Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On Red Light Jumpers

For the benefit of Mike Penning, and anyone else who knows nothing about the subject of people who jump red lights...

I 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 signals.

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.

So 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.

Part 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 latter.

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 an 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.

There 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.

So 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.

Among 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.


  1. I'm a cyclist who hates other cyclists who jump red lights. This is perhaps because when I am not being a cyclist I am usually being a pedestrian, and as a pedestrian I expect to be able to cross the road at red lights without some selfish idiot nearly hitting me with their bike. And every cyclist with half a brain knows that jumping red lights does not often save any time in the long run, so it's just pointless and not worth the aggravation it causes.

  2. Agreed, The appalling stench of hypocrisy emanating from drivers who claim to see only cyclists who RLJ is cause for shame.
    I am a cyclist who also drives and I see cyclists RLJ especially in London, but also a lot of motorists - cars, motor-cycles, vans, buses, lorries. When did red lights, speed limits and seemingly everything else laid down in traffic law become advisory? Because my copy of the Highway code - the online one appears at complete variance with what I see on the roads.

    Anyhow, what follows should tell the lie about drivers being law-abiding.

    "Red Alert: Motorists Drive Through 278 Red Traffic Lights a Minute - 22nd August 2011
    5.2 million drivers have passed through a red traffic signal in the last month
    Amber gamblers: Almost one in ten drivers doesn’t slow down for amber lights
    New research from Direct Line car insurance reveals that motorists are driving through 12 million red lights each month on British roads – the equivalent of running 278 red lights every minute *.
    Over 5.2 million (14 per cent) motorists admit that they drive through an average of two red traffic lights each month. Over 760,000 (two per cent) motorists habitually drive through red lights if they feel the road is clear and there is no traffic.
    As a result of their reckless behaviour at red lights, drivers risk clocking up over 36 million penalty points (three for each offence) and fines from fixed penalty notices totalling £721** million every month...."