City Desk

Bikers: Do You Stop At Red Lights?

At the Atlantic Cities, Nate Berg takes note that in one (unscientific) study, 58 percent of cyclists ran red lights, compared to seven percent of cars. In addition, cyclists only come to a complete stop seven percent of the time (drivers make a full stop 22 percent of the time). It leads him to an argument against cyclists running red lights:

While it's not likely that cyclists will begin to comply fully with the laws of the road, this study does shed some more light on the potential dangers of the road. More pedestrians are put in danger when other users of the road ignore the rules. And though bike-person accidents aren't incredibly widespread, they do happen. Even more concerning should be the increasing potential of car-bike accidents that can occur when stop lights are ignored.

For those of us who ride bikes regularly, it's pretty obvious that we're not just blindly speeding through traffic lights with no regard to oncoming traffic. But there's also a danger that the more comfortable we get going green on a red, the more likely we are to relax our reflexes and de-elevate our senses to the four-wheeled threats that surround us.

There are instances where where a bit of rule-breaking can work as a safety and visibility measure: like poking into the intersection ahead of the cars one is riding alongside. As a driver, though, the unpredictability of cyclists can be anxiety inducing and dangerous—and likely contributes to the high levels of hostility some D.C. drivers have for cyclists—so perhaps there's something to be said for Berg's argument.

Photo by dlofink via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.0 License

Blog Widget by LinkWithin
  • Tom M.

    Yesterday at 17th and L St NW, I was appalled to witness a biker intentionally attempt to hit a woman pedestrian in a cross walk at an intersection. If that were a driver/car, i would have been able to take down the plate and call in a complaint to authorities. Is there going to be a day when bike violators can be recorded and reported? If so how?

  • Anthony

    Well, you can't chain your car up to railing on the sidewalk and just walk into a grocery store either, can you. Different beast. Driving has its own benefits and so does cycling. If motorists get all hot under the collar cause we get a 12 second head start at a red light, I say go spit!

  • Marc E.

    most of them run them. I was almost hit last night by a cyclist in Georgetown, when i had the right away to cross at the crosswalk.

  • JeffB

    As a regular cyclist, I stop for red lights and think it's important for cyclists to do so. However, I commonly run stop signs if there are no cars nearby. I slow down, exercise caution, and roll through if the coast is clear.

  • washcycle

    Anxiety inducing I'll give you, but dangerous...you'll have to prove that. The evidence to back that up just isn't there. You THINK it is dangerous, but that isn't a fact. Rarely are cyclist killed while running a red light. In fact, in DC over the last 7 years it's only happened twice - and in one case the light was so short and the intersection so long - that a cyclist starting from stop, can't make it across before it turns red again. On the other hand, there have been nearly 10 fatalities involving a cyclist hit from behind. So what is dangerous is drivers not paying attention and mowing down cyclists from behind.

  • Shani Hilton

    @washcycle: fair enough. what i meant is that the feeling can lead to hostility, justified or no.

  • ClarendonVA

    I was yelled at by bicycle commuter for stepping into the bike lane as I crossed Wilson. I had the right-of-way and he had just blown through a stop light. Seems that he is not only entitled to a special lane, he is also immune to basic road rules. I would have enjoyed seeing one of those driver-side car doors open in his path.

  • CB

    What about the fact that it's AGAINST THE LAW for cyclists to run red lights and disregard stop signs? Since when is OK for someone to decide which laws they need to follow and which ones aren't important to observe?

  • allie

    @washcycle I'm less concerned about bikers getting killed and more about myself getting killed as a pedestrian. I can't tell you the number of times I've crossed during the walk signal only to narrowly avoid getting creamed by some little dipshit on a bike zipping through the light. Bikers rights indeed.

  • Rachel

    Yes! Always stop at red lights when on a bicycle.

  • DaveS

    This is but one example of the many things in the world that can lead to unjustified hostility. There's little hope of avoiding all of them, and it would be folly to try.

