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Posted by on Aug 27, 2008 in Bicycle Culture, General, Safety | 9 comments

Red Light Running – A Matter of “Convenience?”

On my commute home last night, I had two separate instances where fellow cyclists rode up next to me at a red light.  In both cases, the cyclist came to a stop, waited for a break in the traffic, and then proceeded to cross the intersection.

In both cases I was with a line of cars waiting for the light.  I was wondering to myself ” what do you think the people in the cars are thinking right about now?”.  I’m guessing at best there was some confusion — they see one cyclist obeying the traffic laws and another breaking them.  At worst I’m being painted with the “damned cyclist can’t even follow the law and shouldn’t be on the road anyway” brushstroke.

This bothered me greatly, but I try to play “devils-advocate”, look at the “other side of the coin” so to speak before coming to any firm conclusion or belief.   When I got home, I got on the Internet and checked into a couple of cycling forums and blogs to see what other cyclists are saying about running red lights.  Well, I was somewhat shocked to find that most cyclists do it — some more regularly than others.

The arguments used usually break down into two categories — (1) a bicycle is not a car, and traffic signals are set up for auto-centric traffic, so bicycles should not have to obey these signals  and (2) there is an inconvenience associated with all the stop-and-go when dealing with red lights — all your valuable momentum is squandered.   In fact there should be specific laws exempting cyclists (i.e. the Idaho state law) from having to stop.  I even see some argue “it’s safer sometimes” to break the law and run the red.

If we look at (1) we can see and agree that a bicycle is not a car.  But, to infer that bicycles do not have to follow traffic signals because they were “designed for cars” is a stretch.   Traffic signals help direct traffic — “traffic” can be pedestrian, bicycle, motorcycle, or automobile.  Most signals are present to add a visual element to inform “traffic” of who has the right-of-way or to take away the ambiguity of a traffic situation.   If all traffic follows the laid-out laws, then traffic will move as efficiently and safely as possible.  So it seems to me to make sense for cyclists to use the same Rules of the Road (i.e laws) as other traffic (i.e autos).  Some call this Vehicular Cycling — although that term has been stretched to encompass other ideas — I prefer to simply say “bike like an automobile when on the road”.  That means, use the same rules (laws) — that means stopping at red lights.

It’s the second argument that troubles me most.  The “inconvenience” of stopping and starting.   Why is this even a valid argument?  If the law states that Traffic has to stop at red lights and wait for a green, why would anyone say they are exempt or can break the law because it is “inconvenient”?   Those that cite this explain that since a bike is not a car (see argument #1) it cannot stop/start up again as efficiently as an automobile.  They cite how traffic signals are set up to benefit autos and not bicycles.  My response — so what?  That does not legitimize your running the red.  Work to change the light’s timing, or on having roadways with other types of traffic-controlling features (like round-abouts), or advocate changing the law like Idaho’s statute.  And as for being safer (to run red lights)?  I can’t find any logic in any statement that says acting in a unexpected fashion makes you safer — just the opposite.

We ask to be treated as equals on the road, but we don’t want to follow the same laws.  Can’t have it both ways,  people!  And talk about getting motorists to respect us?  How do you think they feel when they see this kind of thing happening?  I suspect I know the answer… and as unfair as it is to condemn all of us,  it’s just too easy for motorists to do.

As a daily cycling commuter, on the road, I am traffic.  I will act like traffic should.  I will follow the laws of traffic.  And then, perhaps, eventually,  I will get what I think we all want — to be fully accepted on the road, as traffic.

I think we have some work to do with some of our fellow cyclists …

9 Comments

  1. Andrew, I see this all the time. It irritates me, too. I’ve read the same justifications on forums.

    I read an article that made the “safety” argument that running red lights keeps cyclists from being right-hooked. The article stated that women were more likely to be run over by turning trucks (this was a British article so it was “left turning lorries” which, here, would be “right-turning trucks”) because they don’t run red lights. And that men avoid this fate because they [are incorrigible scofflaws]. Of course, this problem is correctly avoided by not riding up the right side of a traffic queue. Where bike lanes are involved, it means merging out of the bike lane before the intersection (that’s why the stripe is broken leading to the intersection). So, yeah, it’s a bogus reason justified by an incompetent cycling behavior.

