Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Red means stop

I can't believe I need to write this, but I guess that the time had to come. Yes, bicyclists need to stop at stop signs (except in Idaho) and red lights. Yes, they need to stay stopped at traffic signals until the signals turn green or until conditions allow for a legal turn on red.

I write this in response to a comment posted by reader Freedom Bikes:
"I saw this on a bicycling forum. Any truth to this?
  'A lot of forward thinking bike communities (L'ville, KY for instance) totally advocate running reds/stops safely and have quantifiable data as to why it is safer to do so.' "

Nope, that's pure urban legend. One prominent bicycle advocate in Louisville (my friend Jackie Green) urges cyclists to ignore red lights and stop signs "when safe." All of the relevant local government officials, and all of the local bicycle safety instructors, and everyone on the board and staff of Bicycling for Louisville, disagree with him. Jackie sets forth his "as soon as safe" doctrine for leaving intersections, regardless of the presence of stop signs or the phase of traffic signals, here. He justifies it with a list of snippets from news articles about chain reaction car crashes that injured or killed innocent bystanders. Neither Jackie nor anyone else has performed any analysis of the relative safety of running red lights and stop signs "safely" versus obeying them. The anecdotes shared on his website merely show that cyclists and pedestrians sometimes get hurt by motor vehicles struck by other motor vehicles. They do not show any differential in danger between intersection and non-intersection locations or between whether or not the bicyclist or pedestrian was stopped at an intersection when hit.

Kentucky traffic law clearly requires bicyclists to obey stop signs and traffic signals in the same way as motorists must. Given the frequency with which motorists complain to me about bicyclists running stop signs and red lights, it seems to me quite likely that this behavior contributes strongly to the anti-bicyclist sentiment that leads to road rage assaults against bicyclists.

According to the League of American Bicyclists, 8% of car-bike crashes resulting in injuries are caused by the bicyclist running a stop sign or red light. Focusing on getting out of the intersection quickly will inevitably result in bicyclists spending less time evaluating the traffic conditions, more mistakes, and more crashes. At a stop sign or red light, I have much greater concern about getting hit by vehicles who have the legal right to go (that is, the cross traffic) than by the vehicles who have the legal obligation to stop (that is, the ones behind me).

Jackie bases his revisionist view on a Louisville ordinance stating that the traffic law applies to bicycles "... except those provisions of this traffic code which by their very nature can have no application." Even in the unlikely event that a bicyclist could get a judge to believe that the stop sign and red light laws by their very nature have no application to bicyclists, the Kentucky code contains no such provision and the local ordinance cannot supersede the state law. A bicyclist in Kentucky who crashes while running a stop sign or red light has thrown away most of her or his legal rights by having run the stop sign or red light.

If you've read this blog over the past several months, you know that I am no fan of stop signs and traffic signals. I consider other means of traffic control more appropriate in a majority of circumstances. With the well-informed and experienced bicycle advocates of Portland, Oregon seeking an Idaho-style yield-and-roll law for bicycles at stop signs and turning right on red, I am inclined favorably toward that option. Kentucky law clearly prohibits rolling through red lights and stop signs, though, and I believe in the benefits of everybody following the law.

When we make up our own rules, others on the road do not know what to expect of us. This results in confusion, chaos, and destruction - especially for us, the most vulnerable road users. When motorists feel compelled to abide by inconvenient traffic laws and bicyclists ignore those laws, motorists understandably resent our behavior. Angry, resentful motorists are not good for my health as a bicyclist! Even with their flaws, our traffic laws are worth following. We can't expect motorists to obey speed limits when we can't bother to obey stop signs and red lights. To borrow a slogan from San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, we need to "Give Respect to Get Respect." That starts by obeying the laws - as they are now, not as we wish they were. Cleaning up the scofflaw reputation of bicyclists will go a long way to strengthening our hand when we go to the state legislature to reform the traffic laws.


bikeolounger said...

I, too, know and like Jackie Green, and I, too, I've been troubled by his insistence regarding ASAS (as soon as safe) departures from intersections. It has seemed to me to be self-serving, and for all the reasons you cite, detrimental to my safety.

crankedmag said...

