May 22, 2013

Should cyclists stop ignoring red lights?

Cyclists are frequently criticised for ignoring red lights, but focussing on greater compliance won't make motorists accept them as legitimate road users

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Since 2006, motorists in Ohio are required by law to give cyclists a minimum 3 feet clearance when overtaking

Earlier this week I noted some commentators are arguing that cycling is now mainstream so cyclists should start playing by the rules.

The proposition is cyclists who disobey road rules – the exemplary case is ignoring red lights – alienate motorists. Better compliance would foster acceptance and respect from drivers.

Getting on-road cyclists to abandon their ‘lawless ways’ strikes me as a tall order. As I noted the other day, there are structural reasons why some don’t obey all road rules all the time.

Yet even if cyclists could be induced en masse to strictly comply with red lights, it’s not clear to me that it would make much difference to how they’re treated by motorists. The idea that it would improve the lot of riders via some sort of demonstration effect strikes me as questionable.

The fundamental problem motorists have with cyclists using streets is they’re too slow – they hold drivers up. That’s got nothing to do with breaking the rules.

Drivers implicitly see the streets as belonging to motorised vehicles like cars, trucks, buses and motor cycles that can easily accelerate to 50 kph plus and go up grades without slowing.

They see the key function of streets as providing transport. Most expect to travel at or close to the maximum permitted speed. It’s regarded as the appropriate speed and anything less is an imposition.

Hardly anyone driving today has known a time when Australian roads weren’t the exclusive preserve of motorised vehicles. It’s the way it’s always been.

Cyclists are a problem for motorists because they require them to slow down, however briefly, and take extra care. As far as many drivers are concerned, it’s as if pedestrians have taken to using the streets instead of the sidewalk.

I acknowledge motorists aren’t generally looking to cause cyclists grief, but most instinctively begrudge them road space. They’re doing cyclists a favour if they wait patiently for an opportunity to overtake safely.

The irony is adult cyclists have more to fear from motorists who break the road rules than they do from their own riding behaviour. Most collisions between the modes are caused by errant drivers.

In fact motorists routinely flout the letter of the law by, for example, driving 5-10 kph above the speed limit for a few seconds when conditions are good, or rolling through stop signs without coming to a halt. I doubt that cyclists flout the road rules anymore than drivers do, probably less (if only because there’re more rules that apply to motorists). Riders just flout different ones.

Cyclists who ignore traffic lights seem to especially antagonise motorists. I suspect that’s partly because signalised intersections assume a high level of trust between drivers and so for them are regarded as non-negotiable, almost ‘sacred’.

Yet those cyclists rarely disadvantage motorists when they negotiate red lights. On the contrary, by clearing the intersection early they might well do drivers a favour.

I’m neither advocating cyclists ignore red lights nor condoning the practice (although if the lights won’t trigger, what else can one do?). I’m saying complying with red lights shouldn’t be a major objective of policy because it would deliver little practical benefit to drivers and it wouldn’t achieve much for cyclists in terms of better riding conditions.

It also smacks a bit of cyclists being ‘the problem’. It’s a bit like the argument that registration of bicycles is ‘the solution’.

Most of the problems caused by (some) cyclists ignoring the rules impact on pedestrians, not motorists. It’s probably only a minority of cyclists, but there’s a high and growing level of resentment about the way some riders ignore the welfare of other users of sidewalks, zebra crossings and, especially, shared off-road paths

The conflict between these two groups is a serious and growing issue. It really does demand that inconsiderate cyclists (hopefully a minority) change their ways (e.g. see here and here), although how to go about that is a serious challenge.

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25 thoughts on “Should cyclists stop ignoring red lights?

  1. Simon Davis

    I agree cyclists should stop at red lights it is an important way to gain respect from drivers.
    As a commuter cyclist all my life mainly on rural roads, the dangerous situation to avoid is riding along at the point where a car overtakes you but another vehicle is coming the other way.
    90% of the time the drivers are too impatient to wait until it is safe to pass .
    If I anticipate this situation I steer off the side of the road.
    I dont know what would happen if there was a 1 metre rule?

