Red light means go (or does it?)

Should cyclists stop at red lights? Why do we feel such a strong urge to keep rolling? Should our behavior be guided by the law of the land or the laws of common courtesy? What would Isaac Newton and Thomas Aquinas have to say about the matter? Bringing their expertise to a discussion of the physics and philosophy of cyclists and red lights are Nigel Warburton of the Open University, the popular Philosophy Bites podcast and author of several classic textbooks on philosophy and Mark Miodownik, head of the Materials Research Group at King’s College London and writer and broadcaster.

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  • http://sydneycyclist.com Doddsy

    Its dangerous to expect cyclists to wait at red lights and take off with motorvehicles.

    Using red lights to avoid the danger that is motorvehicles is the safest urban cycling practice (especially joining in with pedestrian crossings to turn right instead of waiting in the middle of busy intersections).

  • http://www.redabbey.co.uk Colin Garnett

    Having just decided to cycle into work as I attended a staff Christmas party last night and didn’t want to risk driving. I can inform you that cyclists shouldn’t jump red lights as the police in Barrow-in-Furness are clamping down on this.

    I ended up getting stopped and recieving a £30 fine for rolling slowly across a red light junction.

    The problem though isn’t the police, it’s their lack of awareness of what is dangerous. Perhaps they need to spend a few days on a bicycle rather than sitting in Volvo’s eating do-nuts.

  • Jack

    @ Colin: With the greatest respect, if you didn’t see the police that nabbed you, it shows you probably weren’t sufficienty aware to jump the red light safely! Consider it a £30 lesson in cycle training!

    But I agree that the police response here is probably disproportionate to the danger posed by you slowly running the light.

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  • Benek

    I disagree with Mark’s point about the utilitarian boons of cars not stopping. This is only a short term pro. In the long run, car driving should be made less and less attractive. Having cars stop at traffic lights longer will make driving slower and thus less appealing. This’ll equate to a reduction in emissions. Perhaps the most provocative way of doing this would be installing dual traffic lights with a ‘clearing’ period for bicycles and then cars following afterwards. Then drivers stopped at the car’s red light will think why don’t I get a bike as they watch cycles filter through their green light.

  • Jack

    @ Benek: When Mark talked about cars not stopping I think he had his tongue firmly in his cheek. I absolutely agree about dual traffic lights – both to make cycling safer and to tempt car drivers to get on their bikes.

  • Skully

    Get rid of all traffic signals. Simples.

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  • rebecca

    I ran a red light at a major crossroads this morning, along with lots of other cyclists. There were no pedestrians crossing and it was safer for us to do so than be overtaken by buses and trucks. A driver pulled up alonside us at the next set of lights and shouted ‘I hope you all get knocked off your bikes – especially you’ and pointed at a woman. Why is there such animosity towards cyclists?

  • Jack

    @Rebecca: I don’t know but I think it’s mostly envy.

  • http://argonrain.wordpress.com/ Chris

    I ran two red lights in a row this morning, right in front of a police car. He pulled me over and fined me £30. I just laughed at his police-speak “disobeying an automated signal” etc. He laughed too. It was all quite pleasant really. Then I rode off, made sure I was clear of him, and carried on running all the rest of the red lights on my way to work.

  • Jason

    Chris, As a car driver maybe I should also consider myself above the law and jump the reds. They are there for a reason. Stop being so antisocial.

  • Sam

    I have just been fined in Brussels for cycling across a red light-150 euros. Exactly the same as for a car. It was completelly safe. If I had dismounted and walked across there would have been no fine. There is clearly something wrong here. Respecting laws is one thing but being fined the same as a 2ton automobile burning explosive fuel capable of travelling ten times faster is just unfair and serves no purpose in making roads safer.

  • Ephione

    Well today a cyclist veered across me and went thro a red light as I stopped.He was a way ahead by the time the lights were green for me and as I passed him he veered out into thew road again.I pipped him to make him aware I was there and he shouted F**K OFF and when he caught me up at Handforth traffic lights he proceeded to ride to my car anbd thump my window hard twice.CHARMING.I wound down my window and informed him he was a disgrace and gave cyclists a bad name.Would i feel bad if I ‘thumped’ his bike if I saw him again and he fell off? Not a chance.

