Running Red Lights: Not Safe

Written by Boston Biker on Nov 16

A while ago I wrote an article about my views on running red lights and speed. Basically I came to the conclusion that running red lights in no way made you faster, but being a faster cyclist (even when stopping at red lights) did. At the end of that article I said that I would write another one about the other common reason I hear for why running red lights is better, people will often say to me “Running the red lights is safer.” As stunning a statement as that is (breaking the law, and violating the rules of the system is safer!?) many people actually think this.

(this is a pretty common sight here in Boston).

We will set aside for a moment the other consequences of running red lights and deal solely with the safety aspect of it. As far as I can tell, the main thrust of the argument for why running reds is safer goes something like this:

“When I am on my bike, if I stop at a red light and wait for it to turn green all the cars take off really fast, and I am taking off slower so I feel in danger from these cars, so If I run the red light I can avoid this situation.”

I have heard other variations on this from “I feel a little wobbly when I start” to “I feel strange about making the cars wait for me to get going” but mostly it boiled down to the idea that a co-start, in which the bikers and the drivers all leave the line at once, is in some way dangerous.

The problem is that this argument breaks down for a couple of logical reasons.

1. If you position yourself properly at a red light you should not be competing for space with cars as they get going.
2. If you are worried about cars passing you as everyone starts because of a speed difference, how will that be less dangerous when the cars pass you moving much faster further down the road?
3. By running the red light you put yourself in the very real danger of being hit by a car going through the intersection at high speed.
4. You potentially endanger pedestrians and other cyclists crossing with the light.

Before we move on, let me just say, the stuff I am about to tell you, could be, in some situations, not completely totally legal…That being said what I am about to tell you is only very slightly illegal, and I feel it does nothing to garner ill will of other road users, or place you in danger. Thus I am comfortable with it. So what is this slightly illegal thing I am gonna propose you do to address the points made above?

When you stop at a red light, pull in front of all the cars and park yourself in front of them. Plop yourself down right in front of the cars, even if this means you have to go slightly past the stop line (that is the slightly illegal part). When you are doing this remember that because cars don’t always stop on the stop line by putting yourself in front of them you may be in the cross walk, this is also slightly illegal, but if you position yourself as far back as possible you should still leave plenty of room for pedestrians.

We will cover how you get to the front of the line in another article as “filtering” as I like to think of it, is it’s own special skill. For now just slow down, watch for opening doors, and watch for people walking between cars. You will also want to keep a keen eye on the light itself, as nothing is more annoying than seeing someone spaced out far after the light has turned green, and by putting yourself in front of all the other cars you are now “that person.” Don’t be that person.

The reason for doing this, as apposed to say staying over on the right, is that when the light turns green, you can control the lane until you cross the intersection and then you can move over and let the car pass you. Cyclists should really stop thinking about the road as a place they borrow from cars, and instead think of it as a place they control until they are ready to let cars use it. By controlling the lane through the intersection you get to choose when and where the car passes you. If you don’t dawdle too much, and make it clear you are moving over to the right after you get through the intersection the person behind you will pass you easily and safely.

I do this almost every time I stop at a red light, literally hundreds of times a week. Let me present a couple of common scenarios.


1. There are already cars parked at the red, I want to go straight:
I approach the line of cars from the right, and then move slightly to the left so that I am directly in front of the car in the right lane. The light turns green, I stay in the center of that lane until I make it to the other side of the intersection and then I move to the right. The cars then pass me, I am up to speed (and thus more stable on my bike), and I have delayed the cars roughly 5 seconds. They get a good look at me because I am directly in front of them at the red, so there is no “I didn’t see you” bull shit. I am also protected against people making un-signaled right turns off the start line, as I am in front of them. Be aware that at “right on red” intersections people might be turning right before the light turns green.


2. The light is red, the lane is empty, I want to go straight:
I check behind me, signal a left move, move to the center of the right most lane, and wait for the light to turn green. If cars approach from behind and it is a “right on red” light, I will move further over to the left to allow them to turn. The reason why I put myself in the middle of an empty lane, is because empty lanes don’t stay empty. There is a good chance that cars will line up at that red, and if I let them they will try and squeeze past me (actually dangerous), if I am squarely in the center of the lane when they arrive they have no choice but to line up behind me. When the light turns green I proceed across as in the situation above.


3. I want to make a left but get stuck at the light:
Usually when I make a left I will check behind me and make a series of moves over to the left side, thus getting myself into the left turn lane. Sometimes however when doing this I get stuck at a light. In this case I plop myself right in the middle of the left turn lane, when the light turns green I stay in the center of the left turn lane until I am completely through the intersection and then move over to the right to let cars pass. This lets cars that are lining up behind me know that I plan on controlling the left lane, and keeps them from pushing past me.

