Are Reckless Driving and Biking Morally Equivalent? An Ethicist Weighs In

Photo: Eric Allix Rogers.
Photo: Eric Allix Rogers.

[The Chicago Reader publishes a weekly transportation column written by Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield. We syndicate a portion of the column on Streetsblog after it comes out online.]

A heated debate recently erupted on social media about whether reckless driving and reckless biking are morally equivalent. It began, as so many of these wars of words do, with a post on Facebook.

“Wow! Very disappointed in Chicago’s cycling commuters today,” Erick “Iggy” Ignaczak wrote. He’s a burly, bearded, 37-year-old residential painter who occasionally attends events organized via The Chainlink, a social networking site for local cyclists. Formerly a hard-core all-weather bike commuter, nowadays he drives a van to work.

That morning, Ignaczak wrote, he was driving downtown on Milwaukee Avenue—where bikes make up about 40 percent of all the traffic on the street during warmer months—when he had a couple of run-ins with reckless bicyclists. As he drove southeast on Milwaukee just south of Grand, he said, a bunch of fast riders “jumped out of the bike lane” and in front of his van to pass a slower cyclist.

Minutes later he was heading east on Kinzie, stopped at the stop sign at Clinton, and was about to turn south when a couple of the same riders passed him on the right and ran the sign. The cyclists, Ignaczak wrote, “are very lucky be alive. If I wasn’t a cyclist commuter in a past life and didn’t know what to watch for, they would be dead.”

Drivers are legally obligated to make sure the coast is clear before making turns. But Ignaczak is correct that, unlike their counterparts in European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where the cycling rate is about 17 times higher, Chicago motorists often neglect to check for bikes before making turns or opening doors, which is why “right-hook” and “left-hook” crashes and doorings are common here. It also sounds like the cyclists truly were behaving irresponsibly and would’ve been at least partly to blame if they’d been struck and seriously injured or killed.

Other Chainlinkers posted to commiserate with Ignaczak. “Those are the jackholes that give us all a bad name,” said Sarah Dandelles, who gets around mostly by bike.

“Some people are just dumb jerks, no matter what their means of conveyance,” Elliot Edwards wrote.

“Yeah, I just have this romanticized view that cyclists are the good guys,” Ignaczak responded.

That’s when I chimed in. “Well, if people are going to be jerks on the road, I’d much rather they be on bikes than in cars.” I noted that while bad behavior from cyclists has never resulted in the death of another road user in our city, virtually all of the 100-plus fatal traffic crashes in Chicago each year involve drivers. While acknowledging that irresponsible cycling is wrong, I argued that it doesn’t have anywhere near the potential for harm as dangerous driving. Reckless bike riders are mostly a danger to themselves. Equating reckless driving with reckless cycling is, in short, a fallacy.

That didn’t sit well with Ignaczak and many of my fellow bike commuters on the thread. “Feels like you are giving [cyclists] a pass to be said jerks,” Ignaczak wrote. “No.”

I responded that operating a 3,000-pound vehicle at 30 to 60 mph that can easily kill people should involve more responsibility than operating a 30-pound vehicle that goes 10 to 20 mph and can’t. The Dutch see it that way too: in the Netherlands drivers are automatically held liable for collisions with cyclists unless it can be proven the bike rider caused the crash. That sensible policy, along with safer street design and universal bike education, contributes to a bike fatality rate in the Netherlands that’s about one-fifth that of the U.S., even though helmet use is rare.

In response to that argument, another commenter linked to an article about a 44-year-old London resident named Kim Briggs who was fatally struck in May as she crossed one of that city’s high-traffic Cycle Superhighway routes. In recent years there have been similar high-profile fatal collisions between people on bikes and pedestrians in San Francisco and New York City.

Of course, cases like these are tragic, and if the cyclist acted recklessly, he or she must be held accountable. (I also fully support the ticketing of bike riders who fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, or mindlessly blow red lights, putting themselves and others in danger.) But reports of cyclists fatally striking people, as awful as they are, are the exception that proves the rule. While there are at most a handful of these cases a year in the U.S., more than 2,000 people are seriously injured or killed in driver-involved crashes annually in Chicago alone, and there’s a fatality about once every three days. Again, dangerous conduct on a bike is potentially destructive, but the total amount of damage caused by irresponsible cycling is trivial compared to that inflicted by reckless motorists.

Still, the Chainlinkers raised a valid question: Does the fact that bad cycling behavior has less potential for carnage than unsafe driving make it any less immoral?

Anthony Laden.
Anthony Laden.

