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Opinion about
Breaking Traffic Laws

(As with everything in the Opinion section, the opinions expressed below are not necessarily the opinions of Bicycle Universe)

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Running Red Lights


Here's a July 2000 article about cars running red lights.

Note that Idaho allows cyclists to run stop signs, after slowing down and checking traffic first.

Michael Bluejay, 10-18-98

On 10/18/98 2:46 PM, Fred Meredith wrote:

>Patrick (and Dan), if you don't need to stop at a stop sign, or wait until
>a light changes, why should anyone else?

The obvious answer to me is: Because a bicycle is not a car.

You might as well ask, "If you don't feel a need to be careful while you're carrying a banana, why should people carrying loaded firearms feel the same need?"

Requiring bikes to behave like cars is like requiring flamingos to behave like gynecologists.

Sure, you can point out the similarities between bikes and cars -- they both share roadspace and transport their operators -- they're both "vehicles". But that's hardly a compelling justification for the laws to be the same. After all, flamingos and gynecologists both have eyes, ears, bones, central nervous systems, become frightened when they feel their lives are threatened, etc. -- they're both "organisms". These similarities aren't a mandate for identical treatment and consideration.

>I do believe that a "cyclist's effective stop" should be legally defined,
>so that we don't have to waste all our momentum at stop signs
>where there is no conflicting traffic.

Doesn't that contradict your previously stated position? When the issue was red lights rather than stop signs, you said, "What makes us so much more able to make this judgment than those riding motorized vehicles that we should be granted this privilege?" Why do you think we're capable of judging stop signs but not red lights?

[Don't construe this as advocating running red lights; It's just an explanation of how cars and bikes are logically different things.]

Jon Beall, 10-29-98

I sometimes ride my bike to work. Early on one dark and stormy morn, I approached the intersection at 6th and Lamar. The stop light just changed from blinking to normal and went red. There was not a car in sight as I braked to a stop to wait for the green.

A pedestrian, the only other living being around, laughed and said, 'now I have seen everything'.

Is there a medal for such quixotic behavior?

Robert M. Farr, 10-28-98
Alright fellas, the pleadings of those of us who attempt to justify our rolling through stop signs and (eek!) running red lights are interesting. We've heard the argument that says it may actually be safer for cyclists to do so, or how it saves energy or serves to clear the intersection faster so the automobiles can have their way. These are valid, I repeat them to myself when I'm guilty and mentally preparing for the ultimate show down with an irate motorist or officer.
However, I've only heard one argument to obey. It's the old saw that if we are to be taken seriously, then we must obey the law too. That's valid, but what if no one is looking? We are ignoring the most important reason to maintain the rules of order when on the road on our bikes. We are ignoring what happens when no one thinks the rules apply to them.
We bikes are a hazard to each other. Imagine the carnage when two cyclists traveling perpendicularly at night without lights decide to run their respective part of a four-way stop. The day will come when we bicyclists in greater numbers shall pose a more credible threat to each other. As it stands, the odds of such encounters are slim. Not too slim - I've had some close calls with other rebels when commuting in the wee hours. My eyes are wide open now. I've decided to change my ways. I hope others do before it's too late.
PS. I had a light but I was saving my batteries. After all, I was alone in the moonlight -- wasn't I? ;-)

maniac@io, 10-27-98

It may actually be safer in some instances to run the red light. If there is no traffic at the cross street, and the street you are on has traffic that is timed to get to the light you are stopped at around the time it turns green, it seems to me that it is better to get out of the way of the giant death machines.
[And even if the traffic lights aren't timed, giving yourself a "head-start" and getting out in front of the traffic behind you where they can see you definitely has safety advantages over having the cars immediately beside you or behind you -- ESPECIALLY when that traffic behind you is trying to race through the light before it turns yellow again.]
It also conserves human energy. I don't see this so much as a "me" thing, but a measure of human efficiency while utilizing human transportation.
It would be a simple matter to draft a statute that allows a cyclist to run a red light, but makes the cyclist take on any liability that accrues as a result of running the red light. So, if a cyclist foolishly runs a red light without looking what is happening, no legal relief if he gets smacked by a truck. Pretty much same as now. If a cyclist smacks into a pedestrian, again, he takes on the legal liability and ends up paying as much [using civil liability rather than an infraction] as he would have under the current law. But, if the cyclist checks out the scene, determines it is safe, and runs on through the red light without incident, where's the harm? Everybody felt good and it was a beautiful thing.

