bikebritain Says December 3, 2011

The Red Light 'Dilemma'

Buckle up, readers. This article introduces a multi-faceted narrative and then adroitly brings the disparate threads together to deliver a cogent point. In this way it is a lot like Pulp Fiction, only with more cheeseburgers and fewer heroin overdoses. I also sound like insufferable berk, but I have made my peace with this and so must you.

Last week, I was out running. Exercise, for the sheer pleasure of it. Or, more accurately, to offset my poor diet and tendency to binge drink. In the darkness of the early evening, I was puffing my way around the back streets of London Bridge at a pace marginally quicker than some infants walk, when I was very nearly demolished by a cyclist. I cannot rule out this being some sort of vigilante targeting me for my crimes against running but let’s assume it wasn’t; it’ll make for a better article. Initially, let me reinforce the fact that I was on the pavement at the time. Next, I need to make clear that this was not some amateur adolescent yahoo, but an apparently competent adult cyclist who had chosen to take their route through the pedestrian domain. Finally, and perhaps the reason for choosing to plot such a course; they were dressed in a selection of colours from the dismal end of the palette and had decided that mounting any sort of light source on their bicycle was a step they were not prepared to take. However, the thing that really ground my gears was that the individual so evidently ill-suited to an after-dark pedal had taken the key precaution of wearing a helmet. Consider this for a moment: recognising there is some danger inherent in the act of cycling to the point at which you protect yourself and then going ahead and maximising the danger to everyone else. But, let’s be fair - after all, when you’re in the cycling shop perusing the helmet-look that is so this winter, you are typically miles away from the bicycle lights. Oh no, that’s right, you’re not. You’re right next to them. Just as in the same way when you are mowing down joggers (sic) on the pavement YOU ARE RIGHT NEXT TO THE ROAD.

Enough of that for a moment. Let me take you back a few months. I’m cycling to work. On the road – a quiet road, early in the morning. Up ahead, the lights for a pedestrian crossing turn red, with the pedestrian already now safely across. I slow down, and look for any other potential road-crossers who wish to take advantage of this green-man opportunity. There are none, to the best of my analysis, and so at a moderate pace I cruise through the red light and continue my journey. Well, continue it for about fifty yards, at which point two police motorcyclists box me in and force me over to the side of the road. “Look officer, it was an all-you-can-eat restaurant and so I was within my rights...” I blurted out, but it turned out that he wanted to give me a serve for jumping the red light. Of course, I was bang to rights and so I took my medicine and expressed moderate regret for my actions. However, this ticking off then developed a postcode all of its own and ten minutes later I rode away afterwards feeling really rather indignant that I had copped the accumulation of contempt this officer had evidently developed over several years. At first, I felt rather indignant, and wished I’d perhaps refuted some of his more poisonous bile with more gusto, but this soon gave way to the feeling that the guy had a point. He had no way of knowing that I didn’t jump every red light I came across, didn’t ignore every pedestrian crossing, and tried not to display the patience of a fruit-fly at every opportunity.

This morning, again on my way to work, I nearly bore witness to what could have been a serious accident. Waiting at traffic lights, somewhere just north of Clapham Common, a fellow cyclist decided he couldn’t wait the (as it turned out) fifteen seconds for the lights to change in his favour. Freewheeling through the red light, he realised just in time that traffic was approaching from the right and had to bail out onto the pavement, where he missed by inches a father walking with his two kids to school. The cyclist was still trying to extricate himself from the fence and an ear-bashing from the disgruntled patient when the lights turned green and I, along with about half a dozen others, got on our way.

“You cyclists, you want all these cycle lanes and everything else but you won’t even obey the rules of the road,” the policeman had said to me. Not really, I thought, but the more I considered it, I realised the point was valid, although perhaps not in the way he intended. Of course, it isn’t an exchange – our compliance with the highway code in exchange from some sort of minimum protection from drivers. However, how can I legitimately complain about the abysmal driving I see every day if I treat red lights and basic rules of the road as optional? If I believe I only run red lights on my bicycle when it is safe to do so, does that make me right? Maybe the other cyclists using a discretionary approach believe they are similarly correct?

So, you might well ask, what entitles me to climb atop the giant soapbox I currently straddle? Nothing, really, but since my run-in with the fuzz I have deliberately adopted a policy of hyper-compliance. I wanted to see how much additional time and effort was required to adhere completely to the conventions of the road. I also wanted complete smugness when complaining about anyone else and, if I’m honest, I didn’t want to be pulled over by the cops again.

It may have a lot to do with my cycle route being wedged in the belligerent hotbed of Greater London, but my new policy has not cost me any perceptible time. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t pounding through every junction flicking the V’s at everyone, but a slight adjustment on aggression has not delayed me unduly. It is often quite stressful trying to calculate whether you can negotiate a junction in one piece without relying on the light that does it for you and that assumes you don’t make a royal pigs ear of it, like my friend this morning.

So, great, I’m now the safest and therefore best cyclist in the world. Things are looking up. Except, of course, I’m not and they’re not. It’s still pretty perilous out there and, if my policy actually does entitle me to the moral high ground, this isn’t a particularly useful weapon when the number 155 chugs past and then pulls into the bus stop immediately in front of you. Perhaps I had my potential assailant from last week all wrong. Maybe self-preservation is the way forward. Maybe it was I who should have been on the lookout for him rather than the other way around, though it’s hard to see anything with sweat pouring into your eyes. Are the cyclists who take liberties any less safe in the long run? Perhaps entering and exiting junctions exactly as if you were driving a car/bus/tank is the worst thing you can do? If you enter junctions like I did in a camper van in France in 2007, it is definitely the worst thing you can do.

I think my problem is that I like to see cycling as a force for good. I want to point out to people the value of it, and I want to be able to defend cycling against the inevitable retort that cyclists are dangerous, incompetent lunatics without having to repress a thousand memories. I want cyclists to be everything other road users are not. I have a dream. No, stop that. My revolution will have to wait until my readership has multiplied at an exponential level and, in the meantime, I might have to satisfy myself with just getting this off my chest.

Now, how do I get down from this soapbox? Those cheeseburgers aren’t going to eat themselves.

Words by Lukey

Thumbnail Image from 

Slider Image by Graeme Robertson/Getty Images from the article "Why I was foolish to mock Police bike training" by Peter Walker, Guardian, 14th April, 2010

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