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Why do some cyclists disregard red lights?

Date

On Your Bike

After wearing out his knees with basketball and running, Michael O'Reilly became yet another MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra).

View more entries from On Your Bike

A cyclist appears to ignore a red light on Collins Street, Melbourne.

A cyclist appears to ignore a red light on Collins Street, Melbourne. Photo: Simon Schluter

"Why do cyclists run red lights?" a friend asked me recently.

It's a contentious issue in the so-called war between motorists and cyclists (most of whom, curiously, are also motorists) – and a question worth addressing.

But first, a clarification. Are we talking about "running" a red light – flying through at maximum speed, even though the light has changed?

This is, of course, the most dangerous way to go through an intersection, especially if you are driving a one-tonne vehicle. As vulnerable road users, however, any cyclist who goes full tilt against the lights through intersections probably won't last very long.

Most cyclists who "run" red lights are in fact treating them as give way or stop signs – they lose much, if not all, of their momentum, make sure the way is clear, and then cycle through.

Such behaviour is illegal and can be very costly – for example, the offence carries a whopping $352 fine in Victoria.

So why do some cyclists do it? Here are a few likely reasons:

  • Because light signals often don't work for bicycles. Sensors under the road surface are designed to detect big, metal cars and cyclists can find themselves marooned at a light that will never change.
  • To get out of the way. A bike rider moving off early is often doing cars a favour. Cyclists are at their most vulnerable and obstructive when going from a standstill – they're slow and more liable to weave from side to side. By getting an early start, the bike is travelling steadily and at speed when the cars catch up, making for easier, safer passing.
  • To avoid pinch points. On most two-lane roads, cars park on the left-hand side just 15 metres after the intersection. Two lanes of cars have to jockey and merge into one lane at this point. Add a cyclist into that (often aggressive) mix and it's obvious who will likely come off worst.
  • To maintain momentum. As a recreational cyclist, I don't mind red lights – I treat repeated accelerations as part of my workout. But commuter cyclists aren't looking to raise a sweat, and some opt to maintain a bit of momentum by treating a red light as a give way sign.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a lot of cyclists do it simply because they get away with it.
They don't see it as a danger to others. Sneaking across an intersection in a car risks injury to people in other vehicles – but by and large, a cyclist who gets it wrong will only injure themselves.

"When I'm a cycling commuter, I see myself as a form of pedestrian," a colleague told me this week. "Pedestrians are far less likely to obey traffic signals than cyclists – but because almost everybody jaywalks, people aren't so upset about it."

He's right. Stand on any urban street corner and you'll see flagrant, outrageous lawbreaking by pedestrians. It's just as illegal, but people are seldom fined. And pedestrians who begin to cross when the "red man" is flashing cause far more delays for motorists than any red-light-jumping cyclist.

The red light issue is a favourite obsession for those who believe bicycles should be registered – a tedious notion dismissed in a previous blog. Sure, a (yet to be invented) visible licence plate would mean lawbreakers could be caught by traffic camera. But as only a minuscule percentage of traffic lights have cameras, registration makes no sense. And eyewitness accounts of such violations are never going to result in a conviction (trust me on this).

There have been some interesting attempts to address the issue in other countries. London's mayor, Boris Johnston, suggested a law that would allow cyclists a legal "left turn on red" signal – but the idea proved unpopular.

Then there's the fascinating "Idaho Stop Law" that has been in place for 27 years without any carnage. This video gives some excellent insights into cyclist behaviour.

Several years ago I took a conscious decision that I would always obey red lights. It helps that I'm a confident cyclist in traffic and I don't much mind the waiting or the workout.

I see riding in a law-abiding fashion as a public relations exercise and would strongly encourage other cyclists to do the same.

But if you're a motorist who gets steamed when you see a cyclist disregard a red light, ask yourself: "How does it affect me?"

Sure, if they've nearly caused an accident, that's a problem. But if they're just getting ahead while you sit idling in traffic, I'd suggest there are more important things to get worked up about.

After all, when I'm in a car, I'd rather share the road with a watchful cyclist going through a red light than a motorist driving while texting, any day of the week.

