Despite various justifications people make, running red lights is done for selfish reasons and is bad PR for cyclists. At a time when we are trying to negotiate with government at all levels to improve conditions, safety and participation, we should behave as good ambassadors for cycling.
Firstly, definition of red-light running behavior for my rant:
*I’m not talking about flying through just as it goes from orange to red, or taking off just before it turns green.
*I’m not talking about drifting across with the pedestrian green man instead of the main green light
*I’m not talking about riding through lights early am/late pm when there is no one around
I am talking about serial running of red lights. This can be seen around the city every day, where many cyclists ride as if red lights are give-way signs. Especially on huge multi-lane intersections. Some riders run them all, one after the other, often slightly misjudging and having close calls with cars and pedestrians. Oxford street, anzac parade and college street are prime locations for this sort of behavior. These riders are doing this in front of hundreds of people every day, spreading ill will towards cyclists faster than any other method I can think of, except perhaps Miranda Devine and the Daily Telegraph.
The reasons some people on this site have given to justify red-light running seem just as irrational and self-centred as the kind of logic employed in anti-cyclist rhetoric. Psychologically, when deciding their opinion a given issue, people firstly have an initial ‘gut feeling’ – ‘for’ or ‘against’. Secondly, they use ‘logic’ and ‘reason’ to justify the gut feeling. The logic is rarely the original source of the opinion and whether they are ‘for’ or ‘against’ the issue people always seem to find some reason to justify their view. Many people want to hate cyclists (generally as a scapegoat for their own frustrations) and they justify it by ill-formed arguments about showering logistics, slowing traffic and red-light running. Some cyclists want to run red lights basically because they are impatient and don’t enjoy stopping and starting. They justify it by saying things like: it’s safer; it’s a valid law in some US state; it doesn’t affect anyone cos a bike is so small; it’s my safety at risk cars won’t be hurt by a bike; it is a ‘protest’ against the system; or I’m saving the planet so I can do what I want.
You may not realize that the flaws in these latter arguments are just as apparent to an objective bystander as the flaws in the daily-telegraph-style claims about bikes causing traffic jams. We can use our critical thinking and know that the average speed of a car in the city in peak hour is only 22km/hr. We realise that merging, traffic lights and queuing across the intersection have a far greater impact on traffic than bikes. But, unfortunately many cyclists on this forum don’t seem motivated to apply anywhere near the same objective cross-examination to controversial claims made by cyclists themselves.
Firstly, the law. As lame as it sounds, it is in our interests to be law abiding most of the time. To disobey is extremely hypocritical from people who are lobbying for laws to be changed to further their interests. What is the point of changing laws if you say laws don’t need to be followed? Laws should apply to EVERYONE and they should be laws that obey the principle of ‘Universalism’ – Universalism is the idea that for a given law or behavior, the rule should be valid for everyone to follow if they choose. This principle was coined in moral philosophy to guard against laws and ideas that only work in a limited niche. For instance, the P-plater who speeds and dodges and weaves their way through the traffic without any consequence. They are young, confident with fast reflexes and have good driving skills so they are able to ‘safely’ drive very fast. They haven’t slowed down anyone they’ve overtaken because the slower cars were going along at their own pace anyway. But the principle of Universalism says, ‘what if everyone drove this way?’. The result would be chaos and there would be far more accidents and traffic jams than there would be otherwise. The only reason why this behavior seems harmless to the P-plater is because they are the only one doing it. But, the only reason this dodging and weaving is safe and achievable is because of the constant speed and predictability of the other traffic. The traffic is predictable because they are following (mostly) the road rules. The P-Plater is able to weave through like a cowboy through a herd of cattle. If everyone was dodging and weaving in this selfish manner the result would be like driving in a third world country and no-one could want that.
Many cyclists have the same mentality about their own dangerous riding - such as riding fast on footpaths and red light running. They have the skills and agility to get away with it (mostly). But this doesn’t mean the behavior should be legal. If it was and every cyclist was allowed to run red lights there would chaos. Part of the good thing about traffic laws is that there are a limited number of actions a given vehicle or person can make in a given situation. Once you go outside the scope of the law the number of possible actions you might make rises exponentially. For vehicles or pedestrians to travel safely they are constantly making assumptions about the kind of actions other road users could make in the current situation. Once you begin breaking laws you become unpredictable and suddenly it is very difficult for everyone else to adjust what they are doing in response to your random action. When you are a single ‘free-agent’ breaking laws in this way the impact is minimal; but, if suddenly every cyclist is allowed to add a little chaos the result would be more accidents because this would add a large unpredictable element to an already complicated city-intersection.
Some have claimed that certain laws shouldn’t apply to cyclists because they are so fragile compared to cars. They argue that the cyclist bears their own risk rather than imposing their risk onto others. This is true if you are mountain biking through a desert - but not in the city. If a driver hits you they may have trauma and financial loss as a result - even if they are entirely faultless. A car could swerve to avoid you and hit something or someone else. You could hit a pedestrian. And further if you crack your head open people’s taxes have to pay for your treatment and possibly care for the rest of your life.
Protesting against the system by running red lights (assuming the law will be changed to match the behavior) is probably not a good idea. The authorities will be chillingly unaware of the intent and political statement contained in your actions. They would likely also become EVEN LESS sympathetic to the plight of those visibly defying their system of road rules. The RTA/government are human too, and no-one likes being dissed. Any habits of this sort will do more to discourage people from cycling and will reduce pro-cyclist sentiment. Most ordinary people will not want to cycle if it seems highly dangerous or if the public image of cyclists becomes one of sweaty macho anarchists who break all the road rules. Most people will be repelled by such a stigma. If we want the best support from the authorities for cyclists and want more people to try cycle-commuting we need to create a good image of safe, law abiding cycling to get people onside. Which brings me to the environmental argument: ‘I’m saving the planet so I can do what I want’ that some cyclists seem to make. By being law abiding and considerate to members of the public you are probably doing the greatest possible service to the environment by encouraging more people to ride. If you behave like an arsehole and people see you, and as a result don’t want to be seen as a cyclist, you are effectively putting another car on the road.
Basically, pissing off the public is not the way to get the government onside. If you are planning to ask your boss for a pay rise do you start taking sickies, turn up late and dress like a slob? The way some things are going, and the weight of public opinion it would not surprise me if cyclists’ rights in Sydney were reduced rather than improved to placate the increasingly vehement masses. Do you want compulsory registration for cyclists? Number plates? Restrictions on roads we can ride on? Reduction in facilities? Changes to laws allowing two abreast or cycling up the inside of stopped traffic? Keep on disregarding the rules and don’t be surprised if the systems turns against you.