To dig into the ethics of the matter, I contacted Anthony Laden. He chairs the philosophy department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is associate director of the Center for Ethics and Education, and for good measure he also happens to ride a bike to work. Laden reframed the question a bit: Are reckless biking and reckless driving unsafe in the same way?

“They both expose oneself and others to harms, and more importantly impose those harms, or a chance of those harms, on others without getting something like their agreement or consent to be put in that situation,” Laden says. “It may be that the harms the car driver imposes on others are more severe or at least more likely to involve serious physical injury, but there is certainly a harm imposed on a car driver by a biker when the bicyclist gets into a crash with the car driver in which the cyclist is seriously hurt and the driver is not. Most people find it traumatic to be involved in a situation where another person is seriously injured or killed.”

Exposing someone to a harm, or a risk of a harm, he added, might be wrong because of the harms caused, or it might be wrong because of the attitude of contempt it shows for those so exposed. “This will change how we evaluate the wrongs of various kinds of recklessness.”

Further complicating this, Laden says, is that sharing the road with others is inherently risky. One agrees to subject oneself to that risk by being on public roads, either in a car or on a bike. “Finally, you might think about sharing the public roads as something we do together, and so ask in what way the reckless driver and cyclist fail in their responsibility to their partners on the road. I take it that once you do that, then you can’t just divide between bikers and drivers.”

The exchange with Laden resulted in more questions than answers, and he apologized. “Philosophers are much better at making simple things hard than the reverse.”

But here’s indisputable reality: Reckless driving has far more potential for death and destruction than any other individual travel mode, and as such, the focus of traffic enforcement, infrastructure, and education efforts should be to prevent it. Still, whether you’re behind the wheel, in the saddle, or on foot, you have the ability to inflict physical or psychic damage upon others. That’s a serious responsibility. So, to driver, cyclist, and pedestrian alike: Don’t be a jackhole. There’s too much at stake.

  • BlueFairlane

    I’m running on a theory that my use of a colloquial term for anus to denote a rude individual has cast my previous attempt to post this comment into some sort of comment limbo, so here is a second attempt, with the word edited to “jerk.” If this post appears twice, that’s why. If it doesn’t appear at all, then I know I got banned or something.

    I think the issue is that you have taken the question presented in one discussion–“Is it okay to be a jerk?”–and replaced it with a different question–“Is it better to be a jerk when you can’t kill anybody?” The answer to the second question is, without doubt, yes. If you feel compelled to be a jerk, you should do it in as harmless a way as possible. But that’s not the issue. The issue is whether it’s okay to be a jerk at all.

    I draw an analogy to standing in line at the Dunkin’ Donuts, and somebody cuts in front of me. That’s a jerk thing to do. Now, the John Greenfield of line cutters might come
    along and argue that at least the person didn’t point a loaded gun in my face as they cut the line, and that’s true. It’s safer to cut in line without weaponry. But that’s not going to leave me any less ticked off about it.

  • rohmen

    Building of those points, few people in this city (though admittedly more than in many areas of the country) are pure cyclists. If you’re a self-entitled jerk cyclist blowing stop signs and doing obviously reckless things, there’s a decent chance that will port over to a car when the cyclist gets behind the wheel. Sure, a reckless cyclist might be safer around other cyclists when they get behind the wheel, but then again maybe not.

    Portlandia had a pretty spot on sketch in an early season that touched on the where an entitled cyclist simply became an entitled driver once he made the switch.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Your anology is correct: I’d much rather that people who act selfishly do so in a way that doesn’t involve a high probability of killing other people. That’s logical isn’t it? But, sure, you have my blessing to be ticked off at reckless bicyclists.

  • BlueFairlane

    Jerks are often just jerks in every facet of life.

    Exactly! The jerks who ride bikes like to use “At least I didn’t kill you” to excuse their behavior, when these same people might very well hop in a car and do the exact same thing, only powered by gas. Jerkiness is jerkiness, and a person’s willingness to makes excuses for it in one area suggests they’ll probably make excuses in all areas.

  • BlueFairlane

    I appreciate your blessing, and by your leave I shall continue to throw my ire at pretty much anybody who bullies themselves around the city without consideration of those around them, regardless of mode.

  • Joe R.

    Agreed. And I’ll even say the same thing about driving drunk. It’s never a good idea to drive drunk, but if a person is going to do so anyway, I’d much rather they drive a bicycle than a motor vehicle. At least on the bike chances are great if they screw up they’ll only kill themselves.

  • Joe R.