Rick Hall, 10-18-98
At an ATS meeting I heard Senator Barrientos berate a bicyclist that was asking for more funding from ATS for bicycling projects around Austin. Out of the blue the Senator took that bicyclist to task stating that he felt it was very important that bikes not run red lights. One might have gotten the impression that the lack of funding on bike projects was because bicycles are not stopping at intersections like motor vehicles do, or are suppose to do.
I tried to remember the last time I had seen a bicycle run a red light or a stop sign and kill the person driving the several thousand pound motor vehicle....just could not remember that happening. I think it is highly improbable that cyclists kill more people by failing to stop at intersections than car drivers do. Except for the new Kamikaze bike messangers you may have seen downtown I rarely see cyclists put themselves at risk running lights or stop signs. I have seen cyclists not stop at intersections when no one was at risk, if they did all stop would that mean more funding would be forth coming from the ATS?
Don't bicyclists help everyone by not using a device like a car or truck that we know causes polluion and quite a bit of death here and there.
Should the "authorities" want "more" people to ride a bike why not give more funding for bike projects and give the cyclist laws which favor bike riders over car drivers.
What happens if you insist that a human powered bike should be treated the same as a motor vehicle.
Should not every bike pay a fee and have Bike Licence Plates front and back? What about the yearly Bike Inspection Sticker? Should bike riders then be required to have insurance? Should every bike have a rear view mirror, an electric system with lights that show to the front, back and to each side with turn signals as well? If we take the "claim a lane" concept seriously then I guess each bicycle should have brake lights as well....where do you draw the line?
Why not be reasonable, bicycles and motor vehicles are vastly different in many ways.
Why not find a compromise in the law that allows the police to decide if the bicyclists has broken the spirit of the law and then let the judge decide if in fact the cyclist should have stopped at an intersection? Why not mark interections with paint....those intersection that are too dangerous....red Xs means bicycles have to stop? Yellow Xs cross at your own risk. Sailboats and motor boats have different rules of the road(so to speak)....why not bicycles and motor vehicles.
Should a rowboat decide not to stop at a marked shipping lane and to "run" directly across the bow of a supertanker and not make it....who was at risk and is in the wrong?
If the bicycle rider has a reasonable chance to cross an intersection without stopping....as so many do now....why act as though that is justifcation to withhold funding for bicycle projects, or expect everyone to consider a bicycle as equal to a car in terms of the harm it might cause.

Michael Bluejay
Motorists frequently complain about cyclists who run red lights. So some cyclists think that if we simply stopped for red lights, then motorists would suddenly start respecting us. WISHFUL THINKING!

The only reason motorists bring up the red light bit is because they want to say or think something bad about us and THAT'S THEIR ONLY AMMO. It's a red herring. They're not complaining because the red-light running is really an issue; they just want to rag on us and that's all they've got. If we stopped running red lights, they wouldn't be able to complain about that, but it does NOT mean they'd start respecting us. Put yourself in their shoes: You think bicycles are a nuisance or they induce guilt about your own car addiction, so you immediately start scanning your brain looking for a reason to disparage cyclists and thus make yourself feel better. It's not even a conscious process -- it's just a simple review to help them justify their animosity or lack of guilt: "Thinking, thinking, hmm, a-ha, they run red lights! That's it, cyclists are bad because they run red lights!" Take the red lights out of the picture, and the review would simply be, "Thinking, thinking, hmm, well, they sure inconvenience people who are trying to go faster, and I'm paying for these roads, etc." Motorists don't suddenly respect us; it just means they have to think a little harder to find something bad to say or think about us.

Motorists get angry at cyclists primarily because we inconvenience them slightly and because they're jealous of our ability to run red lights. Plenty of motorists yell at me when they're stuck behind me (inconvenience) or when I run a red light that they have to wait at (jealousy). But check this out: When I'm at a red light in the right-hand lane, and I'm blocking a car behind me that's waiting to turn right, and I run the red light, allowing the car behind me to turn right, does the motorist in that car ever yell at me for runnig the red light? NO, NEVER! They were neither inconvenienced nor jealous. In fact, my law-breaking made it more CONVENIENT for them, so they probably thought it was a great idea!

Along the same lines, Jeremy Rosen offered the following thoughts on 3-26-99

I think that we all frequently hear people who drive, including ourselves, complaining about the way other people drive. We hear people calling other drivers idiots; it's a common subject of typical chat. I have heard people complain about the way large trucks are operated. I see road rage in the faces of motorists frequently. I have observed that many motorists get flustered at pedestrians, including myself, as I walk across town frequently, when the pedestrians are crossing the street in a lawful manner. I have noticed, from riding in a car, walking, bicycling, and in conversation, that motorists are hostile towards police, pedestrians, red lights, traffic, truck drivers, cab drivers, pot holes, seat belt laws, speed limits, and everyone else on the road. What a suprise that they're hostile towards cyclists as well!

