Do cyclists habitually break the law more than motorists?

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: Judge James O’Donohue, according to a court reporter paraphrasing his words, said “cyclists habitually go through red lights and habitually cycle down the wrong side of the road.” The court reporter added “although no such evidence had been levelled against” the claimant.

There are all sorts of wrong with a Judge making such comments, but even among those who see those issues I’ve seen people say he was “factually right”. That brings up the question of why such a statement about cyclists is noteworthy when motorists were the accused in the case? Do cyclists habitually break the law more than motorists?

The claimant was successful in her case for damages against motorists, but the awards were tempered due to the Judge finding fault with the cyclist too, which is a significant issue given his sweeping generalisations about cyclists.

You can read about the case in The Irish Times or the Sunday World — both court reports are by the same freelance journalist and each of them includes this paragraph paraphrasing the Judge’s comments:

“In an observation at the start of the hearings Judge O’Donohue said he knew that cyclists habitually go through red lights and habitually cycle down the wrong side of the road although no such evidence had been levelled against Ms Tabarsi.”

— Court report paraphrasing Judge O’Donohue and outlining that such statements were irrelevant to the case he was presiding over.

Motorists are habitually involved in collisions resulting in serious injuries and deaths

Not all motorists — of course — but motorists as a group are habitually involved in collisions resulting in serious injuries and deaths. Besides a few deaths which included single-vehicle bicycles or scooters, all of the fatalities on our roads this year involved motorists.

I asked the other day “Are we numb to road traffic deaths?” At the time of writing that article, the number of deaths on Irish roads so-far in 2022 had already surpassed the 2021 total, with six weeks left.

There had been 141 people killed on our roads. Since then, there have been two more deaths recorded.

According to the Road Safety Authority (RSA) research shows that there are 9 serious injuries for every fatality on Irish roads — so, we’re talking about 1,290 people with serious injuries this year.

We as a society are largely numb to these preventable deaths. There are solutions which allow us to continue to maintain or even enhance mobility in a safer way, but these proven solutions are resisted at every turn at the local and national levels.

93% of motorists habitually speed on an uncongested roads

As reported earlier this year, 78% of motorists were found to be speeding on uncongested 50km/h roads, and 93% on the same type of roads at weekends.

Of the motorists counted as speeding, 75% were speeding more than 5km/h above the posted limit.

This data is from RSA free speed surveys — where motorists are unrestricted by traffic congestion weather. The data is also in line with previously collected from council speed signs and speed guns which show some very high speeds, even in urban areas.

Even when asked, the majority of motorists admitted to “low-level speeding” — 61% with 50km speed limits, and 53% with 100km limits. But the firmer data of what happens in the real world paints a worse picture of things, indicating motorists are kidding themselves.

Motorists habitually run red lights

It’s amazing how many motorists deny this one but the data doesn’t lie. Motorists run red lights all the time. This data is from the red light camera trial in Dublin:

(Non-cyclist rejected detections are for reasons such as a vehicle or numberplate being obscured)

Some people will still say that they more often see cyclists running red lights than motorists — the extent of one or the other running red lights really depends on the junction.

There are some junctions such that at Blackhall Place and the Luas red line (which was part of the red light trial) where a high number of both cyclists and motorists run red lights. And then there are other red light running hot spots such as the junction between Clarehall Shopping Centre / Hilton  Dublin Airport where motorists running red lights is the common thing, and where there are both fewer cyclists but also fewer willing to take the chance at that kind of junction.

The thing is, if you’re trying to underplay motorists running red lights you’re on the wrong track — in Ireland, a few people walking or cycling a year are killed by motorists running red lights.

IMAGE: According to some people, this never happens.

Drivers habitually hold their phones when driving

The number of motorists who admit to using their phones while driving ranges from 1/3 to 1/2 in different surveys. An AA survey found that “4 in every 5 motorists (79%) said they see other drivers using their phones for handheld calls or texts ‘often’ or ‘occasionally’.” Yet, Gardai only managed to catch 1,445 to 1,754 motorists doing it a month. Once there isn’t automation enforcement is resource intensive.

The RSA Driver Attitudes and Behaviour survey 2021 found that, of the motorists surveyed, the following is what they admitted to:

  • 23% of motorists surveyed admit to checking their notifications while driving
  • 19% use their mobile phone at least sometimes while driving to read messages/emails
  • 13% use their mobile phone at least sometimes while driving to write messages/emails
  • 23% use their mobile phone at least sometimes while driving to check phone notifications
  • 12% use their mobile phone at least sometimes while driving to check social media
  • 9% use their mobile phone at least sometimes while driving to respond to social media posts
  • 7% use their mobile phone at least sometimes while driving to take photos/videos to share on social media

Motorists are habitually distracted from handsfree phone use

While there isn’t a clear law against hands-free devices, it is often still distracted driving and thus careless or dangerous driving, which are offences.