I personally have always been on the fence about this argument. I do tend to agree with the Respect idea, and putting out the image of safety and respectfully following the laws. But I have to say, my observation of this town I've only been in for six months has really shown me that motorists are the more thorough scofflaws. I wouldn't necessarily say that my blowing a light here or there is inciting motorists to speed (or blow through red lights themselves), I think they speed and drive recklessly because they can, there's an enforcement quotient that's missing in Louisville.

bikeolounger said...

Cranked, what I read your comments to mean is that motorists have little to complain about with regards to the cyclists who disobey the law when so many motorists also disobey the law.

Barry has tried for some time to reframe the discussion in terms of law-abiding, polite road users versus scofflaw, impolite road users, without regard to what mode of transit either category of road user chooses. There is "house cleaning" to be done on both sides of the motorist/cyclist issue, but if we change the terms of the debate, we focus on polite road use rather than mode of transport.

And, yes, your point that enforcement is a key element in improving safety is right on target.

crankedmag said...

More or less, yes, that is what I mean.

I'm glad the enforcement is agreed to be a key element. I do hope that severity of risk is taken into consideration in regard to enforcement. And by this I mean so called "penalties" should be commensurate with potential damages caused by the broken "law". My running a red light on my bike ideally only puts myself at risk, whereas a motorist running a red light has the potential for exceedingly higher damages to themselves and many others (i.e. velocity & mass being much greater). We both shouldn't receive the same penalty. (Sorry for the wordy explanation, the language center of my brain isn't quite awake yet.)

Beyond this, I just want the cars to slow down here in Louisville, 35mph on most of these city streets is far too fast in my opinion.

crankedmag said...

I just came across this... not Louisville though.


jimmy said...

I just don't understand the idea of standing in the middle of the street in order to wait for a light to change colors... hoping a 2000+ lb box of steel pulling up behind me stops in time. I learned how to cross the street when I was 6 years old.

Additionally, I have to agree with crankedmag in that my running a light or stop sign is more than anything else only putting myself in harms way. If I make a bad judgement call and get run over, I'll more that likely be the only one not walking away unscathed.

If you want to consider penalties versus drivers attitudes take into account that European countries that have passed laws holding motorists responsible in the event of a collision with a pedestrian, regardless of fault, the percentage of collisions has dropped dramaticly.

David Crowell said...

I'm a little late to this party, but if you run a red light on your bike at a bad time, an attentive driver might swerve to avoid you, causing another accident.

Let's not punish the attentive drivers. :)

Also, cyclists notice the bad drivers, and drivers notice the bad cyclists. Being bad at either gives all of us a bad name.

Freedom Bikes said...


I'll add one more comment. There are MANY times more awful cyclists than awful drivers. Just look at this very comment section. You wont find many drivers who acknowledge that they routinely run red lights and stop signs.

In my city I would estimate that 95% of bicyclists just blow the stop sign without even slowing. Some cars might slow to 3-5 mph and roll through it without stopping completely but its not at all the same thing.

A bicyclist will argue that their vision is far superior to that of a motorist and that is a valid argument. However, the average motorist does not know that and just thinks you are an asshole....which you really are when you scream for respect as a vehicle and then blow every traffic control device in town.

Yes, cars speed but speeding is not nearly as noticeable as blowing a red light AND further I suppose that most bicyclists would speed IF THEY COULD.

I for one admit to going 25 mph down a hill every day that is marked at 20 mph and I dont consider that as severe as running a 4-way at 15 mph.

Barry, you need to reel these cowboys in because they are severely harming any good you are trying to accomplish whether they care to admit to it or not.

crankedmag said...

In reply to David Crowell: I think my point is more than just speeding, it is the inattentiveness of motorists. From my perspective, there are very few attentive motorists out there; but I just may be cynical.

And as for you Freedom Bikes, get off your high horse. Actually defending the act of a motorist running a red light, get out of your SUV for a while and get a clue, you presumptive prick. I don't know what city yours is, but I don't believe for a second that you see 95% of cyclists blowing lights. And to clarify, I don't "blow" red lights, that's quite haphazard, idiotic, and dangerous. I have greater visibility on a bike because I inherently have fewer visual obstacles, but I also look both ways and every way when I approach a red light—if clear I cautiously pedal through. Whatever city yours is, the "statistics" you state are quite the reverse here (in my observation). So reel yourself in and can it.