The secret to all of these situations is that you have to be directly in the middle of the lane, you can’t leave space or they will try to edge past you. This can be a hard thing to get used to. You are not in danger by being in the middle, if anything you are keeping the cars from squeezing past you (which is dangerous), but your mind is not going to realize this. Your brain is going to say “holy shit there is a big car behind me!!!” but after a while you get used to it and it’s old hat.

The issue here is that with a little lane positioning, and some practice you can remove all the “danger” from stopping at red lights. I say “danger” because there really wasn’t that much danger to start with. Even if you position yourself way over to the right, people do not do squealing tire starts when they see the green light, you are not going to get killed by a car going from 0 to 10 miles per hour (average speeds for moving through intersections from a stop). The real reason I think a lot of people feel so confident that running red lights is “safer’ is because they like having a non-selfish excuse. The idea that they are breaking the law “for their protection” rather than “because I didn’t want to stop” sits better in their head. Lying to yourself can be very easy, which is why so many of us do it.

In my opinion, running red lights is neither safer, or faster, yet people still do it. If we are being particularly honest with ourselves we will have to admit that the reason we run red lights is because we don’t want to stop. It’s the bicyclist manifestation of the same behavior we all get so pissed about in motorists. If you have ever been on your bike and gotten mad because a motorist honked at you for “being slow” or screamed “get on the sidewalk” or passed you going too fast, or found yourself saying “why are they in such a hurry to get to the next red light?” you know what I am talking about.

Yet this same impulse, to go as fast as possible, damn the consequences, is what I think is driving most people to run red lights. If we were being super honest with each other we would have to admit that stopping at red lights is only going to slow us down a little (plus why are you in such a hurry?), and is far safer, and better for everyone, than running them.

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Posted in advocacy, education | 35 Comments »

35 Responses to “Running Red Lights: Not Safe”

  1. By Finnigan on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    What you’re describing is bike boxes, without the boxes themselves. It’s what I always try to do also.

    In some places, including IIRC the state of Iowa, they’ve recently legalized “roll-stops” for bikes at red lights. In your earlier post, it’s a tactic that Ron Newman advocated for and you argued against. If it were legal in Mass, would you still be for or against?

  2. By Boston Biker on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    Finnigan: I think you are thinking of idaho, and the idaho stop law, in which red lights are treated like stop signs.

    I have thoughts on the issue, and if I am for it or against it doesn’t matter because it is not the law here.

    As to if I would support a law like that here, I would have to think hard about that and come up with some sort of reasons for my feelings. But as it stands now I feel like it might be a bad idea to have traffic control devices mean different things to different road users.

    I worry that this might end up being a slippery slope to treating cyclists as second class road users.

    Also if a red light wasn’t needed at an intersection why not tear it out and put in stop signs?

  3. By Benjamin Mako Hill on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    Great post. I do this as well and most experienced cyclists I know do as well. Unfortunately, this isn’t intuitive and I’ve had to teach other cyclists and nice to have a good write-up to point to.

    That said, I’d be thrilled to support a law like the one that Finnigan has suggested. Bikes should be treated as second class but I’ve got no problem treating them differently. Bikes *are* different from cars and I’m not opposed to special rules, special protections, special restrictions, and special allowances.

  4. By Ron Newman on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    The cyclist shown in the video did not do anything unsafe. He did not speed through the light without stopping. He looked carefully in both directions and did not proceed until he saw that he could do so without impeding the cross traffic.

  5. By Andres Salomon on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    “If we are being particularly honest with ourselves we will have to admit that the reason we run red lights is because we don’t want to stop. It’s the bicyclist manifestation of the same behavior we all get so pissed about in motorists.”

    [citation needed]

    You should’ve stopped while you were ahead. How can you pretend to know what other cyclists are thinking? Plenty of cyclists are happy to come to a full stop, and then proceed through the light if it’s safe.

    Bike boxes are a great solution, but they don’t exist here. Until they do, you’re asking people to choose between two variations of illegal behavior that piss off motorists (I’ve certainly annoyed motorists by filtering to the front and then sitting in front of them at the light). You’d be better off attempting to convince the city to start installing bike boxes.

  6. By Boston Biker on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    Ben: There are people who would love to start handing out special rules for cyclists, rules like “no cyclists on 4 lane streets” or “no cyclists in business districts” or “mandatory registration for cyclists” etc etc. These rules are not always good.

