The myth of the red light jumping cyclist

I was chatting with a colleague about cycling recently, and observed an incredible change in her opinion about us when the subject of traffic lights came up.  Her eyes widened, she seemed exasperated.  I asked her what was wrong; “It’s terrible when cyclists get hurt you know, but they bring it on themselves... all cyclists in London are the same; you all jump the red lights!” she cried. I should point out that my colleague is a cyclist herself, albeit from out of town, and is otherwise completely rational... The sad thing is, she’s not the only one who thinks this – you’ve all seen what our national newspapers write about us. So where does this idea come from, this myth of the mass red light jumping cyclists, and just how dangerous is it?

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know I sometimes make informal cycle counts at junctions on my way to work, usually at Bishopsgate, Holborn Circus or the junction with High Holborn at Long Acre. When I get caught on red at these lights I’m able to count all the cyclists passing through the junction or lining up alongside me to wait our turn on one revolution of the traffic lights. The record so far has been at the junction of Holborn and Long Acre, where I counted some 37 cyclists in one turn. Needless to say I couldn’t do this if I’d jumped the red light, and I know that particular junction is usually like a mini Critical Mass when the lights turn green; I once saw 17 cyclists patiently waiting their turn with me in the Advanced Stop Line. I can confidently say that many more cyclists wait at the lights than jump them.

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As one of the most vulnerable road users we have the most to loose if we put ourselves in positions of danger; for this reason most people don’t jump red lights all of the time because, obviously, it is not safe to do so. However, using the same theory I know that many cyclists sometimes RLJ to remove themselves from a source of danger behind the white line. There are specific junctions on my morning commute that I know very well; one in particular has no ASL, leads to a narrow in the road, and also has a four-way red stop built into its traffic light sequence that allows pedestrians to cross. If I get to the stop line at this junction and find that an HGV pulls up directly behind me I will not hesitate to remove myself from the source of danger (the fact that the HGV driver can’t see me) by jumping the red light, just as I would keep myself from dangerous situations by not red light jumping at other junctions.

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The Mayor of London’s recently published Cycle Safety Action Plan reveals some interesting statistics about cyclists and London’s roads. The report data (from 2007) shows that 79% of all cycling casualties occurred at or within 20 metres of a junction in London. It also shows that the second largest source of cycle casualties, after close proximity impacts with other vehicles, comes from other vehicles disobeying junction controls. That is to say 17% of all cyclists killed or seriously injured were hit or forced off the road by other vehicles jumping the lights or ignoring a give way line. By comparison, just 5% of cyclist’s KSI were caused by the cyclists doing the same.

To me this says two things clearly;

Firstly, our junctions should be better designed to accommodate safely the growing number of cyclists on London’s roads. More ASLs (which of course rely on Police enforcement) would be a good start, but we could do so much more; how about cyclist’s needs being programmed into the traffic lights sequence itself – they have ‘advanced green lights’ for cyclists in other countries, why not here in the UK? As my comments about counting cyclists show, there is clearly the demand for it.

Secondly, and perhaps more tellingly, the stats tell us loud and clear that other road users are just as likely to break the law as cyclists, and the consequences are much more deadly when motorised vehicles are involved. The roads need policing; road safety should be enforced to ensure people’s lives are protected. It seems short-sited indeed that our Mayor is reducing road Police and their budgets; a move that won’t benefit cyclists or pedestrians.

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The Guardian newspaper’s Bike Blog recently ran two articles; one trying to show why anti-social cycling is a nuisance but not necessarily a danger, and another looking at why the City of London Police seem to target red light jumping cyclists. One thing that both of these articles failed to mention is the idea that in the great ‘pecking order’ of the road, cyclists should always give utmost consideration to pedestrians, as the most vulnerable road user, just as we’d expect motorised vehicles to look out for us.  I’ve heard cyclists argue that irresponsible riding isn’t a danger because ‘no one ever got killed by a bicycle’. Sadly this is not true, and if we follow the rule of the pecking order we should be giving way to pedestrians always. Furthermore, irresponsible riding can intimidate the elderly and the less agile; there is no reason to jump red lights in a manner which could lead to others feeling they have limited ability to use the roads safely. Over the years cyclists have been all but bullied off the roads; those of us who remain should not in turn be bullying pedestrians away. The data for London, if I had it to hand, would of course show that many more pedestrians are stuck down by cars every year than by bicycles. The always excellent Malcolm Wardlow BSc MBA in 'Assessing the actual risks faced by cyclists' backs me up:

"Typically only 3 to 7 third parties are killed in fatal bicycle crashes annually, as against 145 cyclist deaths. In fatal car crashes 1,600 third parties (600 passengers, 650 pedestrians, 75 cyclists, 250 motorcyclists) are killed in addition to 1,100 drivers.

