In Boston, Red Means Go!

When a law whose purpose is to promote safety has the opposite effect, maybe its time to change the law.   Maybe there is something to learn from the fact that so few cyclists stop at red lights when there is no cross traffic. 

Anyone who races through an intersection without looking — in any vehicle — is stupid and a danger to both themselves and others. I have no patience for hot-shot cyclists who ignore red lights as if neither the law nor common sense applies to them. But neither do I have any sympathy for car drivers who race into yellow lights or pedestrians who walk out from between parked cars.

However, it seems to be the bad behavior of bicyclists that catches the public’s attention. The Globe recently ran a story about cyclist law-breaking. And I can’t count the number of times that a friend has complained to me about the outrageous way bicylists go flying through red lights.  In fact, when I’m driving my car (yes, I own one) I sometimes feel the same way.  It’s clear that not only is blindly racing into cross traffic dangerous, it enrages motorists, making it harder to get their support for bike-friendly policies.

On the other hand, there are some legitimate reasons for bike riders to be allowed to treat red lights and stop signs as “yield” signs — meaning you look for cross traffic and if anything is coming you let it go, but if the cross road is clear you keep going.  I call it “yield and roll.”

I am NOT suggesting that anyone should ever run a red (or even a green) light without looking, or keep going when there is cross traffic — wether the light is red or green.  I am suggesting that the law be changed so that bike riders can be properly held accountable and car drivers know what to expect.

We have already changed the law to allow motorists to violate “standard” traffic regulations by making a “right on red.”  Why not bicyclists? As it turns out, Idaho has already changed its laws to allow cyclists to treat red lights as if they were stop signs and stop signs as if they were yield signs — which they call “stop and roll.”  And I’ve heard that it is being considered in several other states as well. It makes sense; and here is why:

First, since road safety increases with increasing numbers of cyclists, the first priority is finding ways to increase ridership. Stopping and starting at every corner adds up to 20% to the muscle exertion of cycling; making it easier to get around by bike will make it easier for ordinary people to use one for short trips or to commute, which will increase the number of bicyclists on the street which will reduce the accident rate which will attract more cyclists – a positive feedback loop.

Second, it is much safer for a bicyclist to go through an intersection ahead of the back-up of cars waiting for the light to change. Getting a head-start through the intersection protects vulnerable cyclists from getting hit by the “right hook” of cars coming from behind as well as from on-coming cars turning left across her forward path.

(The danger of “right hooks” to both pedestrians and cyclists is the reason that most European countries do not allow “right on red.” In situations where cross traffic is too continuous or heavy to allow the “yield and roll” idea  a similar head-start for more vulnerable cyclists is provided by painting a “bike box” in front of the car’s stop line, as New York is now doing, or by allowing bicyclists to go when the walk signal is displayed.)

The Idaho experience shows that even a partial step towards “yield and roll” has exactly the desired impact.  An article in April, 2009, in The Oregonian (’Idaho Stop’ is a go for bicycle safety“) cites research done at the University of California’s School of Public Health showing that the Idaho law has made travel safer, while getting more people to commute by bike.  During the year following passage of the law in 1982, bicycle injuries in the state fell by 14.5 percent.  And according to Jason Meggs, a UC-Berkeley researcher, Boise “has actually become safer for bicyclists than other [US] cities which don’t have the law.”

(Ironically, it appears that it was traffic judges, not cyclists, who originally pushed for the changes.  Carl Bianchi, a retired administrative director of Idaho’s state courts, was quoted as saying: “Police were ticketing bike riders for failing to come to a complete, foot-down stop.” But state judges saw these “technical violations” as irrelevancies that were simply clogging up their courts. “We recognized that the realities of bicycling were a lot different than driving a car.”)

Until the law is changed in Massachusetts, we have to stop letting people scapegoat bicyclists. Car drivers regularly exceed the posted speed limit.  Pedestrians regularly ignore “don’t walk” signals.  The fact is that our state’s entire transportation system is a mess.  No one feels safe.  No one feels that our traffic rules and road systems are well designed. It’s not that everyone in our city, or even in our state, is a scofflaw or flagrantly unconcerned with other people’s well-being.  It’s just that in the face of such dysfunctional incoherence, car drivers, pedestrians, truck drivers, bicyclists, even in-line skaters feel that it is legitimate to simply do what works, or is convenient, even if it isn’t legal.  I’m not endorsing that attitude, I’m just acknowledging that it exists.

When everyone, no matter how they travel, feels safe and able to efficiently get where they’re going, then everyone will be much more likely to obey the rules.  And part of achieving that goal is having rules that make sense.

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