    Ron: The cyclist broke the law, and was in danger because he was crossing out into a heavy stream of traffic, what if he misses something, or what if someone comes around the corner not expecting him to be in the road then, etc etc. there is a point to street lights, they are not just up there to be happy distractions.

  7. By Boston Biker on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    Andres: I can pretend anything I like, do you disagree that most people who run red lights are doing so because they don’t want to stop? I was trying to make an inference about the behavior of people NOT stopping. Not the ones that do.

    I agree some bike boxes would be pretty nice, perhaps I will suggest that next time I see Nicole Freedman.

    Filtering to the front of the line is not illegal in MA. Stopping past the stop line is. If you feel really bad about breaking any law, don’t cross the stop line. You might have a hard time though as most cars ignore the stop line completely.

  8. By William Furr on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    Thank you for this. It’s maddening to me watching all the unsafe BS other cyclists do and it reflects on me and how I’m treated by motorists.

    Too bad the folks who most need to think about this aren’t going to read it here. 🙁

  9. By Jazzercycle on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    This is a great post of exactly how to ride! I do this daily and have never had an issue. Painted bike boxes would be great to help out. I for one think that this “rolling stop” thing will not work well. What if you misjudge a cars speed and get T boned? He has a green light and you get a “rolling stop” rule. Who’s fault is it? I think people will take it to far and not stop at all. This will just create more chaos. Everyone should have the same rules. Its easier to teach one than 100. Your light is red, wait your turn, period. People really need to get over this. Stop rushing, organize your time better and perhaps you don’t have to speed everywhere!

  10. By m2mayer on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    Again the key point, I think, is the one you made in your earlier post on “trust”.

    That said, I do not advocate for “filtering to the front” at a stoplight UNLESS the line of cars is long enough such that I would have to wait through multiple stoplight cycles. When approaching a red, signal left and then take the lane, and wait in line in the center of the lane. YOU will not lose much time, and cars that already passed you will not have to pass you again (something that can really get annoying as a motorist). This seems like the safest of all alternatives, also, and the choice less likely to upset anyone.

  11. By Ron Newman on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    Jazzercycle: If you go through a red light and you get hit by someone whose light is green, you’re at fault. Changing the law to allow ‘stop and proceed’ would not change this fact.

  12. By Charlie on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    Nice post! I must say that I agree with m2mayer as well, with a slightly nuanced view:

    – If the right lane is wide enough for a car to pass a cyclist easily, I will filter up to the front of the line and position myself in front as described
    – If the right lane is not wide enough for a car to pass a cyclist easily, I will wait in the middle of the lane behind the last car, except for in some cases where I would have to wait more than one light cycle and I know I can safely filter forward

    I find that motorists treat cyclists much more respectfully when we obey traffic lights and are courteous about filtering forward.

  13. By Andres Salomon on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    Whether or not we agree about the reasons why most people run red lights, it doesn’t really matter; you’re still guessing. Unless you reference a study, take a poll, etc, you really don’t know.

    I found this post informative and interesting otherwise, but the part where it becomes conjecture makes me sad.

    And, for what it’s worth, I do believe this method has its place. On Mossland near Porter Sq, for example, that’s a perfect place to filter to the front and wait in front of cars in the crosswalk. However, near Inman Sq where Beacon becomes Hampshire, I stay as far to the right as possible at that light. Sitting in the middle of the crosswalk, you’re likely to get clipped by cars turning left (that intersection is crazy in general; I will gladly run that light if it’s clear and it gets me through there safely).

  14. By J on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    As a pedestrian, are you telling me you’ve never crossed when it was red? How many pedestrians are injured when doing so? Why is it so bad when a bike does it?

    I’d say your method causes more trouble then running the light. By cutting the line, and placing yourself in front of the first car, you’re

    a) blocking the crosswalk
    b) lowering everybody’s acceleration
    c) creating anger

    If you’re going to wait at the light, I suggest STAYING on the right, or simply waiting in line like everybody else. Making effort to place yourself in front of the first car is what causes so much anger towards cyclists. If there was enough space on the side to get in front, then stay on the right! You talk about how it makes no sense to run the light to save time, so why does it make sense to cut to the front?

    Jazzercycle, havent you ever been at an intersection with a two way stop? Cross traffic does not and will not stop. You’re expected to use common sense when crossing. “What if you misjudge a cars speed and get T boned?” then perhaps you’re unfit to be driving or cycling, as two way stops are extremely common. In fact, from my house to the nearest subway stations, I have to pass three of them before I reach a signalized intersection.

  15. By Jazzercycle on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    J: Two way stops I get (and go through about 15 on my way to work daily) I am talking about major intersections where some bikers, as you said whom should possibly not be riding, or think they are invincible, try and pull a rolling stop because they can even though its not safe. I think that already with the number of people who use their “common sense” to already blow red lights could get out of control. Its kind of like, show me you can do it right first then you get the raise. Its not the other way around.

