The view from behind the wheel: cyclists shouldn’t jump red lights, but don’t assume they’re reckless

By Chris Knapman
9:00AM BST 17 Sep 2013

Source: The Telegraph

Telegraph Motoring’s Chris Knapman replies to the argument that cyclists should be allowed to jump red lights

Staggered traffic lights would help calm the fire felt between motorists and cyclists

Staggered traffic lights would help calm the fire felt between motorists and cyclists

Last week my colleague, Chris Harvey, wrote a piece about how cyclists should be allowed to jump red lights.

His article got your attention. More than 750 comments later, we figured it was about time somebody from the Telegraph’s Motoring desk stood up for all the drivers out there.

So here we go with a rant about bloody cyclists and how they put everybody in danger by jumping red lights and riding in the blind spots of cars and trucks. Or do we?

I’ve now worked in London for more than three years, but I live in Surrey. To get from one to the other I generally use either the train, a car or my bicycle. Forget the train for now; that’s irrelevant to this debate. The point I’d like to make is that it’s possible to like cars and also enjoy cycling. These are not, contrary to what you might read elsewhere, mutually exclusive interests. And it’s not just me: there are millions of us out there who feel the same.

As for the rift between drivers and cyclists, well, it’s just possible that it’s the product of a few bad eggs that have been whipped up by the media into a meringue-like mountain rather than the molehill it actually is.

Why contribute to the debate, then? Well, the fact of the matter is, this column was going to be written by somebody. At least if it’s me I know it’s not going to be full of anti-cyclist sentiments, which would only serve to put us right back where we started.

So, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the matter. I hope they’re pretty reasonable – though I’m sure not all will agree.

  1. Driving or cycling in London is not really like driving or cycling in most other places. For a start, there are an awful lot of people, and they are generally either very busy (i.e. working) or have lots of time to dither (i.e. tourists). This is a calamitous combination. You only need to try and rush across a busy station concourse, dodging tourists and their wheelie-suitcases, to see what I mean. So when somebody who lives in London writes about cycling, it doesn’t really apply to most of the rest of the country.
  2. A by-product of the sheer volume of people in London is that you’re much more likely to bump into somebody who holds wildly different opinions and values to your own. That’s part of what makes this city great, but it can also lead to problems. In the case of this debate, in London you’re chances of meeting somebody with strong feelings about drivers/cyclists is much higher than it would be if you were in a small village on the Isle of Skye.
  3. Not every motorist drives to the same standard. There are good drivers and there are bad drivers. What’s more, there are good drivers who think they’re bad and, more dangerous still, bad drivers who think they’re Jenson Button. This morning, driving into London I witnessed one chap talking on his phone whilst at the wheel. Never to be condoned, but particularly idiotic when you’re in a built-up area (not to mention mind-boggling given he was in a brand new Lexus, which almost certainly had Bluetooth). Now, he might well think he is a good driver (ask most people and they will say that they are), but on this evidence you’d have to conclude otherwise.
  4. Not every cyclist rides to the same standard. Some are safe, some are not. What’s more, there are endlessly varying degrees of unsafe cycling, from not anticipating what those around you are doing to cycling across busy junctions whilst wearing headphones that block out the noise of surrounding traffic.Note too that it’s not just drivers who are annoyed by unsafe cyclists, but also other cyclists and pedestrians (the same train of thought applies to unsafe drivers, who are hated not just by cyclists, but by other drivers too).
  5. Particularly dangerous, no matter how many wheels they have at their disposal, are those who cannot justify their actions, who are hopelessly unsafe without even realising it. I remember my old psychology teacher, a lovely lady, arriving for a lecture one day and describing how she couldn’t remember a single thing about her drive to get there. This wasn’t some nutter overtaking people in 30mph zones (well, not as far as she could remember), just somebody who obviously had other things on her mind and had gone into “auto pilot”. Given her seeming lack of concentration, would she have given a cyclist enough space? Would she have even noticed them?

Similarly, there are cyclists who place themselves in danger without realising they are doing it. They mean no harm, they just don’t have a clue what they’re doing.

As for the whole cyclists being able to jump red lights argument, I can see why it riles motorists. But just because a cyclist jumps a red light, it doesn’t make them reckless. Like Chris, they might feel justified in doing so because, as vulnerable road users, it gives them a head start on the traffic around them. I’m sure that many motorists realise this, but so too will they have seen cyclists running reds for no reason other than to save a bit of time. And that, quite simply, is against the law.

Finally, we must acknowledge that even the safest motorist or cyclist sometimes makes a mistake. The problem in a city as busy as London is that the mistake in question will more often than not have an impact on others, and so the stereotype of the reckless cyclist and impatient motorist – or vice versa – is reinforced.

What to do, then? Short of banning all the bad motorists and cyclists from our roads, the answer is almost certainly better infrastructure. More cycle lanes, perhaps even a staggered traffic light system. Better education for all road users would also do a world of good.

But those are long-term goals, subject to years of debate and planning before they really make a difference.

In the meantime, we have to make the most of what we’ve got, which in the case of London is a city designed for cars that’s being slowly adapted to somehow accommodate a rapidly increasing community of cyclists.

As a stop gap, can I suggest that as road users we all vow to concentrate a bit more on the task in hand? And that we give other road users a bit more time, a bit more space and a bit more consideration, regardless of their mode of transport?