12:03:55 in reply to Comment 84086

I agree that civility and following the same rules as when driving (having lights at night, signalling lane changes, stopping at stop signs, not riding on sidewalks) should be encouraged, and this is how I ride.

Some motorists are appreciative of this, but others are confused or annoyed by strict rule following by cyclists:

I've also encountered annoyed drivers when I need to take a lane (because a driver can't pass me safely while staying within the lane), and when I come to a complete stop at a stop sign (car drivers do not respect my right of way and assume that all motorists should proceed before the cyclist, regardless of priority).

As you suggest, until infrastructure properly takes into account cyclists, and the proportion of cyclists becomes much larger, a significant portion of motorists will resent cyclists either for slowing them down or for breaking the rules in ways that motorists don't (and would be very dangerous for motorists).

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2012-12-18 12:04:56

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By g (anonymous) | Posted December 17, 2012 at 22:46:51

i drive a lot. i also ride a bike. when i break laws on the road driving, it is usually speeding and usually because i feel that the road can support a greater rate of travel than the posted limit. i don't run red lights, i don't travel the wrong way on one way streets, i don't run stop signs.
when i ride a bike, generally speaking i ALWAYS do these things that are illegal for cars. why? because i'm riding a bike and the reasons for the laws are not usually applicable in my mind, the same reason i break the law when driving. road laws are written for 1 tonne pieces of metal that carry 100 fold more energy and thus potential for damage than me and my bike. thus most road laws for cars are 100 fold over built for cyclists. its basic physics.

interestingly, i still resent bicyclists whom i see breaking car laws on the road when i am driving a vehicle, despite the fact that i know the reasons for their behaviour. same with being a pedestrian and my reaction to pedestrians. i havent really thought about why.

anger usually comes from a sense of loss. as a motorist i am made aware perhaps of the flexibility i give up by driving an automobile. i resent the cyclist their transgressions because i cannot, or rather dare not follow suit. perhaps this is the root of the anger motorists feel towards cyclists.

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