  2. Alan Davies

    Simon Davis #23:

    Simon, thanks for the comment, but I don’t believe I’ve ever argued that cyclists cause serious damage to roads. In fact I’ve argued the opposite. Nor have I “maybe” ever argued for registration; in fact I’ve argued unambiguously against it on a number of occasions. Maybe you’ve got me confused with someone else?

  3. Simon Davis

    Alan I generally like your articles and I know you just want to stimulate discussion but the thought of cyclists damaging the road, using up space on the road and maybe should be registered is ridiculous .
    However the career public servants of the nanny state wouldn’t hesitate to consider it as good revenue raising and great way to further control the population so just keep quiet please.

  4. Burke John

    bicycles. Noone much here seems to find that reaction remarkable or have particular sympathy for the victim of that crime.

    Heretics and witches.

  5. Burke John

    Allan you draw attention to the “sacred” nature of traffic light observances against the clear rationale of the argument that there is in many circumstances no reason for a cyclist to participate. That is how I view the pervasive influence of the motor car in Australia. Car worship is exactly like a religion and underpins discussion of just about every one of your pieces. From a carist perspective Russ @#20 above makes a perfectly reasonable case for bicycle licenses.

    A better example from last weeks NT News. E-bike rider is run over and killed on quiet rural stretch. Police response? A crackdown on motorized

  6. Russ

    Alan, Persia, this is something that ought to be emphasised more. So many driver-cyclist altercations are caused for lack of a few seconds patience, on both sides. And in urban traffic, you will almost always lose those few seconds again at the next intersection. Average vehicle speed is determined by the speed the queue clears, not driving speed, and there is *always* a queue.

    Conflict speaks to a lack of education in general about how cyclists should and do behave. There is little to no knowledge of cycling required to pass a drivers test and there is absolutely no knowledge of the road rules/etiquette required to cycle on the road. I’d prefer to see cyclists have to get a license (note license NOT registration) if only to make sharing the road with cyclists part of a standard driver’s test. Though there are other benefits (form of ID, official recognition of road rights).

  7. boscombe

    I ignore the red lights on my morning trip to the beach, and at most of those intersections the motorists should be thankful I do. I can cross those intersections by just waiting for a few seconds ’till there are no cars (sometimes go halfway and wait) and go across. I don’t need to pull up and press the button to give me a green light and them a red one.

    I hate it when I’m driving toward an intersection, at which there have been no cars for ages, and am stopped because a cyclist has pressed that damn button so they could have a green light to cross with.

  8. Jai Cooper

    GPS controlled driverless operation will create a new set of challenges to managing user conflict.

    Hovercraft offer some solutions but more challenges.

    “Remember when we had traffic lights, ha, ha!”

  9. Persia

    Alan, I think there is a difference between this common *perception* held by drivers and the reality. Drivers *think* cyclists are slow, whereas the cyclists are, often, actually faster, at least by average speed.

    I suspect that for many drivers, they *must* get themselves to believe that cyclists are slower, because otherwise, realising that they are paying huge amounts of money for something slower than a bicycle, would make their heads explode.

  10. Alan Davies

    Persia #15:

    You’re right, it’s not universally applicable. I’m saying though that “on average” drivers think cyclists are too slow.

  11. Persia

    Alan, I’d take issue with your statement: “The fundamental problem motorists have with cyclists using streets is they’re too slow – they hold drivers up.”

    I presume you have based this on stats from somewhere, but I still think that it’s not universally applicable. As a law-abiding, road-using, cyclist, I find that cars hold me up much more frequently than I hold them up.

  12. Tom the first and best

    Motorised vehicles have saved lives mainly by nearly eliminating horses from cities. That puts the health-useful motor vehicle ownership at about 1920s levels.

  13. Strewth

    Scott at #5: I’m pretty sure I’m not saving anyone’s life by getting in the car instead of on the bike to go places. I’m almost certainly going to pose a greater hazard to others though, if only because nobody’s perfect and a car is a piece of dangerous machinery. I ponder sometimes that if we applied normal workplace risk control standards to public roads, we’d never have allowed cars to travel at more than 30kph anywhere except on a limited-access highway.