  • Dan

    I was caught, not rolling straight through a red light but waiting until the other lights went red and going in the 3-4 second interlude, and still the Police pulled me aside and said you ran that light. First off, pulling away from the lights you’ll rarely be faster than a car, but even more so when you are wearing cleats. It’s ridiculous and if it had been more than £30 I would’ve told them to piss off.

  • Brian

    A bicycle is a vehicle as defined in the Motor Vehicle Act. ( BC Canada )

    Therefore we are obligated to obey traffic signals and signs. As a long time cyclist I get really pissed when i see riders blow through occupied cross walks, stop signs and red lights. If you want the respect of motorists ride accordingly.

  • Truman

    None of you (apart from Brian) seem to take into account that a large percentage of red lights are at pedestrian crossings. I have more fear or being knocked down by a ignorant cyclist than I do a car or bus. I have lived in many cities and towns, some of which have very busy traffic intersections and a selection of different transport options. I have only ever witnessed this red light trend Since moving to London and can safely say it is a unique London idea that cyclists can “safely” break the law and that it is somehow “safer” for them to do so.

  • Jack

    @Truman:

    It goes without saying that the courteous cyclists running a red light will only do so when it’s safe and there are no pedestrians (or motor vehicles!) crossing at the same time. I thought that would be obvious!

    The official statistics for the UK over the last 10 years show that motor vehicles killed 7,600 pedestrians while cyclists killed 29. Motor vehicles injured 364,000 pedestrians, cyclists injured 2,600.

    As a pedestrian, you are 263 times more likely to be killed by a motorist than by a cyclist and 140 times more likely to be injured by a motorist than a cyclist.

  • Newco

    Brian – Thank you for speaking sense. I know that not all cyclists are the same, but I am increasingly angered by cyclists who seem to think the law doesn’t apply to them and that red lights are there for guidance rather than to be obeyed. It also riles me the number of cyclists who seem to think not having lights on your bike or riding on the pavement is acceptable too. I have no problem if the cyclist is an adult with a child as they will not be going fast enough to do any real damage and it’s important they learn the road safely. However, for adults there are no excuses.
    For cyclists to complain about car drivers isn’t helping the cause when fellow cyclists are still jumping red lights etc. I had two incidents on embankment and Northumberland Avenue yesterday, one where a cyclist didn’t signal and the other where the cyclist was wobbling into my lane. Now if I had hit either of them it (in the eyes of the law) would be my fault, but it would have clearly been the cyclists fault.
    Until the majority of cyclists respect other road users (including pedestrians) then car drivers are not going to listen.

  • Jack

    @Newco:

    In my experience, the majority of cyclists (including those who go through red lights safely) do respect other road users. As unprotected road users it is in our own interests to let motorists know where we are, where we are going, to make sure we can be seen. We are the ones who stand to get hurt most in a collision.

    Yet it is not the bicyclist that is the source of road danger.

    The burden of responsibility on the road must fall heaviest on those with the greatest ability to cause harm to others. By getting behind the wheel the motorist must take on more responsibility because his or her large, hard, fast-moving vehicle is inherently more dangerous to others than a light, slow-moving bicycle.

    On the rare occasions when I drive a car I am extremely conscious of the potential of a motor vehicle to cause harm to others. It is a great shame that with habitual car use this awareness fades. That might explain why we see in excess of two thousand people killed by motor vehicles in the UK each year.

    I suspect that deep down, the reason you don’t like cyclists going through red lights is that you are jealous. While you are sitting seething in your stationary metal box the cyclist is getting to his or her destination. That looks like a very petty attitude to take. Why not look at the cyclist and say, ‘Good luck to them, they’re on their bike, taking up less space than if they were in a car, that is helping reduce congestion and pollution’. Just think how much more full the roads would be like if every cyclist drove a car instead.

    Even better, why not try riding a bike and enjoy the freedom cycling brings. The experience may work wonders dealing with your ‘increasing anger’.

