Don’t be a D***k – Stop at Red

There’s been a small flurry of conversation following the TV item on cycling safety last weekend. No matter what the particular cycling issue being reported, it doesn’t take long for the commentators to come out of the woodwork and state that cyclists (you know, that strange breed separate from all other humans…) don’t do themselves any favours by breaking laws left, right and centre. One of the transgressions that really gets up their goat is not stopping when they should, at STOP signs, pedestrian crossings, and particularly at red traffic signals.

More black marks in the "cyclist" column (c/ The Age)

More black marks in the “cyclist” column (c/ The Age)

Now it’s quite obvious to anyone watching traffic behaviour that motorists are no saints when it comes to running red lights (or stopping at STOPs and zebra crossings, or speeding, or blocking cycle lanes, or…). I also have a theory that (sadly) many drivers don’t actually notice many of the ordinary law-abiding people riding around the streets (and it seems the latest research supports this), only the ones who get in their way or break some Rule – hence in their mind all cyclists do this. It’s quite clear however that, to get some respect from other road users, people on bikes have to be pure as the driven snow when it comes to following rules. And overall, we’re not as good in that respect as we could be…

Surprisingly, only a few studies have looked into the actual prevalence of this problem. One study in Australia surveyed over 2000 riders and asked for details about their behaviour – over a third (37%) said they had ridden through a red light at some time when they were riding. More recently, an observational study was carried out in Auckland, including >600 cycle movements, to better understand red-light running behaviour. Interestingly it found only ~4% of cyclists running conventional red lights when opposing traffic was going, but quite a reasonable proportion used pedestrian phases (e.g. Barnes dances) to get across the intersection before the traffic. Surveys of cyclists also found that particular movements like a lefthand turn or across the top of a T-intersection were most likely to be done on red.

Riding across a Barnes Dance: it's only pedestrians, so it'll be OK

Riding across a Barnes Dance: it’s only pedestrians, so it’ll be OK?

There are all sorts of interesting justifications (e.g. here and here) for why this behaviour is undertaken:

    • I’m only turning left; it’s like a free turn
    • I’m getting ahead of the traffic so they don’t clobber when the lights change
    • The traffic signals don’t detect me anyway
    • I’m crawling really slowly through the STOP sign
    • It’s hard to maintain momentum on a bike if I have to stop
    • I’m only making my way through pedestrians so it’ll be alright
    • I’d have to unclip my shoe from my pedal to put my foot down
    • Bikes are not like cars, so the Rules don’t equally apply
    • Motorists break Rules (and endanger me) all the time, so why should I obey the Rules?

Stop at Red 237x237Interesting… but, nah, I don’t buy it. As I said before, many of these justifications won’t wash with any motorists observing your behaviour, thus chalking up one more black mark against those “cyclists”. Cycles are still legally “vehicles” and as such have to abide by all road rules applicable to other vehicles (like STOP signs, red lights) unless otherwise stated. I don’t think you can really claim a valid safety reason for ignoring these; it’s convenience in much the same way that motorists often break rules (and if you want to know how to get detected at signals, read our previous post on this). It is possible to legitimise some “free bypass” behaviours by engineering means, and we even have a couple of good examples in Christchurch for left-turns and top-of-T’s. But if they’re not there, don’t take it upon yourself to create your own “bypass”.

There have been a few efforts around the country to encourage better riding behaviour. CAN ran a “Stop at Red” campaign a couple of years ago, courtesy of the Road Safety Trust. Another campaign “The Good Bunch”, developed by CAN/BikeNZ and local riders in Auckland, focused on improving the behaviour of bunch riders, including stopping when required at intersections/crossings. And educational initiatives like Wellington’s Friendly Cyclist also encourage riders to do the right thing. While they’re all relatively modest campaigns, they do prove useful to mention when in a meeting with someone griping about cyclists constantly breaking laws – at least an effort is being made.


Auckland’s “Good Bunch” campaign

The debate is likely to continue on this issue (certainly many motorists won’t shut about it…), but it one of those things that at least we can do something about ourselves to improve the perception of “cyclists”.

Do you stop at red lights and STOP signs? Why or why not?


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  • Yo Eddy
    4 May 2013, 10:17 pm

    When turning left, if I know the lights are going to take a while, I will dismount, walk around the corner and set off again. I mainly do this whilst commuting just to make a point with all the queued cars. That point being 2 fold. 1: I can do this without breaking any rules and 2: not all cyclists run red lights.

  • Chrys H
    5 May 2013, 11:57 am

    Went through a red the other day and sorry but I’d to the same again … the lights hadn’t detected me and there were no cars coming to assist. After some time of nothing coming up and down the T I was at, I just went. Don’t think it offended anyone and saved me a few minutes of waiting in vain feeling really stupid waiting for ….nothing.

    To be fair mostly this does not happen – the problem here was that the detectors were mid car lane and not in the cycle lane.
    I do agree we need to stop at reds and at pedestrian crossings but must admit that on a bike I have trouble waiting til the pedestrian is completely off the other side of the crossing before I take off again.

    It would be nice if more T Junctions allowed bikes to go – expecially where there are cycle lanes. There are three places where this Happens in travelling up Halswell Rd – Lincoln Rd and Hagley Ave and again I just feel stupid stopping for no good reason. Surely it can’t be that difficult to rig up a sign that says Cyclists can cross on red?

  • Peter
    6 May 2013, 12:18 pm

    In Paris cyclists are allowed to treat red lights as if they were give way signs. A very sensible policy which has resulted in 0 cyclist deaths for a second year in a row.

  • Stephen
    6 May 2013, 6:52 pm

    I generally won’t do it if there’s other cars around. I will even stop at the red on Papanui Road where it intersects with St Albans, where many northbound cyclists safely breeze along Papanui. But deserted intersections are fair game. I also have some sympathy for the point of view outlined here —

  • Alastair Brown
    7 May 2013, 11:25 am

    I used to routinely run red lights, but to support the “stop at red” campaign I don’t any more. BTW, is there anything illegal or unethical about dismounting to cross with pedestrians, or dismounting to bypass red light when turning left?



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