  16. By cranky4life on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    RE: left turns. At busy times and in multi-lane roads I don’t feel merging all the way left to make a left turn is safe (MY personal opinion of course). During those times I’ve been doing a “Copenhagen left turn” :


  17. By Danielle on Nov 16, 2009 | Reply

    — well, I was going to describe the mechanics but I’ll pull a short-cut and give the location: How do you suggest dealing with the first red light on Mass. Ave. when you get into Boston and want to turn left on Marlborough during rush hour?

    – Too early to safely move all the way to the left, given how drivers behave on that stretch.
    – Pavement on the next block is terrible, so it’s no fun to look back constantly to see if it’s safe to move to the left.
    – If you jump the gun you can easily get to the Marlborough intersection before the cars leave the Beacon St. stop line.

  18. By Mark Simpson on Nov 17, 2009 | Reply

    To Danielle –

    When my commute took me over the bridge onto Marlborough i would merge to the left lane right near the end of the bridge (i used the last metal expansion thingie has a marker for myself) and then stay in the left lane past Beacon and then left onto Marlborough. I found that usually I would be merging to the left behind a bunch of cars an the next bunch of cars was still much further back on the bridge due to the way the lights were.

    Sometimes i couldn’t make it into the left lane before Beacon but I usually could.

    Maybe it was earlier enough in the morning that the traffic wasn’t too heavy?

  19. By Mark Simpson on Nov 17, 2009 | Reply

    Re: filtering to the front and getting in front of the first car.

    I’m not sure i understand why this is a good idea? I don’t really understand bike boxes either which this idea sounds like an ad hoc version of.

    What makes bike boxes or this sort of behavior good?

    Then again i don’t filter forward except in a very few cases; i wait my turn in the queue with the other traffic. When it appears that I might need to wait several light cycles I am more likely to get onto the sidewalk and walk rather than filter up.

  20. By Boston Biker on Nov 17, 2009 | Reply

    Mark: The idea is that you put yourself in control of the speed of the cars through the intersection, then get out of their way after you make it through, basically you are making sure the cars go a safe speed until you make it across.

    I am going to write a whole post on filtering forward, but your way is just as good, if you feel like chillin in the line with the cars then that is a perfectly acceptable position.

    I was assuming people wanted to run red lights for “safety” reasons, so I was addressing that.

  21. By Boston Biker on Nov 17, 2009 | Reply

    Andres: I have seen a survey that shows that cyclists run reds basically because of two reasons, they feel it is unsafe, or they are in a hurry. I will post the links to it once it has been published (which should be soon actually). I am sure if I was to look harder I could find something that already exists, do you know of any?

  22. By explohub on Nov 17, 2009 | Reply

    any thoughts on PDX’s bike boxes???

  23. By J on Nov 17, 2009 | Reply

    It was my understanding that bike boxes are intended for left turn, not to “filter to the front”.

    Bostons first bike box, on commonwealth avenue, will be painted expressly so bikes can go to the left, not so they can cut the line and dictate the speed of acceleration.

  24. By matt on Nov 18, 2009 | Reply

    the reason I usually run red lights is b/c if I don’t I will get run over by other cyclists bent on running every one! then it becomes a habit.

    these are good points though. i will endeavor to stop whenever I can.

  25. By Andres Salomon on Nov 18, 2009 | Reply

    Boston Biker: I’m not aware of any. I’d be interested to see it.

    explohub: I *love* PDX’s bike boxes. I’d never heard of them before visiting Portland, but they were so incredibly useful that I want them everywhere. Drivers are much less likely to get angry when bikers are waiting in clearly marked areas.

  26. By Ron Newman on Nov 18, 2009 | Reply

    In the absence of bike boxes, I prefer to wait just *beyond* the crosswalk, not inside it, so that I don’t block pedestrian traffic. There’s usually just enough room for one bike to fit there.

  27. By Scott on Nov 18, 2009 | Reply

    What are thoughts on red lights when its just for a crosswalk? No turning, all traffic goes straight but there’s a crosswalk and a red light. Is it acceptable to move through that light?

  28. By Colin on Nov 19, 2009 | Reply

    I’ve been cycling in traffic for 25 years or so. If cyclists want the full protection of the traffic laws, they need to fully obey traffic laws. There’s nothing that irritates me more than cyclists running reds or riding pretty much full speed on sidewalks or public plazas. There’s a certain kind of cyclist with this holier-than-thou attitude where they place themselves above everyone else, and they make the rest of law-abiding cyclists look like jerks.