  • Newco

    Jack as usual you fall to the default cyclist setting of ‘we’re above the law, so its ok that we break it’

    I am a cyclist, but I never jump red lights. If I want to get to my destination, I dismount, cross the road at the pedestrian crossing and mount the other side to continue my journey.

    If you say I’m jealous or have a petty attitude, it just shows how ignorant you are. Many cyclists have no problem obeying the law (that is there for ALL road users) but many also break it, completely disregarding other road users and pedestrians. There is no excuse for it and if you make one then you clearly don’t care about anyone else on the road, which shows how smallminded you are.

    You are talking rubbish when you refer to the car as fast moving, as in the context of this post it is rare that the car will get any speed up as it is stationary at the lights. I ensure I am considerate of cyclists, its just a shame that a few (like you) seemingly think it makes no difference as to the driver we are all inconsiderate in our driving.

  • Jack

    @Newco: I’m not above the law but if the law is an ass, and the ‘crime’ is victimless, I don’t see the problem.

    I just don’t buy the argument that running red lights is giving cycling a bad name. It’s just a pretext used by people who don’t like cyclists and it’s a great shame that as a cyclist you’ve bought into it. If it weren’t jumping red lights, it’d be not paying ‘road tax’, wearing lycra or looking smug.

    There are some terrible drivers out there – how else do 2000+ people die on the roads each year? – but that doesn’t translate as ‘all motorists are killers’. Likewise there are a few wild cyclists (though they don’t kill many people!) but a mostly obedient and polite majority, which includes those who run red lights when they can do so safely and courteously.

  • Newco

    You are clearly an idiot who seems to think you can pick and choose the bits of the law you like and disregard anything you don’t.

    The law is there to protect peoples lives, and in this case is certainly not an ass. By you running a red light, you endanger others, as if you misjudge it at all, or are taken unawares then you could endanger others lives. But clearly that doesn’t bother you, just so long as you can get to your destination quicker, and arrive feeling smug in your lycra.

    Mostly obedient and polite majority, well that’s clearly not true of you as being ‘obedient’ means you actually stay within the legal guidelines that are imposed as a way to ensure everyone’s safety, not just that of a few cyclists who seem to think that they are above the law!

    Shame you don’t give that consideration to the pedestrians who lose their lives at the wheels of idiots like you.

  • Monika

    I go on my bike every day to/from work. When this is done I walk the rest of the day with my 3-year old. I beg you – please do not jump red lights at pedestrian crossings – it was a close shave too many a time!

  • Bill G

    As Jack has already stated cyclists should be courteous and allow pedestrians time and the space to cross.
    However, where the way is clear the cyclist should proceed carefully. It is safer than waiting at the light.
    I try not to conflate annecdote with data, but in September 2008 I was hit from behind while waiting for a red light at a junction in Mile End. The vehicle that hit me was unregistered and the police were unable to trace it or find the driver.
    Thankfully I was not seriously injured (the bike had to be chucked though) but it made me re-think my zero tolerance for RLJ-ing.

  • Pete W

    I’m a bit late to this debate, and I’m a bit shocked at the arrogance of the habitual red-jumpers. There’s a few reasons why I think you’re wrong:

    - Statistically, you’re not a grave danger to pedestrians, but you are intimidating. Pedestrians are more vulnerable than you; as car drivers should be very wary of cyclists, so should we of them. It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, it’s fine – I give them plenty of room.’ Pedestrians in London now have the expectation that bikes won’t stop for them at lights. I know a few elderly neighbours who are terrified about being knocked down by bikes. When I’m pushing my son around in his pram I get very skittish at bikes zooming past us on reds, and I’ve been rising in London for 20 years-plus. I realise it’s not likely to happen, but it scares me. That should be enough.

    - It becomes the norm. While you might only jump reds when there’s no one around other, less experienced cyclists, copy the habit and do it when it’s not safe. I realise this is pure anecdote, but I’ve seen two bike commuters nearly crash into prams pushed across pedestrian lights at the last moment. When I stop at a red these days I have to look behind me to make sure a similar idiot isn’t about to roll into my back wheel.