Patrick Goetz, 3-27-99
Another argument *for* running red lights is that the bike lane usually ends at intersections. If a bicyclist can get ahead of automobiles in the right lane he/she has time to get back in the bike lane before being run over from the back; i.e. it allows the bicyclist to get out of the way of cars sharing the lane behind him/her.

Michael Bluejay (1999)
Motorists (and some cyclists) say that running red lights is dangerous. Well sure, but only when there's cross traffic. How exactly is it dangerous to run a red light when there's absolutely no chance that a car could hit you? I thought this would be amazingly obvious, but I guess not, so here goes:
Only run a red light when you couldn't possibly be hit by a car.


There, that's simple, isn't it? If cars would have to slow down to avoid hitting me, I don't run the light. I use the "pretend you're invisible" method. I consider, could any cross traffic hit me if I were completely invisible and they couldn't see me? If so, then I absolutely don't run the light.
Also consider that in nearly all the serious cyclist injuries or fatalities that have happened locally in the last few years, the cyclist was NOT running a red light or a stop sign. These cyclists include:
  • Dr. Lee Chilton
  • James Morgan
  • Janne Osborne
  • Mark Bennet Brooks
  • Wesley Ray Belcher
  • Ben Clough
  • Jennifer Schaeffer
  • Andrew Turner
  • Heather Sealey
  • Pete Haney
  • Devorah Feldman
  • Tom Churchill
  • William Sygtryggsson
  • Thomas Linsley

Kind of debunks the "running lights is dangerous" myth when nothing actually happens to those who do, huh?

Stuart the Maniac, Oct. 2002

The fact is, nobody has any real respect for the law. Not the politicians who lie about having sex with interns, nor the politicians who flout international law by brazenly creating excuses for war, nor the candidates who make statements that they know are lies, nor the people who whiz by on the freeway going 70 miles per hour when the maximum speed is 55, nor the people who underreport their taxes. Everybody gives lip service to the law and sometimes they wave the flag to distract attention from the massive amount of law-braking and law-flouting. I would bet everybody on here has broken the law at some time or another. So why shouldn't we pick and choose HOW we break the law to maximum effect, for a philosophical reason, not just out of a random sense of annoyance or to get some material gain?

Michael Bluejay, Dec. 2002

On Monday, December 30, 2002, at 12:02 AM, Robert M. Farr wrote:
But this "stress" thing is worth discussion. Bicyclist's personal attempts
to manage "stress" (the perceived measure of danger, using Mike's
definition) are mainly responsible for such hair-brained tactics as,
wrong-way riding and red light running.
Naturally I object to the characterization of red-light running as "hair-brained" [sic].
A summary of the argument against light-running put forth on this list previously is, "If it's EVER dangerous, then it's ALWAYS dangerous." I disagree wholeheartedly with that logic.
Let me try an analogy: There's a risk of injury when cutting vegetables. Does that mean that we should never cut vegetables, or just that we should be careful when doing so? I think the anti-red-light-runners would have us believe that it's impossible to be careful, so we should never cut vegetables.
Of course, Stop signs operate on the principle that humans are capable of stopping, checking for traffic, and determining when it's safe to proceed. But somehow we magically lose that ability when the traffic signal is a light and not a sign.
I can't remember how many red lights I ran tonight, but it was sizable. I estimate that I've run about 12,000 red lights since I've been in Austin. Not once did a motor vehicle nearly hit me, nor was it even possible for one to do so. I maintain that it's impossible to be hit by a non-existent car. Though I know many people feel otherwise.
If people want to argue that cyclists should follow the law out of a sense of morality or civic duty, then I won't make an issue about it, even though I disagree. But when people start calling light-running "dangerous" or "dumb" (or other synonyms) then I'm going to pipe up. I have an IQ of 145, I'm not stupid.
P.S. I don't run lights to "manage stress"; I run them because I'm not going to waste my time sitting at an intersection with zero cross traffic, and because I don't have much respect for traffic signals that exist only because our streets are filled with gas-combustion vehicles in the first place. Oh, and there's the fact that motorists who run red lights and kill cyclists don't even get tickets. That really doesn't motivate me to hang around at an empty intersection because I think a red incandescent bulb is smarter than me.