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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.