...the belief that cycling is dangerous turns out to be a factoid; opinion based on long repetition, not evidence."

But the griping about red light jumping is louder and much more prevalent about cyclists than it is about motorists; despite the lesser risk. It seems to me that it boils down to another PR problem that cyclists face (in addition to being perceived as poor, or ‘green’ or “lycra-clad road warriors”), this idea that the way in which we cycle around junctions, red lights and pedestrians is somehow not only a great danger to ourselves but also a danger to the most vulnerable road user; the pedestrian.

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Fixing this problem will only come from two solutions... More and more people cycling and it being perceived as an everyday and ordinary activity (and with this, more people understanding at first-hand what it is like to ride on our roads) would be a good start, and with this should come the re-design of our roads to accommodate more cyclist’s needs. But to really improve our reputation in London, and by default therefore attract more cyclists in the interim, we must mark one another’s behaviour ourselves. For sure, jump that red light if you feel it will improve your chances of surviving your commute to work, but don’t do it just for the sake of getting there faster (I hate the “lights break my cadence” argument, what are your legs made of, match sticks?!) and if you are going to do it, make sure you do it with absolute regard for pedestrians. When counting cyclists at one of the junctions a few days ago I saw another cyclist come storming up behind me, through the red light and straight into a gaggle of pedestrians crossing the road with total disregard for their safety, or how it would make them feel. I wasn’t sad to see one of those peds give him a mouthful. Do yourself – and cycling – a favour, and cross that line with care.

24 comments:

Bart said...

Good article, but my observation is quite different, even today I saw at least 10 people jumping red lights on my way (by bike) from W12 to SW1.

Seems to be the same every day. Most people who jump red lights will only do so when it is safe, it must be said.

Bart

Anonymous said...

Hiya,

First thing is I'm a motorcyclist, driver and cyclist, just want to get that out of the way.

I think your opinion is a bit skewed on the facts, my experience of 'jumpers' compared to yours is very different but I do take your point and your last sentence covers it for me, if you do it, be careful.

About cars hitting peds, I mean that is going to be the case isn't it? How many more cars are there on the road than cycles? Statistically they must hit more peds just due to numbers more than anything. I don't think you can read much in to that personally.

I'd like to see all your suggestions, advance lights, ASL's better cycle lanes but it's not going to happen without the funding. Would cyclists be prepared to pay for such provisions?

Last word from me, I like cycling and generally I like cyclists too, on the road I look out for cyclists, we're all two wheelers after all :)

dan_b said...

+1 - nay, plus several million - on the "absolute regard for pedestrians" bit: I've long maintained that the foot traveller should be Top Dog on our roads. But I suggest that the merest soupcon of regard for motorists is not a sign of weakness either: RLJ which causes other people to have to take avoiding action is inconsiderate no matter how much metal cage they're carting around with them, and we can afford to be magnaminous

piemanpete said...

The thing that annoys me the most is when people try to push past or get annoyed that they cant make it through when I have stopped at a red light. I have had people all but push me off my bike as they try and squeeze past.

I really agree about your comments on looking out for pedestrians, I see to many cyclist blaze through pedestrian crossings and then get angry when they shout back.

My motto is respect goes both ways, a little bit of courtesy on the roads can go a long way.

Mark said...

Hi Bart, thanks for stopping by. This is going to sound CRAZY but I seem to notice a lot more RLJing in West London too... odd. I am certain you did see 10 RLJers but how many cyclists stopped at red with you?

Mark said...

Hello Anonymous motorcyclist and thanks for taking the time to stop by.

I totally agree that us 2 wheelers should look out for one another, whether motorised or not.

Regarding the statistics, the opposite is in fact true; there are half a million cycle journeys in London every day according to TfL, so the potential for many accidents are there, but they're not materialising. The point being, I guess, that if you hit someone in a motorised vehicle you are more likely to hurt the victim. Regardless, the point is that neither cyclists nor drivers should be hitting pedestrians; our roads and junctions should be policed properly to ensure the safety of all (see my point above about the cause of cyclist's injuries being other road users red light jumping)

Lastly, and just quickly, about your point as to whether cyclists should pay for cycling provisions, we in fact already do. All roads in the UK are paid for out of general taxation (which everyone pays) 'Road tax', duty on fuel, MOTs and rego etc are all taxes on owning and operating motorised vehicles, not the right to use the roads which are a public resource. If 0 emmission cars don't have to pay 'road tax' I don't see why cyclists should either. Besides which, by designing infrastructure that supposts cyclists you are helping the motorist be getting more cars off the road :o)

Damien said...