As long ago as 2009 an RSA leaflet states: Using a hands-free kit with your phone is not illegal, but it will stop you from concentrating…” This risk was well-known when holding a phone in a car was first banned and the research showing both activities are just as distracting and risky has only mounted since then.

As explained in this article, distracted drivers can look at something yet still not register it. This results in what is called “looked-but-failed-to-see” collisions.

For most people, making a call is far more distracting than talking to a passenger in a car because of the lack of a “shared visual environment”. This has two effects — a passenger or driver can pause a conversation when they see a tricky situation, but somebody at the other end of a call is unlikely likely to know what’s going on, and the second issue is that many motorists are likely to start to visualise the person on the other end of the call.

So, why is a ban on hands-free devices never talked about? It’s the same reason motorists — and even judges — have such an issue with people wearing headphones while cycling, while there’s never any debate about motorists using sound systems and taking advantage of the heavy sound insulation in modern cars. It’s not about levels of risk and please don’t pretend it is.

Drivers habitually drive and park on footpaths

This is another one that is often claimed doesn’t happen much despite Google Street View showing how chronic it is at both hot spots on main roads and in nearly every second or third housing estate and residential road in the country.

This or nothing in this article is an excuse for cyclists to endanger other road users. But the people who never see motorists driving on footpaths must be very lucky. People I know who often walk and cycle with their children have a similar experience to me of motorists not just blocking footpaths and cycle lanes but driving up onto those on front of them and their children. Even more common is fully blocking cycle lanes or footpaths to the extent of forcing us into the road.

Of the motorists who speed, run red lights, or just have medical incidents, they also habitually end up on footpaths.

Risks of motoring are habitually downplayed while risks of cycling are habitually overplayed

All of the above is not even getting around to mentioning drunk and drug driving which are still large problems even if drink driving isn’t as habitual for as many people as in years gone by. And it’s not talking about other habitual behaviour from motorists including tailgating other motorists on motorways and other main roads, overtaking cyclists dangerously or not letting pedestrians cross away from traffic lights or at junctions where they have the right-of-way.

On the other side of the coin, motorists will argue things such as cycling in the middle of a lane or not using a cycle lane when needed or filtering inside slow-moving traffic are illegal when all of these things are perfectly legal and generally safe things to do.

If you can get to this part of the article and still think cyclists break the law more habitually, you must not like facts.


  1. Cyclists are, for the majority, law-abiding. They, however, operate in an extremely hostile environment alongside cars, vans, trucks, HGVs, busses, and many other vehicles whose drivers mostly see cyclists as a nuisance and who regularly disregard cyclists when they turn or park or exit from an entrance. I myself had a car cut right into me at a left bend in the road last week, forcing me into the curb, where I nearly tumbled over my bicycle and had trouble gaining control of the bike. The driver just continued on as if nothing had happened. I confronted him then at the next traffic light, which almost turned into a physical altercation as the driver shouted all sorts of language at me. Welcome to an average day in the life of a cyclist. It was simply down to an attitude in the driver’s fixed/fossilized mindset. If a cyclist is waiting at a red light alongside larger threatening vehicles and the pedestrian light goes green, then ofc the cyclist will take the green pedestrian light to gain a headstart from all the large vehicles. This is simply one of many coping strategies that cyclists develop. Cyclists have developed all sorts of coping strategies when cycling in the city, i.e. to work, or shopping, or an event. Cyclists in rural areas can forget cycling altogether if they want to see it next Christmas. The only way you can cycle in the countryside is in large groups.

  2. How can a Judge be allowed say anything like that “at the start of the proceedings”? Before any evidence has been heard? Surely some sort of breach of allowed procedure?

    Everyday I see car drivers not stopping at junctions despite cyclists passing on the straight right in front of their cars, taking illegal turns, going through lights, driving recklessly, dangerously, aggressively/provocatively blaring the car horn, oh and almost killing me too (usually at a minimum, once per day). I obey the law but I am feeling increasingly threatened by literally psychotic motorists who Gardai are refusing to investigate or prosecute and courts are making excuses for. What do we need to do-organise a Cyclists Vigilante Group or something? Its ridiculous at this stage.


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