Riding against a red light


Bikes are vehicles, and therefore cyclists are supposed to follow the same rules of the road as any other vehicle. Nowadays, sensors under the road at intersections detect when a vehicle is waiting. Unfortunately, those sensors do not always detect a bicycle. What are we to do, wait there all day?

There is legal precedent for concluding that when a sensor does not detect you, it is malfunctioning and you may proceed as long as: 1) you have waited through one sequence of signal changes to “prove” that it truly is not detecting you, and 2) the “coast is clear”.

I have a few comments about this:

1) Some intersections are so empty that there is no sequence of signal changes to wait through. You need to wait a reasonable amount of time before deciding it’s time to proceed.

2) Unfortunately, most cyclists do not even stop at lights (as long as the coast is clear), much less wait through a sequence. As I’ve said, I wish this weren’t the case because it just further diminishes the respect we cyclists have with motorists who witness a cyclist’s disregard for the law. Cyclists are especially bad when making near-full-speed right turns on a red, just assuming they will be to the right of any oncoming car. But motorists don’t know if you’re going to pull in front of them or not as you turn, so they brake or swerve — and build up their disgust toward cyclists. This is not to say I come to a complete stop at every stop sign or red light for a right turn. Rather, I pretty much do what cars do — slow way down almost to a stop and roll on if it’s clear.

3) I have spoken with police officers about this topic, and most start with the position that proceeding against a red light is strictly prohibited. However, they usually come to understand why it makes sense to proceed, especially when most states have laws specifying situations when vehicles may proceed against a red light when a signal is malfunctioning. Sometimes the officers have said I should get off my bike and walk it over to press the walk button. Being a vehicle, the bike’s “driver” is not required to do this, nor are there always walk buttons.

In Ohio where I live, a bill was introduced last year specifically allowing a cyclist to proceed under the two conditions I laid out in my 2nd paragraph. Unfortunately, the bill died from lack of legislative movement.

On group rides at a left turn where we already knew the sensors would not detect us, the lead cyclists would just fly right through the red light and everyone followed (you can’t get behind the group!). I was never sure what I could do but to follow, because if I stopped and waited a “reasonable” amount of time to prove the signal was defective, I would no longer be a part of that group ride. Such are the dynamics of the masses, Dr. Freud.


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