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Red Light Debate: Should cyclists stop for them?

September 30, 2010

Remind me again. What does red mean?

The latest topic for debate stemming from my reading of Jeff Mapes
Pedaling Revolution:

Do cyclists have to stop at all stop lights and stop signs?

Perhaps the answer seems simple. The law says we have to stop, so we should stop. Cars have to stop, and if we want to have all the road rights that cars do, we have to obey all the road rules that they do. What’s more, if we don’t obey all the rules of the road, we really piss off motorists.

“In my experience, nothing drives motorists crazier about cycling than what they see as the widespread evasion of traffic laws by cyclists,” Mapes writes.

I too have heard car-drivers rant and gripe about cyclists breaking the rules. In fact, a mini-van-driver once screamed at me out his window for riding through a red light. And he had a right to shower me with expletives, because I broke the rule, right? Whereas he was, most certainly, a model of traffic law obedience—neglecting nary a yield sign or speed limit posting.

Let’s be honest here: Everyone knows that motorists do not obey all the rules of the road.

If the speed limit is 65, drivers go at least 70. If the four-way stop is a familiar one, drivers slow and roll on through. Like the rest of our lives, the roadways are ruled by social norms.

“Cyclists take their cues from their environment and their technology, as do motorists,” Mapes writes. “Cyclists feel they have enough visibility to go slowly through stop signs if they don’t see any car traffic, just as motorists feel they can safely exceed the speed limit by at least a few miles per hour.

“The truth is that there are the strict rules of the road in the statute books, and there are the social rules that we abide by on the streets.

“Motorists have become accustomed to social rules that allow them to speed—at least a little bit—with no expectation of getting a ticket, or even thinking they are doing anything wrong. Because motor vehicles so dominate the road, we accept car-based social standards as right and proper. A friend once gave me a long lecture about how cyclists routinely flouted the law, but when she was later ticketed for driving in excess of 100 miles per hour, she said she simply didn’t realize how fast she was going.”

In addition to sociology, we also have physics at work here.

The loss of kinetic energy for a cyclist coming to a complete stop is about like a driver jumping in and out of her car at every stop sign.

Mapes talked to a physics professor who calculated that a cyclist who rolls through a stop signal at five miles per hour uses 25 percent less energy to get back up to 10 miles per hour than a cyclist who comes to a full stop.

Despite the extra energy needed, “[Cyclists should] stop at stop lights—all of them, all the time,” says my friend Jeff, who street cycles constantly and works for the League of American Bicyclists.

But I have to admit that I don’t always follow Jeff’s advice. When you’ve got your momentum and there are no cars in sight, stopping and waiting just seems ridiculous.

Or maybe it’s me who’s ridiculous and I really should follow the law to the letter. What do you think?


5 Comments leave one →
  1. Rebecca permalink
    September 30, 2010 10:56 pm

    I think cyclists should use their best judgement and live with the consequences. My concern with cars not stopping at lights is that they could plow into innocent people and kill them. If a cyclist doesn’t stop, the same consequences don’t follow. I hardly ever cycle, but I don’t drive either, which means I spend a lot of time walking to and from various bus stops. Do I always stand at the corner and wait for the light to change? Heck no. If the coast is clear, I cross if I feel like it, and I don’t always cross at the corner. I think traffic laws should be primarily for the hulking death machines (known as cars), to make them less likely to inflict injury on the rest of us.

  2. Jackie permalink
    October 1, 2010 1:36 am

    As a driver, I have the “other” perspective. The other day I was annoyed by a bicyclist who flew through a red light, forcing me to stop. I thought about how often bikers don’t get the consideration they should on the road, and rightfully bitterly complain. But, consideration goes 2 ways. That said, I don’t think it is wrong for a biker to go through a light on a deserted street.

  3. avaerewyck permalink
    October 1, 2010 11:35 am

    Thanks for posting, Rebecca! In the book, Mapes talks about Amsterdam and their traffic law philosophy, which seems in accordance with your views. They place the burden of protecting vulnerable road-users (peds, cyclists) on the non-vulnerable road-users (motorists).

    Excellent point, Jackie. I suppose the difficulty lies in the fact that the decision is left up to one person’s judgment instead of an objective automated traffic signaling device.


  1. I got stopped by the bike morality police. « No Car Go
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