    I think it’s also important to carefully define exactly what constitutes “reckless”. Just as many drivers rightly say going 5 or 10 mph over what is often an artificially low speed limit doesn’t constitute “reckless driving”, one can say the same about cyclists who don’t stop at red lights or stop signs if nothing is crossing (but who do yield the lawful right-of-way when there’s vehicular or pedestrian cross traffic). Truly reckless cycling is switching lanes unpredictably, blowing stop signs or red lights at full speed without bothering to look, careening at high speeds on sidewalks, in general riding in such a way that others are forced to change speed or direction to avoid colliding with you. No reasonable cyclist condones or defends such behavior. As a community, we cyclists must call out this type of behavior whenever we see it. And we must educate non-cyclists on the difference between harmless letter-of-law violations of traffic regulations really designed for motorists, versus reckless, inconsiderate cycling. The latter is what we all want law enforcement to go after. And in the long time we also want the laws changed so that currently illegal but harmless behavior is no longer illegal.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    I’m in agreement with you on just about all counts. But just to clarify, speed limits are not artificially low. The default speed limit in Chicago is 30 mph. Studies show that if you strike a pedestrian with your car at much more than that speed, they are almost certainly going to die. 30 or below and they’re probably going to live.

  • Joe R.

    I’m mostly talking about limited access highways. On city streets you’re correct. Speed limits of 30 mph or less are generally appropriate unless it’s a street which sees little pedestrian or bike traffic. On many limited access highways the speed limits are often legislated to values which are too low. As a point of comparison, in Europe highway speed limits are typically 120 kph to 160 kph, compared to the US where 65 mph or 70 mph is about the maximum on the East Coast, and 85 mph is the highest I’ve seen. In Europe 85 mph ( 137 kph) would actually be a middling highway speed limit.

  • Ron Chicago

    I’m sorry but, in Chicago, I routinely see cyclists blow red lights or do equally inane stuff like try to slide by cabs with exiting patrons on the curb side. I don’t know where this holier than thou attitude for cyclists comes from but you only have to drive through Chicago for a few hours to see that the only law many cyclists follow is ‘Do I think I’m going fast enough to make this maneuver?’ And I’m the guy who takes the give cyclists 3 feet rule very seriously mainly because I don’t trust them not to do something silly like dart in front of my car.
    For the rest of us who aren’t living in an outtake of Premium Rush, we’d appreciate it if cyclists agree to abide by traffic lights, stop signs and bike lanes.

  • You might appreciate it, your appreciation is on the line. But cyclists require it, because their lives are on the line.

  • Ron Chicago

    Right, which is exactly why cyclists should follow the rules and not expect drivers to somehow be perfect and/or able to anticipate them doing wild things like running red lights.

    I guarantee I can film at least 3 cyclists running red lights on my way home tonight. No way you’ll ever see that many drivers doing that during main commute times.

    Cyclists lives are important but they’re not absolved from protecting themselves.

    I think that is the point of the article, by the way.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    It’s important to keep in mind the distinction between mindlessly blowing red lights and stop signs without regard to other road users (bad, dangerous, should be ticketed) and mindfully performing an “Idaho stop” — treating a stoplight like a stop sign, or a stop sign like a a yield sign (harmless, safe, shouldn’t be ticketed.) A recent DePaul study endorsed the latter and suggested that Chicago consider legalizing it: http://chi.streetsblog.org/2016/12/12/idaho-stop-in-the-name-of-love-depaul-study-endorses-rational-cycling/ So the question is, did the three or more cyclists you saw on your way home blast through the red lights without caring about how their actions impacted other road users? Or did they stop, check to make sure the coast was clear, and then safely proceed through the red?

  • Ron Chicago

    That is something I could support but, to be fair, no one is making Idaho stops during commute. I saw a cyclist almost get t-boned at Grand and Orleans at 4:45pm (or so) just this week.

  • Komanoff

    More from Prof. Laden, please? The post was finally getting interesting when his turn ended.

  • rwy

    Speak for yourself. Someone doing something that could put my life in danger ticks me off a whole lot more than someone who merely inconveniences me. The person pointing a gun in my face has decided in their mind that they are ok with me not living beyond today, a line that was not crossed by the guy merely cutting in line.

  • Joe R.

    The way the human mind works, people generally notice only things they want to see. If someone thinks all cyclists are lawbreakers, all they’ll see are lawbreaking cyclists. The truth is you probably would have seen loads of cyclists doing what John mentioned above if you really tried looking for them. In general they’re harder to spot precisely because they don’t interfere with you in any way. You might see one slow rolling up to the crosswalk, and if you look in your rear-view mirror, you’ll see them crossing the intersection after you passed.

