The (non-)red light District: on creatively interpreting traffic laws while cycling

In a recent study that should surprise exactly no one, it was concluded that the vast majority of cyclists move illegally through red lights. In other news, the North Star is North, and puppies are adorable. The no-duh factor could be punctuated with a slap to the forehead. I would venture to guess that every damn safe cyclist on the road reasonably blows reds (and by ‘blows reds,’ I obviously mean ‘orally services Communists.’ TEE HEE.)

The Atlantic Cities believes this is a problem. According to writer Nate Berg, cyclists who run red lights create a more hostile situation for everyone on the road. He also argued that running red lights leads to a desensitized attitude toward traffic rules, which will have increasingly disastrous effects on public safety. Never mind that Berg provides no statistics or support to bolster his point beyond the rough percentage of cyclists who break the law (which, as any LSAT taker knows, suggests nothing about the law’s value or inherent authority.) Police in many cities, including Philadelphia and DC, apparently agree with Berg that cyclists rolling through red lights and stop signs are a big fat problem, and have been pulling over and ticketing non-compliant cyclists as a result. Public reaction (and internet comments) regarding such measures seem to be positive – ask any driver about “crazy cyclists,” and he or she probably has a wild story about how we’re all reckless elitists who zip in and out of traffic OUT OF NOWHERE. (See also: welfare queens, freeloading immigrants with anchor babies, or any other over-generalized and imagined societal scourges.)

And yes – there are a few cyclists who endanger others, and that is really a shame. I wish they wouldn’t. I would admonish any cyclist who cuts off cars or pedestrians who have the right of way, and even those who blow through stop lights before they’ve even surveyed the intersection. But most of us aren’t pulling those stunts – most of us are trying to cruise safely from Point A to Point B. And as any urban cyclist knows, there are many situations wherein safety and the rules of the road are antithetical to one another. And sometimes, these situations call for the (safe) burning through a red light if no one else is going through the intersection.

The best advice I got as a new cyclist was to be alert, assertive, responsive and flexible. On a bicycle, you must understand that there are many challenges you have that motorists don’t face. You aren’t gently papoosed within a few tons of steel. You can’t move much quicker than a few miles an hour – especially when starting from a stop. A lot of drivers and pedestrians don’t factor you into their worldviews at all, and won’t really visually process you until they’ve already bungled something. You’d better be wearing a helmet, but you don’t have the protection of a seatbelt or airbag. Your little bike bell is no match for a horn to alert drivers of potential collisions. As a result, a cyclist must be a constant advocate for his or her own safety, and this can mean bending rules that are written for people in cars. Of course cyclists break laws – but that is partially born out of the fact that the majority of cycling fatalities are caused by motorists, not cyclists.

Recently, I was cycling home from work. It was getting dark, and so I had my lights on. I was rolling down the stretch of my commute with no bike lane. A driver blared her horn at me from behind, even though I was on the far right side of the lane and not breaking any rules. She then sped up very quickly, swerved around, and got caught by a stoplight slightly ahead. Staying on my right, I reached the stoplight too. The driver began to yell insults I won’t print here, lest the wrong googlers stumble upon this blog. She also said I was too damn slow. Um, you better believe I blew that red light. DC legislators and advocates are currently debating how to respond to widespread harassment of cyclists. Harassment like this, and the lengths motorists will go to swerve around us, cultivate a situation much more threatening than a few gently ignored traffic rules by a 30-pound bike moving four miles per hour. It is important for cyclists themselves and their orientation toward others on the road for us to keep moving, and stay safe. Building momentum after a full stop when the light turns green can pose a very real risk.

Many jurisdictions worldwide have legalized rolling stops on bicycles in certain situations, including Virginia in July. As far as I can tell, none of these areas experienced a spike in cycling accidents following the passage of these laws. I suspect that DC wouldn’t, either.

For now, this blogger will continue to break traffic laws safely. For those who object, please consider the fact that Virginia is cooler than you. And let that sink in.

– A “can’t get through a post without mocking Virginia or Maryland” Natalie

About Natalie Shure

literature, life and latte lady

5 Responses to “The (non-)red light District: on creatively interpreting traffic laws while cycling”

  1. Perfect last sentence!

  2. Aren’t you sort of overstating the freedom Virginia offers bikers, when the new laws there specify that biker must come to a full stop and wait a full two minutes before moving on? It’s not really equivalent to running a red light.

  3. It’s not about “public safety,” it’s about inconveniencing someone for seconds (worse case scenario is a minute). Let’s face it, in bike vs car battles, car wins just like rock crushes scissors. Do Americans really care if the cyclist gets hurt? Or do they care about how fast they get to their destination? Throw in a little envy and they have something to complain about while skirting the real issue. But, I’m with you, I’ll continue “roll” through stop signs and jump lights because it is safer for me.

    One thing is for sure, next time I see a kid stealing a candy bar from a store, I’m getting mine too!

  4. @andymakkolli, you make a good point. It is true that the Virginia law is more limiting than other laws permitting cyclists to run red lights and stop signs, because the law does dictate that they wait two minutes. Still, I would guess that in practice this law functions as a tacit endorsement of any safe light-running (because if the cyclist were observed doing so after a stop, it is unlikely that the observer could attest to the previous two minutes of the cyclist’s life.) Moreover, the law gives credence to the fact that cycling should not always be considered as being equal to driving, which is just the change in attitude I am gunning for. Also, it is worth noting that many other laws allowing red light running and stop sign blowery are more liberal than VA’s.


  1. Friday Link Love « chasing mailboxes d.c. - 2011/12/15

    […] Light Running: Remember last week’s link to a study about Red Light Running? Broads of the Beltway explained her experience and approach to being a cyclist in urban traffic. I can […]

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