Apologies if my reply is harsh, I just got in from my bike commute. It's damned cold out there, with far too many assholes driving far too inattentively.

Freedom Bikes said...

I do not own a car. Its interesting that you thought I was a motorist because I disagree with cyclists breaking traffic laws.

Freedom Bikes said...

oh and I was not defending motorists running lights....just pointing out that in general motorists follow traffic laws much more closely than the average bicyclist.

If a driver did behave the way you do....ie...look both ways and run the light you would be VERY angry.

jimmy said...

One more for Freedom:
While I never scream for respect as a vehicle, I do disregard every traffic control device in town that I come across. From my time riding my bike around this city the one constant has been the fact that it is designed for automobile traffic, not bicycle or general pedestrian.

As well, it is in no way Barry's job to "reel these cowboys in" as you put it. This is the absurd American idea that people can't be responsible for themselves. I ride roads that were designed without my chosen mode of transportation in mind as do you. Taking that into account I do not pretend to think I am on equal footing out there with cars and trucks. I am at a severe disadvantage and will continue to take every advantage I can regardless of what anybody else might think.

Call me an asshole all you want, as long as I continue to wake up the next morning to ride again I'll be riding the way I have for the passed 20 years.

David Crowell said...

I'm not going to resort to calling anyone names, but you really should follow the law, no matter what kind of vehicle you are operating.

If the law is unfair, work to have it changed.

jimmy said...

Good point David. That damn Rosa Parks should have moved to the back of the bus too.

While disregarding traffic laws when riding a bicycle is certainly not the same level of civil disobedience as Rosa Parks displayed, it is still valid as far as I am concerned.

Freedom Bikes said...

#1. How are stop signs and red lights designed only for automobiles?

#2. I'm confused that by your breaking the laws its going to improve relations between bicycles and motorists.

I can tell by your blog "fuck gas" that you enjoy being a bit anti-social. There are many bicyclists who secretly hope that bicycling always stays a fringe activity.

Thats fine, but your goals are clearly different than mine.

jimmy said...

Freedom, I never like to answer a question with another question but I feel this truly warrants such a response...

#1 How is a 4 lane 35 mile per hour road with a 6 inch shoulder designed for bicycles?

#2 The "relationship" between motorists and bicycles is nonexistent other than motorists not wanting nikes on the road as it slows them down and bicyclists needing to fear for their lives when on any road with a motorist.

Finally, you can make all the assumptions you like, but that's all they are at the end of the day.

Freedom Bikes said...


I think you are a bit anti-social and the way you ride i'm sure every mile is full of hate, near misses and everyone hating you.

Like a dreadlock hippie you expect people to listen (wink wink) when really want you want to do is shock people. "fuck gas" is really a catchy slogan that is *sure* to get normal folks on board with your message. ha ha

Its not that way for me. If you want to blow red lights and stop signs and imagine that your somehow making things better for bicyclists than go ahead. I think your only making things worse and I hope you are routinely ticketed but I cant stop you.

john said...

I agree with Barry's blog and the posts by bikelounger, David and Freedom Bikes. In my experience, the vast majority of motorists have been friendly, waiting until it is safe to pass and not crowding me at lights. Sure, there are some people who are threatening, but such run ins with such drivers is an uncommon experience for me. On my bike, I ride as if I am driving any other vehicle -- I signal my turns, stop at traffic lights and signs and maintain my position at intersections. Sure it is inconvenient at times, but I wouldn't expect drivers to respect me as a vehicle if I didn't behave as if I were driving a vehicle.

Tex69 said...

Generally, if there are motorists around, I try and act like a car. I say "generally" b/c bikeolounger saw me pull a quick one on E.Main the other day, a pass-by that is actually atypical for me. On the other hand, if it's an empty intersection and I'm not doing any harm to anyone and am not blatantly slapping other road users in the face, then I'll slide through, especially early in the morning on the commute when I'm one of a very few on the road.

I don't think it's particularly easy to deal with this other than via common sense and a bit of the greater good. Act and Ride reasonably and motorists will treat you as such. If it is a Us v Them confrontation, then the 200lb bikes (well, in my case) will lose vs. the 2500lb car any day.