Sunday, October 12, 2008

Red Lights and Stop Signs: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

It happens to all of us while riding bike. We come up to a red light with clear visibility, and there are no cars coming. So do you stop your momentum and wait for the light or do you roll it? Well, I think there are about three things you can do. One, run the light without slowing down much. Two, slow down and stop to double check it is clear before rolling through. Or three, stopping to wait for the light to change. Let's lay out the pros and cons.

Pros for stopping at red lights and stop signs:

Its the law. Stopping and waiting at a stop sign or red light is the law, first and foremost. But, as you know and I will talk about below, there are a myriad of reasons and conditions under which rolling through isn't the same as a car doing it. Nevertheless, it is illegal to run the light or stop sign. Check and know your local laws.

It is safer. Clearly you will be more protected when you go through intersections protected by the light.

It makes bicyclists look bad. It can raise the ire of motorists and lower the perception of bicyclists. Just as cars which don't use their turn signals bother me, bikers running red lights probably really bothers some cars. Think about this next time you want to occupy the whole lane (as you are also legally entitled to do in many states). If you want the rights do you have to follow the law, too?

Good time to catch your breath and take a drink! This way, you don't feel like a bum taking a break if you are stopping for a red light.

Cons for stopping at red lights and stop signs:
For this, I am assuming it is a completely visible intersection where an approaching bicyclist can see if there are cars coming and it would be theoretically safe to roll through the intersection. I would NEVER advocate flying through blind intersections unless you have a death wish.

You can't trip the lights. Bikes are too light and have too little metal to trip the light changing sensors. You might be waiting for a good long time before you can ride through on a green.

"until the laws protect the bicycle, the laws do not apply to the bicycle" can be a well-made argument. Bikes won't just run lights or signs without looking. We have no crumple zones to protect us so we will be more careful going through an intersection. What about the cars running red light? What about the car that speeds past you and then cuts in front of you to turn? What about the car that pushed me into oncoming traffic because it made a right on red as I was coming through the opposing green light at about 20 miles per hour? Until cars start respecting me, why should I stop?

Could be dangerous. Depending on the part of town you are riding through, you might not want to stop. If this is the case, maybe you should reroute!

Loss of momentum. It is much easier for a car to step on the gas than for you to get back up to 20 miles per hour.

Why Wait? Because it is a grey area of bicyclist etiquette, and many pedestrians cross against the light if it is clear, running a red on a bicycle doesn't seem that bad. Also, a car can easily make up a few minutes from waiting at a long light by going faster, you might not be able to. This is especially true if it is raining; why just sit there waiting in the rain?

My Personal Stance:
Alright, my personal philosophy on this matter is that if I am not going to affect anybody around me, I will roll through a light. That is, if nobody will have to step on his or her brake or swerve or anything to avoid me, I will go through a light or stop sign. This is of course assuming that I can clearly see far enough down the cross street to make sure nobody is coming. Also, this is when I am riding alone. With a pack I will generally follow the lights or at least come to a complete stop and wait for everybody to form up before going through a clear intersection. Coming to a full stop is rather annoying, especially with a medium-high-ratio fixed gear bike.

Other blogs weigh in:
Two Cities Two Wheels
Out Here in the Middle


jasonk said...

Thanks for the link, Scott. I agree with what you said. I have found that if I stop at a light (which I nearly always do), and I see the cross lights changing, I will go ahead and clip in, and as long as cars are coming to a stop, I will go ahead and start into the intersection. That seems to tell the cars behind me that I am concerned about the flow of traffic, and do not intend to slow them down on purpose.
Waiting on the light can put the cyclist in danger--I have been passed by cars in the intersection many times. Most recently, I policeman was sitting there watching as three cars sped past me in the middle of an intersection--clearly an illegal move.
I recently read where San Francisco is considering legislation that would allow cyclists to treat four-way stops as yield signs, and to treat red lights as four way stops. Good plan. Tulsa is preparing now to rebuild four lighted intersections, all of them along popular bicycle commuting routes. The new traffic lights will all be equipped with motion sensors that detect cyclists. Progress.

S. Johnson said...

Yes! I saw the proposed legislation in CA for the yield at a stop sign and stop at a red light. That definitely sounds like a prudent change.
One thing I heard about, although not directly applicable here, is that in rural Holland, there are 4-way intersections with NO signs of any kind. Thus each person must stop and evaluate the situation individually. It has led to more caution at intersections. I do not imagine it would be workable here in the good ol' US of A but fun to think about!

Palm Beach Bike Tours / Matt said...

I got a ticket for running a stop sign on a bike last year.

I was riding through a local subdivision. Very low traffic. It was a Tuesday morning after everyone had already left for work or school. I see a police officer sitting a ways back from the corner of a three-way stop with his motorcycle.

It was then I did was I always do at that specific intersection. I verified there were no cars coming. I dropped from 15 miles an hour to below four miles an hour; about as slow as I can go without unclipping. I gave the cop a little 'good morning; how ya doing wave' without taking my hands off the bars. Then, I rolled through the intersection.

He hit his siren. [Woop, woop: that's the sound of the police]. I just about got whiplash to see what I missed and what car was going to run me over. There was no one else around. So, I turned around and pulled in next to him. He then told me I ran the stop sign.

I was stunned. Honestly, stunned. Maybe because he was a motorcycle cop, he was a fellow two-wheeler and pulling my leg, right? No such luck.

For the seven or eight minutes I was on the side of the road getting my ticket, a car didn't pass through the intersection. I'm all about 'if you break the law, no matter how stupid the law, you should pay the price' but this even rubbed me the wrong way.

I always stop for lights. If the light doesn't turn, I'll proceed through the red after stopping.

One of the (not-so) local bike shops will give you 50% off anything in the shop (one item only) if you present them with an actual citation while you were on a bike. They then post your citation on the wall. It's great way to get people into the shop and reinforces the idea that bikes are vehicles. Most of the tickets are for failure to stop or yield but there are a few speeding tickets (23 in a 15 mph school zone, for example).

Cheers, Matt