Considerate Cycling 10: The Red Light

Yesterday The Times published an article by Assistant News Editor Lech Mintowt-Czvz in its Cities Fit For Cycling campaign.

The piece was his justification for making a personal decision at each red traffic light as to whether he was right, as a cyclist at the head a queue of traffic, to set off a few seconds before the light changed, regardless of the legal requirement to wait.

Despite having being once prosecuted for anticipating the green, then fined and sent for cycle training, he says he intends to do it again if it keeps him safe.

I think his justification is weak and I think that his publishing it is tactically wrong.

My reasoning is as follows.

The first point is one he recognises: without a social contract based on law being generally obeyed, social life becomes difficult. Moving in traffic demands a minimum level of trust that what should happen generally does or at least should happen. There are more than enough hazards already without arbitrary but personally advantageous decisions becoming the norm.

My second point of concern is with his suggestion that the Highway Code, in effect, is insisting he should run the “risk of being maimed or killed by an inattentive driver” by waiting for the green light to show. He knows that such deaths have occurred in London. Advanced Stop Lanes can put a cyclist just ahead of a lorry whose cab is so high that the cyclist cannot always be seen (either ahead or to the side) . So his policy, decided in advance, is  to set off early and avoid death by being faster through the junction than the lorry if circumstances demand it.

He wrote:

“Recently I approached a notoriously dangerous junction I knew that in half a second the lights would switch, that the other lanes were already at red and had stopped. I ran the red light. videos showed me how little lorry drivers can see of cyclists from their cabs.”

An immediate counter to this is that there are alternative and safer ways of avoiding the problem. The Highway Code does not insist on getting to work ahead of the crowd. It tends to suggest considerate and cautious behaviour. One suggestion I would offer is to avoid the pole position in the first place. If timely eye contact with the driver seems unlikely or impossible, I would simply wait well behind such a vehicle, in the “primary position” and not in the lead-in lane to the ASL (assuming there is one). If I don’t feel confident of being able to make a safe crossing at lights, because of traffic volume or junction design common sense suggests I should dismount and find a safe place to cross on foot. It seems to me that counting on my own strength and speed to out-cycle a lorry with an unsighted driver (if that is what Lech Mintowt-Czvz is doing) would incur unnecessary additional risks of its own while achieving little gain in journey time.

My third point is the tactical issue that arises from the context of the article: it was written as part of a newspaper campaign for cycling in cities to be made safer. By trying to defend the frequently-made accusation that cyclists “always jump red lights” he has been guilty of the classic error of feeding the trolls. He has thrown bait to the flippant and thoughtless by engaging them in their own chosen swamp.

In much better news, I notice that this morning’s Times has a refinement of the issue, one already normal in The Netherlands and called for by cyclists generally, the cycle-only phase at major junctions.  Challenging the Highway Code is the last thing cyclists need to be seen doing at this promising stage in the debate.


9 thoughts on “Considerate Cycling 10: The Red Light

  1. The more I see of this discussion, the happier I am that I live in the sticks (and in the States). I might see a truck (or lorrey) once a month on my route. I still deal with a lot of traffic lights and stop signs on my normal routes, but I live in a town where you can see the idiot drivers coming for the most part – and I’ve always had time to react to them. Seems like some tough sledding across the pond.

  2. I think you need to do whatever is necessary to stay safe on the bike. One set of lights I know is on a slight up-hill gradient, and you set off into a pinch-point at the other side of the junction. Therefore, I’ve found that with impatient drivers behind, setting off slightly before the lights change from red to green (the other priorities are clearly visible), is the safest way to negotiate that junction.

  3. If there is a pinch point (which is a really stupid thing to build just after a junction) the safest thing to do is wait either in the stream of traffic (‘primary’) or in front of the stream of traffic (primary again). This tells the driver behind you that you intend to travel in a straight line through the middle of the pinch point.
    As to not being seen by a lorry driver you are right in front of in an advance cycle box, in my experience I am usually half way across the junction before the lorry driver has got going and no lorry that I have every been near gets going in any sort of a rush!
    I see no need to break the law and I’m in agreement about not feeding the trolls by breaking the law. It just gives them a bigger stick.

  4. I don’t think that one should jump red lights but I also don’t think cyclists should have to dismount or move behind other vehicles who pull up later. The junction is faulty and should be redesigned, but how best to handle it until then?

    1. I entirely agree and I think I outlined “how best to handle it until then” in the piece. Civil disobedience seems very important in some contexts (however dangerous) but I don’t think in the middle of contemporary road traffic is one of them. A personal view, of course and one which I don’t always observe in practice. There are plenty of situations, I’m sure, where I have just made up my own rules to get out of an impossible mess.

      One question I find myself asking (while cycling peacefully along a quiet road) is “what would I say on Court when I was asked why I thought it was OK to cycle like that?”

    2. Until the better infrastructure comes I would always recommend the getting off and walking option if a junction was arousing high anxiety. On the other hand, fairly recently I took up the offer of some Bikeability training – specifically to consider better ways of coping with a couple of Bristol’s most awful roundabouts. Being terrified while cycling and being overconfident while cycling might both be traps. None of us have all the answers. It’s a great shame that UK road engineers are still a long way from having a set of national standards for positive cycling infrastructure to work from.

      1. I think getting off and walking is almost always a bad option. I’m much wider, far slower and much wobblier pushing the bike than I am riding it, so I’m less able to get out of the way of other vehicles and far more likely to crash, dropping the bike either onto myself or someone else, especially if it’s carrying a lot of shopping. It seems better for everyone if I stay on the bike, in full control, and proceed slowly/cautiously.

        Practically, there are often high kerbs around junctions (to discourage motors from driving on the footway), making it even more difficult to get off the road if you didn’t know the junction was faulty before arriving at it – or were you advocating walking on the road past the faulty red light or whatever the problem is? That’s bizarrely legal but feels really unsafe to me.

        And all that’s before you consider how much it slows down and complicates a mode of transport which – in theory – is being encouraged officially.

        There’s a lot of good guidance from voluntary groups like CTC and Cyclenation (most recently which UK road engineers could use – the volunteers will often try to help with advice too, but their resources are limited. Even the Department for Transport’s LTN 1/12 and 2/08 are better than most of what we have, but even that’s only guidance and not a standard yet and many road engineers seem ignorant of them, stuck in the 90s or earlier when it comes to cycling and reluctant to ask the voluntary organisations for current best practice advice. There are a few shining stars, but often they run into managers who don’t care about guidance and want to carry on with the same deadly old designs they used before.

  5. I really appreciate your engagement with this topic. What you say about walking is obviously the best for you and for many others. On the other hand, I am making no claims for my own advice and I would do no more than mention that no one has to tackle a junction that scares them. There is no shame in stopping, getting on the footpath and having a think.

    My central purpose in this short blog was to draw attention to inadequacies in one small piece of the Bristol network. I notice that some works are currently in progress and that things (while it continues) are a whole lot worse than they have ever been. I hope that when the dust settles and the paint (yes, I know…) is dry that the result isn’t even worse.

    There is a Cycle Forum meeting at City Hall at 6.00 pm on Thursday 18th September where Bristol’s Cycling Strategy is being discussed. Progress is slow and frustrating.

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