On my commute to and from work (from west into central London) I may occasionally see a car go through a red light. Every day I can guarantee that I will see several cyclists jumping red lights, cycling on pavements and other traffic infringements.

Every day I am disappointed by the behaviour of my fellow cyclists.

The idea that cyclists need to jump lights for their own safety is frankly a joke. If there's a big truck at the front of the queue - or for some other it looks unsafe to wait at the lights in front of traffic - use your common sense and wait at the back of the queue!

Adam B said...

Here you have an opportunity to suggest that everyone should obey the Highway Code and you don't take it. Why not? It seems you are actually encouraging cyclists to act illegally. I agree that it would be great if there were more everyday, ordinary cyclists on the road but telling those cyclists that it's OK to jump red lights just isn't right.

Taking your example of the red light that you admit jumping on your commute. Here's a legal way to deal with it: get off your bicycle and walk through the junction during the pedestrian crossing phase of the light sequence. It's really not that hard and will legally get you away from the perceived danger. (I do this quite often myself.) Secondly, if there's an HGV behind you and you know that the road narrows ahead then position yourself on the road in such way that the HGV has to stay behind you until he can safely pass. In any case, as you have pointed out elsewhere, you aren’t really at risk if you’re in front of an HGV. (Your other articles clearly show that the risks are highest when next to a turning HGV.)

Besides your justification for jumping this red light I would say that most of the red light jumpers that I see aren’t doing it to get out of danger. They appear to be doing it because they can’t be bothered to stop and because there are no consequences of them acting illegally. Perhaps they think that not stopping at the red lights makes their trip shorter. I would argue that us cyclists save so much time by cycling that we can easily afford to spend a small portion of that time waiting for green lights. In any case, the opportunity to stop and rest your legs for a minute is a good thing and it may help you cycle faster when the lights change.

Finally, it’s much easier to complain about the actions of car drivers if you have the moral high ground. Jumping red lights whips the carpet out from under your feet.

Phil said...

The light jumping has gotten a lot worse over the last few weeks as the sunshine has brought out all the fair weather cyclists. They jump the light, pissing-off royally any non-cyclists that see them and then pottle down the road at a speed my maiden aunt would call slow.

The animosity this generates between cyclists and other road users is reason alone to stop doing it. Collective use of shared spaces and all that...

Bart said...

I want to reiterate. Red Light Jumping IS a problem.
Before cycling to work, I often walk my kids to school and almost every day cyclist will jump the red lights while small kids are trying to cross the road.

Almost every day, in both directions.
And yes they will swear when you do not get out of the way using languages that I'd rather my kids do not hear.

We DO have a problem with boorish cyclists, first step is to recognise it.

Mark said...

Thanks everyone for your comments, lots to chew over here.

Adam, I will take you up specifically on a number of your points: I don't encourage cyclists to act legally if I think it will put them in mortal danger (which is the only time in the post I said that I thought RLJing was a good idea) You offered another way of getting out of harms reach and both ways are equally effective, regardless of the legal ramifications. It is not my place to enforce the law; that onerous task falls to the Police and I hope that they do it with equal regard to ALL forms of traffic on the road (ie don't just single out cyclists), especially as cyclists are clearly not the only ones jumping the lights, as demonstrated by the data.

I agree that many of the RLJers I see are not doing it out of necessity for safety but rather out of sheer laziness. These are the cyclists who need to think long and hard about how their actions alter the perception of ALL cyclists by other road users. It's up to us all to check the behaviour of these cyclists and call them out when they are acting like tits. Maybe if everyone stopped riding like they were in a race and more like they were just going to work things might improve?

Mark said...

Bart, I totally agree with you on that specific example: as most of my article points out the cyclists should hold pedestrians in the HIGHEST regard (no matter how unpredictable or lemming like their behaviour sometimes)

But the likes of the Daily Mail or the Cops going on about cyclists RLJing isn't going to change these rider's actions, it will just increase their perception of an 'us and them' divide. If cyclists are RLJing just because they have a sense of entitlement or think it makes them faster then it is up to other cyclists to call them out on this behaviour; that's the only way things are going to change.

Bransby said...