    Simply put, there's really no evidence that this is actually dangerous for anyone. Could lead to increased danger, or a higher potential for "accidents", or simply looks reckless might be arguable positions, but that's not the question being asked or answered.

    Berg's claim that the report "shed[s] some more light on the potential dangers of the road" is vastly over-reaching based on the observations reported. This is from a sophomore-level "statistics in social sciences" class project - we don't even know if the students received good grades for this work!

    Regardless, claims about safety based on a second year statistical methodology project that in no way attempted to measure safety do more to show biases of the claimants than actually shedding light on anything.

  • mb

    If the traffic lights in DC weren't so idiotic more cyclist would stop.

  • Nobilis Reed

    I commonly cross intersections walking the bike. At that point, I'm a pedestrian.

  • bicyclist

    I roll through red lights, checking for pedestrians, cars and other bikes as I do so. Often, pedestrians will also walk against the light when no cars (or bikes) are coming, so why would you all expect cyclists to be any different? I think everyone on the road should obey safety rules, for their own saefty and the safety of others, but we all know plenty of people who have walked when "don't walk" is solid orange, etc. Be safe and be aware: those are the two rules.

  • ggbg

    Unless there's traffic coming, and sometimes not even then, THEY NEVER STOP AT LIGHTS. I am happy to share the road, but I was taught that cyclists had to follow the same traffic laws as cars. THEY DON'T. Which leads to a certain amount of hostility towards them. Not to mention some of them have superiority complexes. Yeah, you're healthy and saving the planet, but you've now raised my stress level to a very unhealthy level. So thanks for that. :)

  • washcycle

    I can't tell you the number of times I've crossed during the walk signal only to narrowly avoid getting creamed by some little dipshit on a bike zipping through the light.

    So first of all, name-calling probably undermines the credibility of your anecdotal evidence. Surely they are not all dipshits. As a proud dipshit I take offense. Let's not generalize.

    2nd, maybe you can't tell me how many times you narrowly avoid getting hit, but what I can tell you is that a pedestrians is at least 6 times more likely to be hit by a car than a bicycle - even when you account for how many more cars are on the road.

  • DaveS

    @ggbg You were probably taught, as was I, that cyclists have the same legal responsibilities AND RIGHTS as motor vehicles. Many of those who point only to the first half of that statement act as if it ends there. Often what people on bikes do is a reaction to not having their rights recognized and violations against them enforced.

    I'm not saying this is what you do, I'm reporting that it's the context for what you have labeled a superiority complex - the folks on the bikes would tell you it's self-preservation against intimidation and threats to life and limb. (It also applies to the times when people on bikes proceed through intersections in violation of traffic controls - i.e., run red lights.)

  • washcycle

    ggbg, the report shows that drivers don't follow the traffic laws either. So cyclists are following the same traffic laws as cars, i.e. none of them.

    What makes you think some of them have superiority complexes?

  • curiona

    As a long-time cyclist and bike commuter, I agree that it's not wise to run a red--but with one important (life-saving) caveat. When I am at an intersection and bike through a green light, chances are that if there is a car in the incoming lane waiting to make a left turn, I risk getting hit--many, many drivers simply drive into a bike, whereas they would never even think of doing this with a car. So, where there is the possibility that the drivers in the incoming lane will turn left, I almost always run the red light, provided there is no traffic coming, of course. It is safer as a cyclist to cross on a red when there are no cars than to cross at a green when there is a line of cars waiting impatiently to mow you down. :)

  • Crickey7

    I always stop at red lights on my bike and generally at stop signs (always stopping when another has the right of way). It's courteous and more importantly, no road user gets to decide which laws to violate and which to obey.

    As to the sentiment that "I'm happy to share the road, but . . . " Frankly, I don't care if you're happy to share the road. I'm entitled to use it regardless, and that's that. I get hassled at least once a week, and it's always when I'm obeying the law, so I'm not buying the notion that you will suddenly embrace cyclists when they stop running red lights.

