For the benefit of Mike Penning, and anyone else who knows nothing about the subject of people who jump red lights...
don't jump red lights. Mainly because I don't think society works very
well if people pick and choose the laws they want to obey. And I wish
more drivers thought the same way. And cyclists as well, for that
matter. But I also think that junctions are (with very few exceptions)
not designed with safety of cyclists in mind, and that could be one
reason why a significant number of cyclists choose to disregard junction
Not all cyclists jump red lights, and
cyclists are not the only road users that jump red lights. The Transport
Research Laboratory reported in a 2007 London-based study
that 17% of cyclists at the studied sites violated red lights. However,
39% of the time, vehicles encroached into advance stop boxes, which is
also a traffic-light violation, and at some sites, the number of motor
vehicles violating a red light and continuing all the way through the
junction (as opposed to just creeping over the stop line) exceeded the
number of cyclists guilty of the same behaviour.
which is worse - a cyclist busting a red light, or a motor creeping into
an advance stop box? Well obviously, it's the lawless cyclist rather
than the hapless put-upon motorist making an honest mistake. At least,
that's what it looks like when you have a car-centric view of the world.
To most car drivers, busting a stop light is a cardinal sin, because of
the obvious extreme danger it causes. Traffic engineers have spent the
last 50 years designing most of the hazards out of roads so everyone can
get around as fast as possible, and as a result it is clear in most
situations who has right of way. If you can't rely on your right of way,
then you have to drive slowly and carefully and be observant and
prepared for the unexpected. Then you might have to interrupt your phone
call and concentrate on driving instead.
Let me just
correct what I wrote in the previous paragraph. Traffic engineers have
spent the last 50 years designing most of the hazards out of roads for motorists.
Most road junctions do little to make cyclists safe, and many are
downright dangerous. It therefore follows that most junctions, including
light-controlled ones, are hazardous to cyclists, and that gives rise
to a very important moral distinction. Let me first propose three moral
principles which shouldn't prove controversial. First, it is important
to respect the law. Second, it is important to respect the safety of
others. Third, you have a duty to ensure your own safety. For a motorist
at a junction, there's no dilemma: if you break the law by running a
red light, you endanger others and quite possibly yourself. For a
cyclist at a junction, if you respect the letter of the law at a UK road
junction, you can quite easily find yourself in a situation that
endangers you, because of the poor safety
characteristics that are engineered into the junction. Furthermore, too often you
encounter drivers that do not respect the law. They drive too close to
cyclists, encroach into advance stop boxes, overtake dangerously,
left-hook you, and so on. So it makes sense to get the heck out of this
concentrated collection of hazards toot sweet, as the French have it. It's a sad fact that most collisions happen at junctions. It's possible
to use the moral defence of self-preservation, provided of course your actions pose no significant danger to others: at some junctions the risks
of being mixed up among a pack of accelerating motors are higher than
the risks involved in carefully crossing the junction against the lights.
of the reason motorists don't like cyclists jumping red lights is
because they don't see the moral dilemma I've described and they don't
appreciate that junction signals are designed for the safety and
convenience of motorists, not cyclists, and can actively endanger the
Let's get back to why traffic signals exist in
the first place: to ensure traffic flow by giving a clear right of way,
so there is no need for each vehicle to slow down and negotiate with
other vehicles at the junction. The idea of an inalienable 'right of
way' is a somewhat unfamiliar one if
you're a cyclist. To be safe, you have to assume that your right of way
will be violated. You have to ride carefully, be observant and prepared
for the unexpected all the time, because although most drivers respect
the rules of the road, there are enough that don't to make the highway
extremely dangerous place indeed if you assume that all drivers will
respect your right of way. If I assumed I could cross all toucan
crossings when the light was green in my favour, I quite literally
wouldn't be alive today.
In other ways when you ride a
bike, your perspective is a little different to a driver's. The reason
advance-stop boxes are there is to allow cyclists to get ahead of other
traffic, in a position where they can be seen. If the box is full of
cars, that becomes difficult, and cyclists can end up unable to reach
the front of the queue and in dangerous positions. To a car driver, an
advance stop box is a meaningless few yards of empty space. To a
cyclist, it can be the difference between life and death.
are a few differences between a cycle and a motor violating a red
light. One is that if a cyclist does it and gets it wrong, many or all
of the consequences - often severe ones - will be on the rider. Even a
collision with a pedestrian is likely to leave the cyclist in a bad way.
Because of this there is a Darwinian law that the reckless riders don't
last long, so we're mostly left with riders who run red lights but are
careful about it. By the way, there's no evidence that cars are crashing
in significant numbers trying to avoid red-light jumping cyclists.
(There's one important caveat that I'll get to later, which is that
there is one road user even further down the food chain than the cyclist
- the pedestrian.)
Another difference between cycles
and motors disobeying signals is that cyclists have more freedom to do
so. If you're in a car, you can't go through a red light if the car in
front of you doesn't, but on a bike you can usually filter to the front
of the queue. It's not necessarily restraint that is stopping motorists
from jumping red lights, it's also lack of opportunity. If you take
offences that motorists are easily able to commit, there's a high
incidence - according to the RAC Foundation, 31% of motorists admit to using hand-held mobiles whilst driving, and 50% admit to speeding in 30MPH zones.
you could summarise so far that the opprobrium directed at red-light
jumping cyclists has an element of double standards about it. Motorists
are guilty of many dangerous behaviours, it's just that red-light
jumping isn't chief amongst them. Meanwhile, it's cyclists that
disproportionately at risk from the dangerous behaviour of motorists.
cyclists, there's more than one kind of red-light jumper. There are
reckless racers, who will barrel through a pedestrian crossing against a
red light and expect everyone to get out of the way. This is clearly
dangerous and stupid, and no-one should condone this kind of behaviour.
Then there are the amber-gamblers, who will ride through a junction
without stopping if the lights have just changed against them. Again,
this is dangerous, particularly if there are pedestrians or other
cyclists around. (But it's not as dangerous as motorised road-users doing it.) Next, you have a more cautious breed, who slow down or
stop at junctions but proceed if the way is clear. Getting more cautious
still are those who jump a light because they consider it safer to do
so having made a careful assessment of the risks. And lastly, there are those Pashley riders who are, in a curiously unfathomable and sedate way, undeniably above the law.
A couple of final thoughts. There are those who say
that cyclists busting red lights gives everyone a bad name and generates
hatred toward cyclists. I don't really buy that argument. It implies
that cyclists have to be beyond reproach, otherwise they deserve
everything that happens to them. People who hate cyclists will always
find reasons to justify their views: if cyclists instead of jumping
lights are hanging around at junctions, they'll hate
them for slowing them down and getting in the way. The fact is that cyclists should not be
judged as a group. Cyclists are a cross-section of society, as are
motorists (indeed most are motorists), and as such have no more or less propensity to break the law
or deliberately endanger others than in society generally. The
difference though is, being equipped with less hardware and less
protection, they are less of a threat when they do break the law.