“We should all be the same” not a reason to ban jumping reds

There was a Guardian article yesterday with the provocative title Should cyclists be allowed to jump red lights?. Nick Mead wrote that San Francisco was set to become the latest city to adopt some version of “the Idaho Law”, where people on bikes are allowed to treat a red light as a give way rather than a stop in certain situations (such as left turns, if you live in a country where folk drive on the left).

Such arrangements are already in place in a number of cities across Europe too, including a large number of junctions in Paris (as part of a scheme to triple the amount of journeys by bike by 2020).

Some arguments in favour of the Idaho Law are:

  • Fewer stops make cycling more convenient, which means more people will choose it as a transport mode (with all the benefits that brings to a city).
  • Freedom to turn left (in the UK) on red would mean fewer cyclists trapped on the inside of left-turning trucks, and therefore fewer deaths.
  • Various studies have found no increase in danger from introducing such laws (including to pedestrians).

I’m mildly in favour of sensible use of this, providing it’s used as a temporary measure to increase convenience and safety whilst a network of cycleways protected by physical segregation is put in place. There seems to be a risk that conflict between cyclists and pedestrians would be increased, but evidence elsewhere suggests that it would be fine.

However, there was one argument against that cropped up repeatedly in the comments on the Guardian article, that deserves to be comprehensively taken apart. Here’s an example:

No. I’m a cyclist and if it becomes the norm more deaths and confusion will ensue. Stop in the box at the front and wait or face penalties same as other road users.
Simon Jacklin, comment on Should cyclists be allowed to jump red lights?

This suggestion that all road users should be treated identically and subject to the same laws is both incorrect and dangerous.

Certainly within the UK, road legislation takes into account the level of risk posed by the vehicle you are operating. Take the most basic example: speed limits. Heavy vehicles are restricted to slower speeds than standard cars, and cycles (and pedestrians, for that matter) have no limits applied at all.

Another example. Drivers of HGVs need a medical exam, as well as additional theory and practical tests. Car drivers just take a basic theory and practical test. Cyclists have no test at all.

And other: You can only be behind the wheel of an HGV for a set number of hours each day. No such limit applies to smaller vehicles.

To say that people on bikes shouldn’t be allowed to treat stop lights as give way simply because drivers of motorised, non-emergency vehicles aren’t allowed to only holds if you’re willing to submit car drivers to every restriction that already applies to HGV drivers. After all, the only reason not to is if you believe it’s logical that operators of vehicles that pose less risk to others should be subject to less restrictive laws.

And if you sign up to that, then trying to argue against the Idaho Law solely because your two tonne car isn’t also allowed to treat red lights as give way is inconsistent.

There are many sensible reasons to suggest that allowing cyclists to roll through specific junctions would not be a good idea. Saying we should all be treated the same isn’t one of them.

PS: strict and presumed liability is a related idea to this “legislation based on the risk posed to others” concept. Might I tempt you to an article I wrote about it? (Cited by Chris Boardman, no less!)

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Spot on again Rob. I think this logic of “all should be treated the same” also explains the ludicrous phenomenon of some commentators stating that “cyclists should pay ‘road tax’ (sic), be licensed, have insurance and an MOT”. It’s not about whether or not these measures would make cycling or the roads safer; it’s about “*they* should suffer like *we* suffer”, as if these measures are just annoying obstacles put there out of badness, rather than necessary (minimal) safety/liability requirements commensurate to the risk posed by the vehicle.

The MOT whine in particular always makes me rage. I’m no great cycle mechanic but, to my mind, a “roadworthy” bike is virtually any bike that isn’t literally falling apart under your weight and which is capable of locomotion. The consequences of some sort of mechanical failure are rarely outright dangerous and 99 times out of 100 will likely only affect the rider – even an unforseeable catastrophic event (e.g. the frame snapping or a weld shearing) will only occasionally result in a fall. Moreover, having removable parts like lights makes a mockery of the usefulness of an annual check, as is the notion that having one would make a shred of difference five minutes out of the testing centre.

But of course that doesn’t matter. The subtext of the “Cycle MOT” isn’t about road-worthiness; it’s a seething, mean-spirited resentment about the unavoidable expense of a motor vehicle MOT and the perception that people on bikes avoid such expense unfairly. These commentators couldn’t give a stuff about whether or not the bikes are safe to ride, just as long as the errant cyclist is forced to endure the ritual of what I’ll call “maintenance theatre” and then pay a fee – any fee. *That’s* what’s matters.

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