    - It makes all cyclists, even non-jumpers, less safe. It might be unpalatable (and unfair) but every time a car driver sees a cyclist blatantly ignore a road rule it diminishes in their minds our status as equal road users and makes them less likely to think sympathetically about our safety. I’ve lost count of the number of drivers who’ve told me, after I’ve questioned them about a rash maneouvre, ‘Why should I worry about bikes when you don’t obey the law?’.

    - It’s nonsense to suggest it’s ‘safer’ to habitually jump lights. I can foresee a few situations – for example, not screeching to a sudden halt on amber when there’s lots of fast-moving traffic behind you – but for the most part the safety gains are imaginary. It’s just a moral fig leaf for wanting to get somewhere faster and/or expend less effort and/or pretend you’re a courier.

    Just try and have some intellectual honesty about this. It’s pure selfishness, and it impacts on other people. The consequences might be far less severe than someone in a car jumping a red, but the mental denial is identical.

    I love cycling but these days I find myself more aghast and annoyed at my fellow cyclists than I do drivers. I really never thought that would be the case.

  • Jack

    @Peter W:

    I share your concern about habitual red light jumpers. They’re not doing themselves any favours. Some of London’s bike messengers (and emulators) are the worst on this score, they appear to take it as a challenge to stay moving all day. I wish they’d follow Patrick Field’s lead and see junctions as the best place to show off their track-standing abilities.

    Speaking for myself, I’m by no means a habitual red light jumper. I’ll only pass through a red light when it can be done safely and courteously. That certainly means being at great pains not to intimidate anyone. I always stop at zebra crossings when someone is looking to walk across, even if this sometimes causes them embarrassment for having required me to stop. A smile and a cheery ‘after you’ is all it takes to show them that I don’t mind stopping.

    When I’m at a red light with a bus or large vehicle pulled up behind me, and it’s safe to move ahead into the junction or to execute a left turn, I’ll do so. This does make me safer and more visible.

    Where I completely reject your argument is that it not stopping obediently at every light somehow ‘diminishes cyclists’ in the eyes of others and encourages others to play fast and loose with our safety. I bet you hear just as many comments from people saying “‘Why should I worry about bikes when you don’t obey the law wear a helmet / pay road tax / have insurance / [insert your own anti-cycling jibe]?’

    Those kinds of people will have a go at you whatever you do, until you give up and drive a car like them.

    When I ride down a busy street people on foot are always walking out right without looking, pushing prams in front of them, or with phones glued to their ears, or in the middle of sending a text message. I don’t get agitated and upset about them. They’re just people. I take it upon myself to anticipate give them a wide berth. I don’t say they’re giving pedestrians a bad name. I prefer to save my ire for those who have the potential to do serious harm on the roads. And that is not cyclists or pedestrians, even the slack or careless ones.

    Go to cycling cities like Berlin, Copenhagen, Amsterdam. People ride through red lights when it’s safe and can be done courteously and nobody cares less about it. We have a prevailing cultural undercurrent that is anti cycling. Don’t get tricked into internalising it yourself.

    As ‘Buffalo’ Bill Chidley memorably said many years ago on the radio show, ‘people hate cyclists and nobody hates cyclists more than cyclists hate cyclists.’ Don’t become that cyclist-hating cyclist.

  • Pete W

    Jack – some good points, especially the final one. Rest assured, I’m not shaking with anger whenever I ride. But it’s undeniable – and I really wish this wasn’t the case – that I see many more daily examples of reckless and discourteous cycling (in London, this is) than I did just a few years ago.

    I still worry that even your occasional light jumping means others will mimic you but without the necessary care. I also maintain that even if you’re at pains to steer well clear of pedestrians, this cumulative impression that cyclists cannot be relied upon to stop at red lights is intimidatory. That’s a real problem and it’s one that no light jumper has properly addressed, at least to me.

    As for the view of drivers – of course, you’re right, some people will use any excuse to demean or dismiss cyclists. The difference is that when they’re talking about routine law-flouting they’ve got a point. It is difficult for us, as cyclists, to simultaneously claim equal rights on the road and ignore the responsibilities that go with it. It’s the point that gets raised almost every time I have a chat with non-cycling Londoners. Road tax, helmets and the like are barely mentioned. In cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen so many of the battles we’re still fighting have been won, so it’s less of an issue. It’s also worth mentioning that there are plenty of people in both cities who’d take issue with the “nobody cares” notion.