  • DianeB

    As a regular commuter cyclist, I always initially stop at red lights, but will occasionally run them after making certain that no cars are coming (these are intersection I know intimately). This falls under the "life before law" rule I abide by, since I find it much safer to embark into some intersections in full view of the cars traveling "with me" in advance. This is because it takes longer for a cyclist to gain momentum and get balanced on the bike than it does a car to achieve 15 mph. If I wait for the green with the motor vehicles, I am at risk of being hit by an inpatient driver trying to pass me as I steady myself and start rolling. If there were bike lanes on my commute, this would be less relevant, but as it is I share a piece of road with cars for my ride.

  • Moo

    Dipshit = a bicyclist who runs reds and screams past pedestrians in cross walks who have the right of way.

    good folks = a bicyclist who obeys traffic laws and respects pedestrians. And stays off the sidewalks.

    It's quite easy really.

    Maybe we should bring back bicycle registration and require all bikes to display a small license plate. Easier to report the offenders and increases city revenue, win win.

  • Crickey7

    I'm happy to have bicycle registration and wear a license as soon as drivers are required to wear a helmet and motorcyclists a seatbelt. Because those make just as much sense.

  • Typical DC BS

    Make sure to clothesline the bikers riding on the sidewalks!

  • Jenny

    Bicyclists disobeying traffic laws is a very common occurrence and it is anxiety producing for all parties involved, and frankly, it's reckless. If you ride your bike in the street, then you should obey traffic laws. If you're a pedestrian crossing the street, then you should obey traffic laws. If you're a driver...OBEY TRAFFIC LAWS.

    I don't think this is complicated or too much to ask of bicyclists. It's simply about safety.

  • washcycle

    Riding on the sidewalk is legal in most of DC and the surrounding areas. So, is it your position that cyclists must behave in an extra-legal manner to be good?

    Also, what of the middle ground? A cyclist who simply runs red lights when there is no one there and without the screaming? What are they? This isn't as easy as you claim.

    I'm with you on registration and plates. We should also require pedestrians to do the same. Then we can ticket them for jaywalking and increase city revenue.

  • anon

    Wow, washcycle, you really don't get it.

    There is no middle ground. Running a red light is against the law. "A cyclist who simply runs red lights when there is no one there" is BREAKING THE LAW.

    Instead of advocating that cyclists break the law, perhaps you should advocate changing the law through the usual channels. Until then, cyclists need to follow the fucking law like the rest of us.

    And yes, riding on the sidewalk is legal in most of DC. However, it would be nice if your little group, instead of advocating wholesale lawbreaking, would remind cyclists that it is NOT legal in a wide swath of downtown, even though a vast majority of cyclists don't seem to give a shit about that, or about following traffic rules in general.

  • wd

    "As a driver, though, the unpredictability of cyclists can be anxiety inducing and dangerous—and likely contributes to the high levels of hostility some D.C. drivers have for cyclists"

    So what you're saying is you're writing this from your windshield perspective? I slow down before I run red lights. I do so because I feel it's safer for me to get out of the way of all those hostile drivers as quickly as I can.

  • http://westnorth.com Payton

    Wow, anon, you really don't get it.

    There is "a middle ground." We have traffic laws because of the reckless endangerment that drivers wreak every day. The vast majority of drivers -- according to law enforcement stings, the 80-90% who "don't seem to give a shit about" speeding past schools and blasting through crosswalks, "or about following traffic rules in general" -- aren't just "BREAKING THE LAW." This "BREAKING THE LAW" kills or maims over five million people every year worldwide -- equal to bloodying the entire population of the DC-Baltimore metro area. Worse, drivers whine about getting caught until the law bends to suit their lethal criminality; witness Virginia banning life-saving red-light cameras in 2005, or refunding fines to criminals who "need to follow the fucking law like the rest of us."

