Responding to the 'All Bikers are Scofflaws' Fallacy

NPR's Scott Simon, Peabody-winning journalist and the Saturday host of Morning Edition, recently set off a Twitter-storm when he called out bikers as scofflaws.
Copenhagenize Design Co. / Copenhagenize

Simon's tweet is what's known as a "fundamental attribution error," defined by Wikipedia as the "tendency to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics to explain someone else's behavior in a given situation, rather than considering external factors."

The tweet also inspired a number of responses that reveal a lot of useful thinking about the position of biking among the culture and infrastructure of the country.

Ashley Hasley, transportation reporter for the Washington Post, points out the disparity in reactions to reportage on the deadliness of driving: "When I write about drunk driving (cause of 10,322 road deaths in 2012), or speeding (9,320 deaths) or distracted driving (3,328 deaths) — a total of 23,070 fatalities caused by driver error — the stories get little or no reader response. Rarely a peep, if that, from anyone….But virtually any story about people who ride bicycles gets an almost immediate flood of responses like this one last week: 'I have NEVER seen a bicycle stop at a red light or obey any traffic law of any kind.'"

Carl Alviani, writing for Medium, includes that point and many others in a longer read. Here's a sample of the many points Alviani makes in response to the controversy, and what it signifies in the "bikes versus everyone" debate:

"Now, there’s nothing unusual about this kind of bikers vs everyone drama, especially on the Internet: browse the comments section beneath a bike-related article on almost any broad-reaching publication, and you’ll find that few topics besides Israel, healthcare and gun control stir up as much debate."

"In each of these cases, a thoughtful, intelligent observer is prodded by a mix of fear and anger to give an alarming anecdote more weight than an abundance of evidence, or even common sense. On a street carrying thousands of 3000 pound vehicles a day at 40mph or more, we focus our fears on the handful of 30 pound vehicles moving half that fast."

"The likely conclusion is that people riding bikes don’t break more laws or fewer laws than when they drive cars, but they do break different laws. Given that most cyclists are also drivers, it’s reasonable to think the levels of lawlessness would be consistent."

Full Story: Why Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things


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