    The situation is much the same when applied to motorists. On an average day 99% of the motorists are law-abiding but you only notice the jerks. Unless there is a plague of some kind of brain disease in Chicago I would find it hard to believe all cyclists there are proceeding through red lights or stop signs without bothering to look. That’s a great way for any cyclist to die. Contrary to some of the common rhetoric, most cyclists like to arrive at their destination in one piece.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Looking into this…

  • rwy

    One of the most common complaints I hear is that groups of cyclists ride side by side. Not exactly a dangerous infraction. I think most drivers are merely ticked off that they have to slow down.

    Most motorists will break there letter of the law if they think it’s harmless just like most cyclists. I notice many cars merely slowing down when approaching a stop sign, turning left into the right lane. Yet most drivers will say that cyclists should stick to the law 100% of the time, even if they don’t do the same. The hypocrisy combined with the disproportionate danger cyclist face is why they’re so annoyed with complaints about law breaking cyclists.

  • planetshwoop

    I think there is a spectrum between Risk and Reward when traveling. For drivers, many go really fast, tailgate, run lights, etc. for a trivial reward (“I got to work 2 minutes earlier than usual.”). For cycling, the stakes are probably a bit higher — you have no air bags, no seat belt so coming to a full stop and looking both ways at every stop sign (no risk) is different from treating stop signs as informational (high risk). In both cases, I think a big part of the reward is going fast is fun, and being a little risky is sometimes fun too.

    These are less of ethics than trade-offs, and we each find our own place on the spectrum for what we will accept. The law is supposed to define it, but in practice it’s useless: there are too many places where following the letter of the law is maddeningly frustrating so people ignore it selectively, and assume everyone else should follow it.

    (I think about this a lot, both in my behavior vs other cyclists, as well as being consistent from my own behavior vs cars. Do I give myself a pass for something that I get really angry at a car for?)

    I’m incredibly curious as to how much automation/sensors will start to change this. There is often a throw-away line in articles like “when we have autonomous cars” as if that will happen from one day to the next. In practice, cars may have more cameras and sensors to identify bicycles. Will that make cyclists act more recklessly if they know the car has to stop? Will drivers be more careful if they know the car will take over when they do something bad?

  • Taking the lane to pass a bike is how you should be passing on Milwaukee anyway. What is the problem? He didn’t make it to the red light 2 seconds faster?

  • johnaustingreenfield

    Doing so without first checking for vehicles in the travel lane is reckless.

  • So, first, as the Mod says, those cyclists aren’t “mindlessly” blowing red lights, otherwise they’d be getting hit.

    Moreover, why do you think that? Some part is convenience, but also, because it means they don’t have to deal with all the traffic behind them trying to push past.

    Even more over, you will see 3 cyclists run red lights, sure, but I guarantee you, wherever you live (at least in any big city), if you look closely, you’ll see 10 times that number of drivers texting and driving, you’ll see 100 times as many speeding, and you’ll see just as many run the amber light. All of those activities put other innocent parties at risk including yourself mind you.

    But lets drop all that and get back to the point. Nobody is arguing that cyclists shouldn’t be safe. All that is being said is that while it is inadvisable and stupid to endanger yourself, it is much more morally wrong (in my opinion at least) to endanger others.

    It’s also worth noting, that cyclists have a strong incentive to be safe, they’ll be the one killed. Drivers have much less incentive. If they text and drive and don’t see that cyclist/pedestrian/whomever, they’re not the one who will be killed. Yes, they might also rearend a car, and that would be bad, but it’s also far less likely to be deadly.

  • Vooch

    City Hall with no car storage – How does Mayor get to his office ? How can anyone get to city hall ?

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?list=PLzNM_rzDSme6P4gvpkVIVGEo1ta2TFMeS&v=rRDI7BjjqFI

  • what_eva

    That’s because as a driver you only see it if you’re first in line. I walk 2 blocks in the loop between my office and the red line and I see people run red lights nearly every single cycle. And I mean they were behind the line when the light was red (ie the camera standard), not entered the intersection when they knew they couldn’t clear (ie the actual law). Add in drivers blocking the intersection because they entered when it was blatantly obvious the intersection was blocked and now they’re stuck because the light changed.

  • what_eva

    Yeah, it’s worse when you’re driving a car because the risk of injury is obviously massively higher. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay for a cyclist. Just because the reckless cyclist is mostly risking their own body doesn’t mean it’s fine. Like the ones Mr. Ignaczak nearly hit who blew a stop sign while a car was waiting to turn. That’s not an Idaho stop, that’s reckless.