    Compare that to jaywalking at an empty intersection. That isn't just a victimless crime; it wasn't even a crime for the first 5,000 years that people have been walking across city streets. (It was only widely criminalized after 1928 by the Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance, which was practically written by AAA to shield drivers from liability in all that car carnage.) Jay-biking is much the same, particularly at an empty intersection. The law in some states even recognizes this; even in car-headed Virginia, a bicyclist can legally "treat the traffic control device as a stop sign" under certain circumstances (§ 46.2-833-B). Sure seems like "a middle ground" has been written into the law there.

  • oboe

    @washcycle: fair enough. what i meant is that the feeling can lead to hostility, justified or no.

    Most drivers feel perfectly justified in their hostility towards pedestrians in areas of the city where there are a lot of pedestrians, and many crosswalks. The same charges of "entitlement" and "arrogance" get tossed out when a driver has to stop at a crosswalk, or wants to take a right turn, and the pedestrians aren't getting out of the way fast enough.

    The solution is the eventual adjustment of drivers' expectations: eventually they'll get used to it.

    As far as red-light running. I do it if there's a marginal increase in safety, and no pedestrians are around. As a general rule, if it makes me safer, and doesn't raise the risk of other road users, I'll do it.

    Soothing the hurt feelings of folks in cars doesn't really enter into the equation. Eventually, they'll learn to deal with the new realities.

  • oboe

    Just to make one last point: the existence of any non-motorized traffic on our roads, or in our crosswalks, is anxiety-inducing for drivers. Sometimes it leads to hostility. The answer to that is more non-motorized traffic on our roads.

  • oboe

    As to the sentiment that "I'm happy to share the road, but . . . "

    I have to say, this line of argument always makes me laugh. Especially as it's usually accompanied by a whine that "bicyclists are arrogant and entitled".

    The lack of self-reflection is comically staggering.

  • washcycle

    anon, my earlier comment was a response to Moo who seemed to want to create a false binary choice.

    I have never advocated that cyclists break the law, but I have advocated that the law be changed and that TCD violations that are safe and polite not be enforced because the law is stupid.

    "Until then, cyclists need to follow the fucking law like the rest of us."

    As I pointed out before, cyclists do follow the law like the rest of road users, in that they don't - just like drivers and pedestrians.

    However, it would be nice if your little group, instead of advocating wholesale lawbreaking, would remind cyclists that it is NOT legal in a wide swath of downtown, even though a vast majority of cyclists don't seem to give a shit about that, or about following traffic rules in general.

    Again, no one is advocating wholesale lawbreaking. WABA does remind cyclists that sidewalk cycling is illegal in the CBD, and the overwhelming majority of cyclists ride in the street there. As for not giving a shit about traffic rules in general - AGAIN, they care about it at least as much as everyone else does, and probably more than drivers do.

  • Castle

    What's so maddening about this conversation is that as a responsible cyclist (and a slow one), I cannot bring up the issue of doing something like an Idaho stop without someone who has the eagle eye out for rogue cyclists, jumping up and pointing and yelling, "see?! See?!" Having to come to a stop at every intersection and wait 3 seconds is pointless. If I had to do it, I would not cycle, period. I know how to roll through safely and fairly. I always defer to pedestrians and cars if they were there first. There are considerations like energy output to start and stop and so forth. But to try to introduce these into the conversation is to basically drop a bomb. Can't be done in this atmosphere. What a pity.

  • mizage

    As a cyclist I'm always worried about the oncoming traffic making a left turn on a green light. I always make sure to get some eye contact so that I'm actually seen.

    I notice that when I'm driving I'm always in such a rush and am easily angered. Must be a car thing. Don't really feel that when riding/walking.

    As for red lights, get rid of 'em, roundabouts rule! No need to stop at an intersection when no other traffic is coming....

...