Running Red Lights
Few things raise the ire of motorists (and some cyclists) more than cyclists running red lights. Yet anybody who has ridden in major cities has seen riders proceeding through red lights. Why do they do this?
Cyclists operate on streets that are designed for cars. The current traffic infrastructure does not work as well for cyclists:
Many lights have sensors that do not pick up cyclists. Cyclists often wait at red lights for minutes, and the light only changes when a car pulls up behind them. If there is no traffic, they may wait for a very long time.
Cars travel mostly on big streets with few stop signs and timed lights. Cyclists tend to use side streets where they encounter stop signs or red lights every few blocks.
Cyclists travel at lower speeds and are less insulated from their surroundings, so they are more aware of traffic around them. As they approach an intersection, they usually know where other traffic is, without needing to come to a complete stop before checking for traffic from the right and left.
After waiting at lights that don’t change and after stopping at stop signs without encountering cross traffic, some cyclists take matters in their own hands and ignore these devices that clearly were not designed for them. Unfortunately, we don’t provide any guidance in this process, so many cyclists seem to see only two alternatives:
Obey all lights and stop signs
Ignore all lights and stop signs
The former are the cyclists who are waiting at a red light at 5 a.m., with no traffic anywhere nearby. The latter are the people who just blast through intersections on their bike without ensuring their safety or others’. Neither makes sense.
The “Idaho Stop”
An interesting alternative has been used in Idaho since 1982. There, cyclists are allowed to treat red lights as stop signs, and stop signs as yield signs. It’s commonly referred to as the “Idaho Stop”. Let’s look at what this means in practice:
Red light = stop sign: Cyclists stop and look right and left. If there is no cross traffic, they can proceed. If there is cross traffic, they wait.
Stop sign = yield sign: Cyclists look right and left. If there is no cross traffic, they can proceed without fully stopping. If there is cross traffic, they stop and yield.
These rules are clear and make sense. They don’t allow cyclists to run lights, nor be inconsiderate and cut off other traffic. But they do free cyclists from the unreasonable burden of having to stop or wait at empty intersections, time and again.
In Idaho, the law has been a success. There has been no increase in the numbers of cyclists involved in accidents. According to one official, cyclists “have more respect for a law that legalized actual riding behavior.” In other words, if you give people rules that make sense, most will follow them. And that may well reduce the number of inconsiderate cyclists who run lights and cut off other traffic. It adds a sensible alternative to the false choice of either “obeying” or “ignoring” all lights and stop signs. The “Idaho Stop” provides sensible rules of when to proceed and when to stop and wait.