  2. I’m in one-hundred-percent agreement with obeying traffic lights. Andrew could not have phrased the reasoning any better than he did. There are no real excuses for running a light. The excuses that these “cyclist” provide put them in the same category as the motorists who do not believe bicycle belong on the roadway. It’s more unfortunate when the person on the bike is someone of note. Without naming names, a local nationwide endurance racer was observed running a light and scoffed at the idea of obeying traffic signals. Even though the race rules require obedience to traffic signals, it makes me wonder if they are fully observed during the race after all.
    Not my role model, to be sure!

  3. I think the reason the people do this is because they know that their chances of getting caught is pretty low.

    This has been a long time coming.

    There is something else that has changed over the years and that is a reduction in the number of law enforcement officers. In particular, the reduction of TRAFFIC law enforcement officers.

    I pointed out in a separate post what happened to the Florida Highway Patrol, but what I didn’t mention was that outside of the cities, the FHP handled ALL the traffic problems. The County Sheriff’s deputies handled all the burglaries, robberies, theft and general crime. There was a pretty clear division of duties. For a deputy to stop a car for a traffic offense, the driver had to have done something really stupid, like run a red light.

    Nationwide, there were a lot more traffic officers. San Francisco alone had 150 of them whose only job was traffic. If you violated a traffic law, you had a pretty good chance of getting caught.

    But then came MADD and then came “civil forfeiture” of property and suddenly, the Sheriff’s became interested in traffic because it could become a “Revenue Enhancement” stream. That stream later dried up, so they lost interest again.

    At the same time, the traffic engineers in the ’70′s were saying THEY had all the answers. It was all in the infrastructure. A sign here, a new traffic light there, an elevated restricted access roadway and that would fix everything.

    So here we are. The most lawless place in the country are the roads.

  4. “At the same time, the traffic engineers in the ’70’s were saying THEY had all the answers. It was all in the infrastructure. A sign here, a new traffic light there, an elevated restricted access roadway and that would fix everything.”

    This is a major peeve of mine. We cannot replace enforcement with engineering. Just like we can’t manufacture “friendliness” with engineering.

    Both lawlessness and lack of civility stem from the same cultural problem — an imbalance between individuality and community. It’s all about MEEEEEEEE!

    It amazes me how humans can find endless diversions to avoid meaningful solutions.

  5. “Both lawlessness and lack of civility stem from the same cultural problem — an imbalance between individuality and community. It’s all about MEEEEEEEE!”

    Yes!! And about moral integrity. I think the saying goes something like “Integrity is doing what’s right even when no one is watching (or even when it’s not convenient).”

  6. A variation of the “safety” argument is to get across the intersection before the other (same-direction) traffic starts moving. That way, you’re “safely” across the intersection and away from all those cars. Until they catch up to you a minute later, I guess.

  7. Traffic signals are not provided to “benefit” motorists (or more broadly, drivers). Their purpose is to attempt to MANAGE them. A roundabout “benefits” a driver more than a traffic signal does, since it generally results in less delay.

    These arguments for red light running are coming from some very childish and inexperienced people. For instance, I fail to see how making motorists pass you a second time (especially with a narrow lane) makes you safer.

    My latest cycling mantra: Want respect? Act respectfully.

  8. I know exactly how you feel, there are many street riders around here in Kissimmee who don’t follow hand signals or street signals and it really does work up a stereotype against bikers.

  9. The “inconvenience” of stopping and starting.

    This has been on my mind the past few days. Momentum on a bicycle makes the ride go oh so much easier. However, the traffic calming devices are in place for a reason.

    I find that my personal experience dictates this “stopping and starting” does not create a dilemma for me. It takes me about 30-40 feet from dead stop to resume nominal travel speed. Experience and condition levels will dictate different results.

    What I dislike is the red lights that have short cycles. Thinking you may have the timing right, only to stop in quick fashion, you don’t have ample time to gear down to a feasible starting gear. Try starting off in the 2/7 gearing setup sometime. Now, there is inconvenience for you!!

    Overall, I see no inconvenience, just hoping to time things right to get back rolling as smoothly and efficiently as possible.