Saturday, 1 May 2010

The red light, rules and who makes them?

At first glance, the rule of the traffic light appears to be a simple one. If the light is green, then you go and if the light is red then all traffic should stop. This fundamental rule has existed if not been adhered to since the first traffic light was installed outside London's Houses of Parliament in 1868. Sadly, nothing we humans get involved in is ever made simple, and so it is that the humble traffic light has been dragged into a furore that continues to rage between pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike and is not about to end any time soon.

The main angst is directed at the cyclist, who in the eyes of others consistently ignores the red-colour rule for insufficient reason, as if they never existed. How dare these two wheeled deviants heed no attention to the law while nearly all drivers of motorised vehicles patiently wait until it turns green. What is it that makes an another wise law abiding citizen, rip up the law book once they get onto their bike?

This answer as I have found out is not an easy one, but in trying to work out why it is, I have managed to come up with a selection of rules and justifications that explain why I an average cyclist break the law. Like it or not, this is an honest appraisal.

Scenario 1: If I am turning left and there is a Heavy Goods Vehicle possibly going to do the same.

Answer 1: There are two options. Hang back and wait until the HGV goes left or get to the front and hope you beat the lights changing. The first one means traffic will be flowing by the time I go, so although I have avoided the HGV, I now have the other traffic by my side and possibly wanting to go left too. Number two is preferable if I can get to the lights before they go Green. If I do, then I am getting the fuck out of there. I am absolutely going through the red. Heavy Goods Vehicles are responsible for many a cycle death - Nearly 1 in 4 pedal cyclists killed was in an accident with an HGV - Stats for 2007 - source Department of Transport.

Scenario 2) If there is a vehicle in the green cycle box

Answer 2)
If I am to get to the front of the vehicles, and that is a the constant wish, then I am going to have to go through the light anyway and please bear in mind that the average car as of 2009 gets from 0 to 60 mph in 8.95 seconds. They are about six inches behind me revving their engines and I am pooping my pants. I know they will have to wait for me, but it is very unnerving. If I can leave the scene then I will, so yes I am going through.

Scenario 3) The green box is clear, there are other cyclists

Answer 3) I am more likely to stay if the green box is clear, not always depending on other circumstances but I am happier if I am at the front, I feel safer and more content to obey the law and the respect adhered to by other drivers.

Scenario 4) It's a roundabout.

Answer 4)
Roundabouts are nasty things for a cyclist. Cars do not trundle behind allowing time for you to get across, they overtake and I am at the mercy of the skill of the driver. I am always going to look out for my life first and I see a roundabout as a danger to it. If I am sensible, I make sure there is no traffic coming then I will go through the red and reach the other side before the Grand Prix starts behind me. In the UK the involvement of bicyclists in crashes on roundabouts was found to be 10 to 15 times higher than the involvement of car occupants

Scenario 5) There are pedestrians crossing

Answer 5) I never cross the path of a pedestrian. Of all the pedestrians killed each year by traffic, then it is very rare indeed that a cyclist was involved but to me that's not the point. They have a right of way and shouldn't be harassed as they cross. If cyclists do go through when pedestrians are crossing then I feel acutely aware they are behaving in the same way as some drivers do to cyclists, and it is not a nice feeling. For the record pedestrians fare far worse than cyclists - 10,935 pedestrians have lost their lives since 1994 - National Office of Statistics.

Scenario 6) It's a junction

Answer 6) - Beware the junction. There is many a ghost bike on a junction and if I am in any doubt about their danger then I need only remind myself of this statistical fact. Throughout 18 European Union countries including the UK, cyclists have the highest proportion of fatalities at junctions: more than a third. In Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom more than half of cyclist fatalities die at junctions. – source – European Road Safety Observatory

It is complicated, but I have seen cyclists tearing through a red light at a junction, hovering in the middle of it impatiently waiting before darting through to the other side. I can't stand it. I've been left aghast at the risks some people take, wondering if I'm going to be adding them to the rememberance page at some point. It's not just cyclists who go through red lights; cars are forever squeezing through at the last minute taking a chance. The madness of it all is there will be another set of lights 500 metres further on. The answer as always has variables, but in this scenario I am more than likely going to wait until it is green.

As I write this I realise the difficulties we all face on the road, which force us to have our own set of personal rules. Last week was one perfect example. As I waited at a red light on a small junction which I knew as having little traffic from the side road. I stopped in the green box behind another cyclist. As I waited and much to my amazement, he got off his bike, walked across the junction and remounted his bike to carry on his journey. Sensible, very sensible. Then as he he did this, another cyclist whizzed past me glancing briefly to his left and right before tearing off into the distance. I just stood there waiting, bewildered by our own rules.


  1. Hi Andrew,

    Scenario 1 - hang back behind the HGV and take the primary position.

    Scenario 4 - if you're going to ride on the roundabout, throw away the highway code as it gives seriously bad advice for cyclists using them! Again, I usually start queuing taking the lane and find that those queuing behind take more care around me.

    Of course motorists never jump red lights (like #@*% they don't LOL). The red light I'll always jump is on the early morning empty road, with a clear view & no pedestrians, because except to take a breather, stopping for one is just a pain in the arse!

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  3. Thanks for the comment Ian. I can't think of another subject where everybody has clear but different individual rules.

    Like your blog and am now following.


  4. Cheers Andrew!

    Traffic lights certainly a thorny subject.

    I get frustrated sitting a red light, even with a queue of traffic behind me in instances where there is no danger in crossing and the only reason we are sat waiting is because of the timing of the lights.

    In those circumstances it's just not wanting to annoy those behind that stops me crossing because they are bound to think "Bloody Cyclist's!"

    At the end of the day though, doing so safely is all down to the riders own look out. I can't see Rule 69 being changed any time soon!

  5. I will jump those red lights only in the above-mentioned, 'clear road' circumstances. Why they don't implement traffic-detection systems to speed-up the switching of the lights in these circumstances, I don't know. Otherwise I like to accept the rules of the road, perhaps a little because I want to feel superior to all these maniac motorists, but also in case it ups the safety % a tiny bit for everyone.

  6. Thanks for the message. I understand that approach too, I can sometimes feel the eyes burning in my back when I go through a red. I wonder if the sensors are practical in that it is another thing to maintain, and go wrong?

  7. Nice! Have a pleasant holiday shopping season.

  8. just make me confuse :D