Ahhh, the old red light debate. Like the helmet debate, it’s going to hang around until it’s no longer needed. Dealing with red lights needs to be broken down into two parts. One is proceeding straight through red lights. This is far more contentious, and the riskier of the two to pull off for obvious reasons. The other is the more innocuous of the two. Relatively simple, relatively low risk: the left turn on red (or right in most parts of the world). It most definitely presents no more risk than negotiating a roundabout or intersections with a yield sign, both of which are found in large numbers here in Australia as in other parts of the world, both of which still allow for use by pedestrians. There are significant numbers of intersections here that have no signage at all and still, no one seems to be losing life or limb as a result.
Turning left (or right) at a red light
I grew up with red lights and stop signs everywhere being the norm, however, you were also allowed to turn into the flow of traffic at a red light after coming to a complete stop. In Canada, or, at least the city I lived in, the signs notified you when and where you couldn’t do it, but otherwise it was perfectly legal. It makes sense too. If you are turning into the flow of traffic, you stop where you normally would, survey your surroundings (including pedestrians), and then proceed when clear. There is nothing strange about that at all. Here in Australia, of course, it’s not legal, but the exact same principle applies at roundabouts (without stopping), and yield signs (again, without the requirement of stopping).
Now, should there be a difference in the application of this when it comes to motorists and cyclists? I don’t think so. If the intersection is such that it makes sence to allow people to proceed left when clear, then it shouldn’t matter if you are driving or pedaling. The same rules would still apply in terms of cars keeping out of the bike lanes when turning, however something would have to be done where advanced stopping lines (bike boxes) are in place. Perhaps common sense would prevail and the ruling would be that if there are cyclists in the bike box, then the intersection is not clear, and therefore the motorists shall not proceed left on red.
Brisbane trialed this in 2013. Perth was considering a trial, and Gold Coast has already trialed it. So far, the findings from Brisbane are positive – they are extending the trial and adding 50 more intersections.
If the commuting mode share of cycling continues to increase and we use our votes and voices in the right way, then perhaps the rest of the world will put in place more segregated bike lanes such as the Dutch have, and then the entire issue of cyclists and motorists getting mixed up when turning left would be a non-issue.
So, left (or right) turns on red should be allowed for all, but for motorists attention needs to be paid to pedestrian safety, and cyclists should ideally be taken out of the picture completely by building proper intersections like that pictured above.
Proceeding straight through red lights
This is tricky. If a simple answer is needed, I would say it shouldn’t be allowed. It really introduces quite a slippery slope where people will push the limits of good judgement and I would think that you would see more accidents and possibly more deaths.
To consider the option in greater detail though, I think that it might be ok for cyclists to proceed through a red light where safe to do so, just as I think it’s reasonable to allow pedestrians to do so (that still sounds like a caveat that is really, really, open to interpretation), but I’m not too sure about motorists. On the one hand they can clear the intersection more quickly, but on the other they can cause more damage (though you could also argue that if hit as a result of poor judgement, they are far less likely to be killed than a cyclist). An option that may be reasonable to consider is to start with turning signals for all directions to a flashing amber during off-peak times (night-time, low traffic volume) so that the intersection becomes a yield in all directions. Fine for both bikes and cars. During the day, when traffic volumes are heavier, it is probably best to keep things as they are for motorists. Probably best to keep things the same for cyclists too. I guess that means I don’t think it’s a good idea for cyclists either, in the end.
Whilst some people dismiss the need for cyclists to consider how their actions affect the general populations attitude towards them, I do not. Cyclists are not in a position to start an uprising and take over the streets, nor are they a voting majority, nor is the bicycle industry, though large, a larger economic force than automobiles. The net effect is that we need, at the very least, passive indifference from the general population and influential industry, lobbyist-types in order for better cycling policies to be passed through local and federal government. If they don’t want us on the roads and choose to be difficult about it, it probably won’t happen as long as we are a minority. Cyclists blowing red lights is one of the things that engenders hatred from motorists towards us, so apart from what would surely be an incredibly difficult task of regulating cyclists proceeding through red lights, I think that it would be a bad move for cyclist-motorist relations on a larger scale. If nothing else, it seems that the effort would be wasted when so many more basic infrastructure problems need addressing.
Then again, maybe we should just demand that everyone takes the train or a bus and then be put on a short leash until they arrive at their destination, because too many people seem to have no idea how roads work:
Cyclist captures pedestrians unbelievable lack of awareness. How are your city commutes? I remember almost… http://t.co/7H6CTCXIYG
— SafeCyclingAustralia (@SafeCyclingOz) September 20, 2014
Header image: Scott Robinson