I've been cycling to work in West London for about 7 years now, and red light jumpers still piss me off. I always stop because it's really not that much hassle and I've certainly never found myself in a situation where jumping a red light is safer than not jumping it. It's is very true that red light jumpers give every other cyclist an image problem. Pedestrians and drivers aren't going to look twice at someone waiting at a red light, but they'll be very aware of someone jumping it.

On a final note, I'm surprised nobody's mentioned the immense satisfaction derived from chasing down and over-taking someone who's just jumped the red you were waiting at. Often the highlight of my day ;-)

Jonno said...

Interesting debate.

What I see from my saddle, whilst waiting at a red light, is a lot of lemmings, who will follow the 1st cyclist across the jn. If you do it, you may be putting others in danger.

As for ASLs, I see them as sirens tempting the inexperienced cyclist to advance past the back wheels of a truck, encouraging more accidents. Not a fan.

When I find myself at the front of the queue, I wait forward of the ASL & forward of the pedestrian crossing, to avoid the PRLJs.

I think RLJ'ing is comparable to the motorist who claims it is safer for them to break the speed limit; Indefensible.

sweek said...

It completely depends on the type of crossing. There are big crossings where I've never seen a cyclist jump a red light and I would never do it myself. I think the ones you picked largely fall into that category.

There is a big big difference between crossing the Euston Road and a small traffic light in a residential area... I will jump the latter, after looking around and while driving at a slow speed only, and so do many many other cyclists.

Adam said...

I've had the experience of being hit by a red light jumper going the wrong way up a one way bus station entry at Vauxhall when the crossing was on green. Really insulting was I was carrying my Brompton at the time too! It could so easily have been much nastier if say I'd been an OAP.

I think too much red light jumping is because people know they can get away with it coupled with some self deluding excuse that it's for my own safety.

Please don't jump lights. It does hurt when you are hit.

Cheers

Adam

Mark said...

Lots of great comments here, thanks all for taking the time to join in the debate.

Adam, your experience sounds horrible and you are right if you had been a frail or elderly person or a child the situation could have been a lot worse.

As I say in the blog post if you ARE going to jump red lights (and again the only reason I think this is a good idea is if it puts you out of harm's way) PLEASE make sure you do it with absolute and utmost regard for pedestrians and think also about what it does for the image of cyclists as a whole.

I agree that MOST red light jumping I see is not because of a safety issue but out of sheer lazyness. Really, that's not a good call at all.

anna said...

Hate this myth too. Of course, there are certain red lights which some people tend to skip because a) there is not much traffic and b) they have to wait forever for a green light. However, this is still not the majority. I once hit a pedestrians who jumped a red light because the cars weren't moving (and some people just never watch the bike lane). Wasn't a very nice experience, but I'm still not for not jumping red lights as a pedestrians. In fact, I think less traffic lights should be installed because they are simply not necessary everything. Still, I do follow the traffic rules, and don't run red lights. It's mostly just a matter of safety and being responsible for the public opinion about cyclists.

Anne said...

Hey, Mark! I don't know if you ever follow BikePortland, but Jonathan Maus, the editor, just posted an article that I thought you might be interested in--huge amount of comment, and the topic (whether or not to flip the bird :D ) engendered a lot of discussion that I thought you might enjoy.

ktcita said...

I'm a non RLJ and would love some advice on what to say to educate those who do RLJ. As you say, it's important to let them know, but how to say it without getting your head bitten off?

And yes @Bransby, it's very satisfying to catch up with them later, obviously giving you a great opportunity to educate them about the error of their ways.

Bart said...

@kcita I would not bother for a number of reasons (1) There are so many RLJ that you would be shouting all day at people and (2) There is lots of pent up aggression, you are likely to get into verbal slanging matches that are not going to help for your day in day out happiness. Personally, RLJ annoys me, but rarely comment - life's too short.

Anonymous said...

All the "proper policing" in the world won't solve the problem. What's needed is an epidemic of social responsibility and consideration for others. Both of which are sadly lacking in the nanny state that is modern Britain. Pedestrians, motorcylists, car drivers, truck and bus drivers, etc as well as cyclists ARE responsible for their how their actions affect others. It's up to all of us to point that out to those who behave otherwise (that's part of our responsbility).

Neil

alex said...

ktcita, encourage them and tell them the NHS needs their organs.

TomBTyne said...

I sometimes jump the odd light up here on Tyneside. There are a lot of lights, many of which should be zebra crossings (for which the rules for bikes are different). But road culture is not as aggresive up here, you will not generally see anyone on a bike running a crossing with people on it. London is one of the most aggressive places in europe which is reflected in the behaviour of both bicyclists and drivers.