    It annoys me so much not because I’m anti-cycling but because I’m so pro-cycling, and this sort of behaviour undermines the things I care about.

  • Newco

    Pete W – Thank you for talking sense, looking at the argument as a whole not picking parts that suit. My gripe as a driver is not over helmets, road tax etc. but basic rules of law. You are right that some cyclists jump red lights safely, whilst others not only put themselves at risk, but also other road users. As a driver and a cyclist, I feel that all road users should obey the law, regardless of what vehicle they use. That also includes using lights at night, which is something I see regularly flouted by cyclists, on roads that aren’t as well lit it can be hard for drivers to always see cyclists, particularly when they wear dark clothes, and it’s also pedestrians who do this too, so I’m not just moaning about cyclists. I agree also that a lot of car drivers don’t conduct their road use safely either, and these people shouldn’t be on the road.

    So, it’s not about being smug or even about being right or jealous, it’s simply about ALL road users taking notice of the law.

  • Jack

    @Newco:

    I can’t help but get the feeling that you see cyclists and pedestrians as an irritant, annoying things that gets in your way as a driver. If you can’t be confident of being able to see who is on the road ahead, you really need to slow down and/or visit an optician.

    Always remember that cyclists and pedestrians and horse riders have an absolute freedom on the roads, reflecting their fundamentally benign nature. By contrast, drivers of motor vehicles are only free to use the road ‘under license’, reflecting their far greater capacity to cause harm, to themselves and to others.

    It is principally the driver’s responsibility to see pedestrians and cyclists and slow down when visibility is poor or at night. Though cyclists and pedestrians are free to wear whatever they care to wear, including high viz gear, it is not principally their responsibility to sparkle like Christmas trees for the convenience of drivers. Cyclists should always have good lights, not least to be visible to pedestrians. I feel we have come to a sorry state of affairs when school children are not allowed to walk to school without wearing high viz tabards, helmets and flashing arm bands.

    Remember, when motor vehicles were first introduced to the roads, it was a requirement to have someone walk some yards in front of the vehicle waving a red flag, to warn other road users. Back in those days they had a better idea about the balance of responsibility among different road users.

  • Newco

    Jack – You obviously are incredibly obnoxious and don’t think cyclists have anything to answer for. If you read my comment properly you would see that I was talking about cyclists who DON’T use lights (a legal requirement) and to add to that the ones who are listening to music whilst on the road (ie wearing headphones) I suppose you think that’s ok too?

    You are simply judging me on the fact that as I drive I must loathe anyone else on the road or sidewalk. You are wrong, but clearly you head is so far up your backside you can’t see that I’m merely pointing out that everyone using the road has a duty to do so with care, looking out for other road users and being aware of what is happening around them.

    Finally, to illustrate the red light jumping point, I saw a cyclist blatantly jump a red light going over a junction only to almost be hit by a lorry coming from the left (as their lights were green). Now, I’m sure you’d consider that the cyclists fault, when in fact the lorry was using the road legally and it was the cyclist who had endangered not only his own life, but also that of the lorry driver.

  • Jack

    @Newco:

    I was responding to your moan about cyclists and pedestrians ‘who wear dark clothes’. And if you read what I wrote, you’ll notice it includes the statement: “Cyclists should always have good lights”.

    Obviously, the cyclist you say you observed nearly colliding with a lorry was at fault. It’s very unwise for a cyclist to run a red light when the road is not clear ahead. Shows very poor judgment.

    As for cyclists and pedestrians who listen to music, it’s unwise to listen at a volume that reduces your awareness of the world around you. I could say the same about driving with a car stereo on and the windows wound up.

    It’s my experience that cyclists are more attuned to what’s happening around them, from what they hear and also from what they can see. Cyclists are not confined in boxes and generally have better all-round visibility.

    You’re absolutely correct. I don’t think cyclists and pedestrians have very much to answer for in terms of road danger. This is well worth a read.