    What I usually do is stop about three or four cars back from the stop line. As a result I find that I get up to speed at the same rate as traffic once the light turns green. Depending on what the traffic is like that may mean me passing some cars, but if the street is narrow I will just come to a stop and deal with the light traffic as needed.

  29. By Erick on Nov 25, 2009 | Reply

    Hey guys/gals just saw my view count was up thought it was odd… a few more things on this video you might find interesting. The road the cyclist is crossing is Campbell Airstrip (minor artery) and Tudor considered by AK as a highway… we don’t have many bike lanes and oddly on the side me and the other cyclist are on has no bike lane but on the other side there is a space on the side called a bike lane but motorists don’t respect it (AK = Oil Company Nation.) at night this intersection decent to cross with red lights as waiting for cars will mean getting paint balled or worse. I love the article though I found it very true BTW the cam is mounted to my Surly Nice Front Rack so it’s unobstructed… I mainly had it on for driver aggression but I want to be fair in my postings if I see cyclists doing things like that and ignore it I don’t think it does any good to just post motorists doing bad things when cyclists do equally bad things…

  30. By Erick on Nov 25, 2009 | Reply

    Snappers almost forgot yes I did filter to the front and stayed right instead of in the middle… theres a fire house near there and I like to stay close to the curb in case the fire engine comes out in a hurry, that way I can hop onto the curb and get out of the way.

  31. By Ffolz on Apr 10, 2010 | Reply

    Boston Biker, I have to take issue with this. What you are proposing is not only illegal, it is unsafe. “Filtering” in a highway context is the #1 way motorcyclists make themselves invisible in preparation for being mowed down at high speed. Have I done it (the bicycle version)? Sure. But I did it knowing that it was a matter of impatience and completely STUPID.

    Furthermore, your advice does not address the issues that bicyclists are having in starting from a stop. (In contrast, the “bike boxes” do.) And I wonder: does a bicycle really want to be in first position starting from a green light, especially in jump-the-green New England? You know what, I’m going to defer to the person surrounded by two tons of plastic and steel before I venture out there.

    If we reject “filtering,” taking the lane to stop at a red light seems logical but one always fears the idiot plowing into one from behind. This happens to cars parked at red lights so it isn’t exactly paranoia.

    I think bicyclists worried about their own safety are going to continue to pop off the roadway at red lights, use the ped crossing, and proceed where they feel like they have control of the situation.

    Sure, nobody wants to get into an angle crash but I would hope that most bicyclists “proceeding cautiously” would have the sense not to jump out in front of conflicting movements (now THAT’s just impatience and has nothing to do with safety at all).

    This entire debate reminds me of the big push in Boston and NYC about 5 years back to stop mid-block crossing. In the brouhaha it trickled out what peds had know all along–the traffic-signal controlled intersection is NOT the safest place to cross because of the turning movements. Midblock crossings give both the ped and motorist an unobstructed line of sight. Commercial drivers such as myself are accustomed to protecting our corners/edges, but the majority of SOV drivers have “tunnel vision” on the road–DEADLY for peds and bicyclists in intersections.

  32. By Rachel Kadel-Garcia on Apr 13, 2010 | Reply

    “I think bicyclists worried about their own safety are going to continue to pop off the roadway at red lights, use the ped crossing, and proceed where they feel like they have control of the situation.”

    It’s totally fine for cyclists to turn into pedestrians when they can’t safely handle the road conditions. (I do it myself sometimes, especially when I’ve got the trail-a-bike which is much less nimble.) But if you’re a pedestrian, you have to stand on your feet.

  33. By mplo on Jul 20, 2010 | Reply

    Contrary to popular belief, a bicycle is also a vehicle, and therefore a bicyclist is also subject to the rules of the road just as much as cars are. It’s really galling to see how many bicylists run red lights, go the wrong way down one-way streets, ride on the wrong side of the road, and ride full speed on the sidewalks. All this does is put a bicyclist at an even greater risk of not only getting hurt or killed, but of hurting or killing somebody else.

  34. By Ian Whiting on May 15, 2017 | Reply

    Great reading. You left out a scenario that I use frequently, related to your first scenario: Cars parked at the red light, I want to go straight. When I’m approaching this line of cars, more than half the time I just take a space in line, even if it means I’m tenth in line. This removes all doubt about what I’m going to do, and it saves me from that confusing and dangerous moment that arises when I’m coasting along a line of stopped cars to get to the front just as the light goes green and the line starts moving.

    It’s nice to know that the instincts I’ve developed over the years for dealing with intersections are the correct ones.

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