Do you obey or disregard red lights while cycling? What are your reasons?

Follow Michael O'Reilly on Twitter

 


410 comments

  • Lets face it. Cyclists break all of the road rules because they are not registered and cannot be identified. I catch the train and tram to work and am constantly harassed by cylists in the city: riding past stationery trams with passengers geting on and off, riding on footpaths, riding on pedestrian crossings etc etc. All to divert from their normal place on the road and time it takes to wait for a red light / trams passengers - whatever. Until cyclists in major thoroughfares are registered can be identified like everyone else, we all have to duck and weave their lack of regard for everyone else.

    Commenter
    The facts
    Date and time
    October 18, 2012, 1:40PM
    • Good grief I thought this topic had already been done to death??? Unhappily it's a bit like Labor and Liberal voters or Carlton and Collingwood supporters. You will NEVER get any sort of consensus! About the only definitive thing that has ever arisen from these discussions is the general acceptance that people who propose the registration of cyclists display a complete lack of logic or common sense. However I suppose that having purchased their soapbox they want to get as much use out of it as they can; no matter how preposterous they sound...

      Commenter
      Trevsy
      Date and time
      October 18, 2012, 2:23PM
    • *Facepalm*

      Commenter
      Roaster
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 18, 2012, 2:26PM
    • I'll agree to registration the day you hand yourself into police for jaywalking.

      Commenter
      Roaster
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      October 18, 2012, 2:29PM
    • They think their in the tour de france.... You dont have red lights in the tour!

      Commenter
      Mark
      Location
      OZ
      Date and time
      October 18, 2012, 2:32PM
    • I have videos on youtube of bad behaving motorist. Do you reckon that they'll be put to justice?

      Commenter
      Rider
      Date and time
      October 18, 2012, 2:37PM
    • If your going to call yourself "The Facts", at least get them right! We should then register all pedestrians so they dont jaywalk or walk against the red or flashing light...Woftam

      Commenter
      Garrath
      Location
      Bondi
      Date and time
      October 18, 2012, 2:37PM
    • Oh yeah, as if car drivers don't break the road rules... despite being registered and identifiable.

      Commenter
      Wyn
      Location
      Earth
      Date and time
      October 18, 2012, 2:39PM
    • Bicycle registration would be multi-billion-dollar scheme that provides no social benefit, pointlessly criminalises millions of people, massively distracts from law enforcement efforts in areas that are an actual problem, encourages a massive increase in car traffic (=instant rise in fuel prices, fatalities, and gridlock), and makes Australia the laughing stock of the entire planet.

      File under "no".

      Commenter
      kosh
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      October 18, 2012, 2:45PM
    • I cycle. I walk. I drive. There are bloody idiots in all three modes of transport.

      Firstly to my fellow cyclists: You are not a pedestrian. You are a vehicle. What's more, you are a vulnerable vehicle. You offer less obstruction to a car than an inner city pot hole. Keep left. Keep single file on busy roads. Use hand signals. Use the cycleways unless you can do the traffic speed. Sure.. play hard and fast with the traffic, but don't complain when you are turned into a smudge... or more likely, your relatives don't complain because you refuse to snap in the chin-snap on your helmet. By the way, cycle paths are directional. If you are barrelling down the wrong side of the road at 40 km an hour, and I am barrelling down the right side of the road at the same speed, one of us is going to end up losing the game of chicken.

      To my fellow drivers. Cyclists are vehicles. They have a right to use the road. Yes... I'm talking to you middle-aged bitter woman in the red Ford fiesta. Accelerating past a cyclist so you can turn left in-front of them at the round about might seem smart, but you aren't so tough when I drive my 4x4 to work.

      To my fellow pedestrians. You are not a vehicle. You are not a bicycle. No, not even if you are pushing a pram, especially three abreast. Get off the cycle way. You want cyclist off the footpath? Given them plenty of space on the infrastructure installed for them.

      Commenter
      Matt
      Location
      Five Dock
      Date and time
      October 18, 2012, 2:47PM

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