  14. MJPC

    As a part time cyclist and driver (mainly take public transport during week) just a couple, of observations. I always keep to the left, even though the road edges are not often maintained and is like driving on a goat track. I wear a helmet yet many cyclists do not (including children and youth, what are their parents doing?). I stop on thge red, go on the green and not in front of the powered traffic. Having said that I have been forced off the road by idiot drivers, and almost bowled over by idiot cyclists in the city.
    Both sides need to give and it needs to trained young and be supported by Parents. Some of both sides have a lot to learn and a bit to give.

  15. Jai Cooper

    Paris changed the law and allow cyclists to go through red lights in some circumstances.

    … btw, Alan, disobeying a red light differs from ignoring it in many ways.

  16. floorer

    Cyclists whinge about pedestrians on shared paths ’cause they get in the way and you never know what they’re going to do. In a nut shell that’s how car drivers look at cyclists. See simple.

  17. Wexford

    Nico touches on the “angry society” thing. I’ve long thought that people in general feel increasingly powerless to the boss, the job, corporations, the government and so on. They will subsequently seek any opportunity to impose their will upon another person.

    I believe this is the reason that, in my experience, the worst drivers when it comes to disrespecting cyclists are tradies (generally at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale) and women (subjugated my men in the workplace and sometimes at home). They see a cyclist as an opportunity to assert their dominance over another.

  18. Nico

    This is funny.

    What about the idea that an orderly society forms a line? If cyclists want to use the road with the same rights as motorists then they wait.

    I commute on bike every day and I stop at reds, and the world has not ended. I trackstand so I look uber sick.

    Maybe we’re just an angry society? I mean, with all the ‘slamming’ and ‘snubbing’ the papers are saying we’re doing, it’d fit.

  19. Alan Davies

    nerk #6:

    Click through (the picture) and you’ll see that the law in Ohio permits motorists to cross double yellows when overtaking a cyclist provided it’s safe to do so.

  20. nerk

    Is it my imagination or is the car on that billboard crossing double lines to go around the cyclist?

  21. Scott

    @Thomas McLouglin’s comment is the reason why there will never be peace between cyclists and motorists…
    Truly equating motorists as being responsible for the deaths of a thousand babies and oldies per year? No thought of all the lives saved as a result of cars and trucks being around? Really?

  22. Matt Carrigan

    I don’t think drivers concern about cyclists running red lights has anything to do with them seeing it as a ‘sacred’ rule. I think it is more aligned to the issue you highlighted of them seeing them as a nuisance to overtake; so if a cyclist has gone through the red light now the driver has to overtake them rather than just taking off in front of them when the light goes green – particularly aggravating if they had already just done so.

  23. hk

    The issue remains one of space and speed allocation to all the modes of transport in an integrated land-use and transportation system that reduces risk of serious injury. The risks maybe quantified through actual accident data or perceived through opinion surveys. Perth seems to have taken more constructive steps to reduce risk than many other Australian cities.

  24. Thomas McLoughlin

    As suggested on the other similar labelled story “…. [take] a step back and a deep breath about what is going on in mainstream society, by which I mean the car lobby spending million$ every night [on tv] advertising, and [PR on]on tabloid television promoting anti bicycle messages….. How many reruns will I end up seeing, as I surf past the advertising free to air channel, with Today Tonight or is it A Current Affair showing their story on cyclists ignoring a red light? Well guess what, for all the misdemeanours of cyclists, they remain morally superior ….. In Sydney as an example the Dept of Health says traffic generated pollution is the cause of over 1,000 premature deaths a year – babies with asthma, old folks with lung problems, the immuno compromised and other vulerable people. End of argument. Bicycles are morally superior, and don’t cost much unlike the road maintenance for high impact heavy vehicles. …. the road trip to the end of the world will be in a late release petrol driven car.” [!]

  25. Strewth

    Shared paths present the greatest real problem, and this is a straight-out design failure. Most cities (Perth is a good example) now provide one path for walkers and one path for cyclists in these situations. Instead, from an erstwhile position of leadership in the 1980s we’ve largely persisted with a now-obsolete practice of laying a narrow strip of concrete or bitumen and proclaiming it a shared space for walkers and cyclists.

    Doubtless there’s an element here of people coming from the dedicated bike path systems of other cities and having to adjust to riding in the same space where people walk. With some small change from the road budget we could have proper infrastructure that doesn’t bring walkers and cyclists into conflict every single day.

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