Undermining #cyclesafe by running red lights

“Recently I approached a notoriously dangerous junction with the lights on red and a police car at the front of the queue. 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. Blue lights flashed. I was fined and made to undergo internet cycle training. I am grateful — its videos showed me how little lorry drivers can see of cyclists from their cabs. That has made me safer but hasn’t stopped me breaking the law.”

Lech Mintowt-Czyz, The Times 09/02/2012

So let me break this down: he approached a junction where the traffic was already stopped at a red light and a queue had formed, manoeuvred through static traffic to the front of the line, past a stopped police vehicle and through a mandatory stop signal. This made him feel safer.

Let me pick apart the problems here based on how I ride and what I’ve found to be a safe approach to the issues on London roads over the last 12 years.

  • If a queue had formed, he could have safely adopted primary position behind the last vehicle in the queue
  • If he filtered, as he could do safely, he could have adopted primary position ahead of the police vehicle with no penalty
  • A cyclist filtering through the stopped traffic lanes could easily have emerged and caused an accident by following Lech’s logic

Clearly from his tweets he believes his position is entirely sane, rational and justified. It isn’t. It is simple, petty law breaking. It’s not a symptom of the problems on the road, it’s a symptom of an attitude of entitlement to know better than the law. I’m not without sin, very few road users are, but I have little time for attempts to justify this sort of behaviour.

“I do not justify my actions on some idea of bicycle supremacy — an attitude often attributed to “irresponsible” riders. I deplore cyclists who ride listening to music — are they mad? I condemn those who ride in dark clothing at night or without lights. And getting on a bike without a helmet? No, I don’t buy that either.”

I frequently wear dark clothing (albeit with reflective trim) and I almost never wear a helmet when commuting. Neither of these things is actively against the law, although there’s many who would argue for contributory negligence on my part in the event of an accident. Neither has an existing precedent as such in English law, as far as I can see.

And neither could in any way make me feel safer about the biggest threat to my life on the roads: HGVs turning, frequently without checking their mirrors and blind spots properly and with the driver oblivious to the cyclist on the road, resulting in fatal crush injuries to internal organs.

I reduce that threat by avoiding being in their blind spots, establishing eye contact with the driver when stopped at a junction and not filtering up their left. These are simple, sensible things to do, and none of them is illegal. There are times when this may cause me to stray across stop lines, to temporarily impede other traffic’s progress or push at the limits of legality, but none are an active offence which would usually concern a traffic enforcement officer (think tax avoidance rather than tax evasion).

I even ride listening to music, just as I drive with a car stereo on (on the rare occasions I drive), much as millions of road users do in the UK. I could argue that I do so because I feel it makes me safer as it allows me to concentrate on the visual indicators of hazard/risk and maintaining a safe road space around my riding position rather than focusing on the noise from vehicles (not just cars) sitting too close behind me. I don’t because it’s a ridiculously flawed logic.

The fundamental point is this: red light running doesn’t make you safer, no matter how much you are convinced of it. A driver who is inattentive enough to turn across your path and drag you under their wheels is inattentive enough to hit you whether you are standing still or moving.

Running a red light wouldn’t, as far as I know, have saved the lives of any of people killed or seriously injured on Britain’s roads, many of whom were hit by drivers on open roads nowhere near a junction. It will not save yours or make you safer.

And ultimately, if this campaign is about making the roads safer for cyclists, it will do nothing to advance the debate or convince anyone that cyclists should be entitled to equal treatment as road users and stakeholders in the transport infrastructure.

Here’s the course of our debate on twitter pulled together through Storify, I’ve stuck some elements on the end with my commentary on where the discussion ended.

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