    Bottom line, people suck and seem to suck more than in the past. Drivers do it, cyclists do it, pedestrians do it.

  • dr2chase

    Surprised there was no discussion in the article of choosing to drive when alternatives were available, given that the mere presence of a moving car on the road adds risk for everyone around it. I figure anyone younger than me (57) thinner than me (225 lbs) with a shorter commute (6 miles) with a somtimes-used cargo capacity smaller than mine (one extra person and/or 6 bags of groceries) is a candidate for “could ride a bike”, assuming no particular disability.

    Habitual car drivers are also at greater risk of early death (multiple studies show this) which will unethically trouble their survivors, should such death occur. I saw no discussion of that in the article either, and it’s a far larger number of early deaths than all the crash deaths combined (pedestrian, cyclist, car occupant). Is it ethical to miss the forest for the trees, when each tree is an early death?

  • dr2chase

    That’s not what safe cyclists actually do for safety. Rule number one is to look out for huge trucks. Rule number two is to look out for moving vehicles about to cross your path, no matter what the lights and signs say. Other rules involve parked cars, slots and cracks in the roads, dogs and children, etc. Merely obeying the law will get you hurt pretty quickly, and the other rules make obeying many laws unnecessary, for example a red light for you usually implies a green light for someone else implies cross traffic so you don’t go even if you have no particular respect for red lights. Daytime running lights are a good idea, so are fat tires.

    Safe cyclists also expect that drivers will be very far from perfect. Drivers speed, roll through stops from side streets, stop far forward of the stop line, fail to pass safely, swerve into the bike lane to pass left-turning traffic, fail to signal turns in the presence of other traffic, fail to stop at crosswalks for pedestrians, and of course very many drivers speed.

    Your assumption that cyclists are unable to protect themselves is touching. Multiple studies show that most car commuters fail to exercise adequately and thus incur (in a recent study) 69% higher annual mortality risk ( http://www.bmj.com/content/357/bmj.j1456 — cycle commuter relative risk os 0.59, reciprocal is 1.69, thus 69% higher risk ).
    There are no laws against this particular pile of early deaths, but it’s a huge pile of early deaths, far more than any crash deaths.

    Understand, I drive, and I also put thousands of miles on a bicycle in urban traffic every year, and I do my best to hunt down scholarly articles on traffic safety. Unless you do the same, I’m going to be a bit skeptical about your views on cyclist safety.

  • ChicagoCyclist

    What about the moral responsibility of a bus driver, an airplane pilot, the conductor of a train, a professional semi-truck driver, etc? I think ‘responsibility’ varies with the potential dangers, difficulties, training required, potential for (all kinds of) ‘harm,’ etc. Typical salaries of (and/or costs or ‘investments’ in — both individual and societal investments) of operating different forms of transportation may reflect this thinking. On the other hand, what about the relative morality of walking ‘recklessly’, skateboarding, dog-walking recklessly, a kid on a big-wheel or tricycle, dancing, etc. The main point is that ‘operating a vehicle’ does not always have the same responsibilities and expectations or ‘context.’ Also, different cultures/societies in different parts of the country or the world have different expectations, norms, etc. How would this fact come in to play in determining ‘morality.’

  • Haggie

    They are equivalent like shooting someone with a BB gun v. shooting someone with an assault rifle are equivalent.

  • David Henri

    A group of cyclists pulling into the driving lane, out of the designated bike lane to pass another cyclist, is not reckless cycling. They have the right to use the lane and the motorist needs to understand this and slow down.

  • David Henri

    The driver didn’t say that the cyclists pulled out in front of him without looking. He stated that “a bunch of fast riders “jumped out of the bike lane” and in front of his van to pass a slower cyclist”. The speed limit on Milwaukee is 25 mph. Sounds to me like he was going a bit too fast. Cyclists have the right to use the lane as much as a motorist. Especially on Milwaukee where the lane usage changes every block.

  • David Henri

    I disagree. On my Milwaukee commute, I’d say that most of the cyclists make the Idaho stop at red lights. I myself wait for the green, but I don’t see cyclists blindly blowing through the red without stopping first.

  • johnaustingreenfield

    The way Ignaczak described the incident elsewhere in the Facebook thread does make it sound like the cyclists entered the travel lane without looking behind them for traffic. It’s possible he’s lying or didn’t mention that he was driving at a reckless speed, but from my personal experience with him, this seems unlikely.

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