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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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A Matter Of Worth: Red Lights, Your Life, And Several Short Moments

Written by Boston Biker on Sep 21

I propose a theory, and it is thus: “Running red lights does not significantly make you faster, and often slows you down.” One day very soon I hope to have some data to prove this (anyone got a stop watch I can borrow?), but for now, a present the following tale for your perusal.

Red Light,Green Light

I was riding today (as I am wont to do), and witnessed a man on a mountain bike/hybrid about a 100 feet in front of me. I like to look down the street a couple hundred feet just to keep a mental snapshot of what is going to be dashing out in front of me in a couple seconds. Repeatedly I witnessed this gentleman do the following: he comes to a red light, slows way down, looks both ways, darts over into the cross walk, crosses the intersection and then continues down the street. In no way is it legal to run a red light on a bicycle, there is no legal loop hole that allows you to cross against the red if you ride into the cross walk. I have no idea why this guy felt the need to ride into the crosswalk if he was interested in going fast, he should have run the red light in a nice straight line…but I digress.

I, on the other hand, stopped at the red light, waited several seconds, and then took off. He never got away from me, his crazy “slow, look, slide, cross” technique took almost as long as simply waiting for the red light. While he didn’t go significantly faster (I estimate he might have shaved 4 or 5 seconds off each red light by running it), what he did do is almost get hit by several cars, piss off several pedestrians who were legally using the cross walk, and almost hit a rather large pot hole that was over near the curb (a place he would have never been had he been stopping in the bike lane and waiting for the red light). I even witnessed him bend way over to the side in order to ride under (!!) a large cherry picker/crane thing that some workers were using to fix something(I guess the fact that all other traffic had come to a halt didn’t phase him).

So I propose the question, what is a life worth? What is the goodwill and harmony of other road users worth? 30 seconds? 5 minutes? Because this gentleman gained no more than several seconds at each red light intersection, and in the process endangered himself, others, and pissed off a fair number of people who were in fact obeying the law. He could have easily “saved” the same amount of time by simply pedaling slightly faster, and still stopping at all the red’s. He would have also gained the good will of motorists (not that that’s worth much in this town) and more importantly not endangered several law abiding pedestrians (a rare animal indeed).

Anyone who rides a bike and uses the mental justification that running red lights gets you where you are going faster is using the same mental justification that motorists use when the pass too closely, or squeeze you over as they pass, or honk at you because you are going “too slow.” In essence saying “I can break this law because it slows me down” is the same as motorists endangering cyclists because they are in such a hurry (often to get to the next red light). If you have ever found yourself complaining that motorists just need to chill out, slow down, or not be in such a hurry, yet still run red lights cause they slow you down….well lets just say your mental jigsaw puzzle might not be fitting together properly. Put simply, running red lights doesn’t make you faster, being faster makes you faster.

(I really am going to try and get some data to show that you are not significantly slowed down by red lights. I will address the “I run red lights because it is safer” argument in a future post)

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