How to jump a red light

Cyclists waiting at a red light

All the cyclists are patiently waiting at a traffic light. Should they jump it instead?

Risking a fine

For a start, if they were caught, they would be issued with a £50 Fixed Penalty Notice. In 2013, over 4,000 cyclists were issued a Fixed Penalty Notice after jumping a red light or ignoring a road sign.

Endangering pedestrians

Aside from a potential fine, there’s a question of endangering pedestrians. According to statistics provided by TfL, between 1998 to 2007, 4% of pedestrian injuries were the result of red light jumping by cyclists. With the remaining 96% involving motor vehicles.

Endangering themselves

What about endangering themselves? Between 2001 and 2005, two cyclists were killed by red light jumping. In the same period, seven motorcyclists were killed in the same way. More recently, there is only one case recorded where a cyclist “most likely” jumped a red light, though this wasn’t given as the cause of death.

According to a report by the CTC:

“In 2012, ‘Disobeyed automatic traffic signal’ was assigned by police to 180 pedal cycles out of 13,212 involved in reported incidents where contributory factor(s) were assigned to one or more of the vehicles involved.”

This means that in 1% of incidents, red light jumping was a factor.

How many of us are actually jumping red lights?

We all have our own ideas of how many cyclists are actually jumping red lights. The reality is, we can’t trust our anecdotal evidence. After all, a cyclist waiting patiently at a traffic light isn’t noteworthy to us, so it hardly registers. Whereas a cyclist jumping a red light will definitely attract our attention.

Most surveys, such as this controversial one by the Institute of Advanced Motorists, have sought to paint an image that red light jumping is pandemic. However, upon closer examination they feature a self selecting audience of a small sample size and they rely on the honesty of respondents.

The most authoritative source is a TfL study conducted in 2007 at five different locations around London. Researchers observed that out of 7502 cyclists, 16% jumped a red light.

Whether 16% is unacceptably high or low is up for debate. Sadly, I couldn’t find a conclusive comparable survey of the percentage of drivers that jump red lights or disobey the speed limit. For the speed limit, some observational surveys suggested 18% and others as high as 75%.

Why do cyclists jump red lights?

There are of course cyclists that jump red lights because they know they can get away with it, they are too lazy to wait or they enjoy the short respite it provides from cycling in traffic.

The most common argument is that it is safer to jump a red light. There have been cases where cyclists have been killed or injured whilst waiting at a red light from a heavy goods vehicle that hasn’t seen them.

I’m sure anyone that has sat on a bicycle at a traffic light next to a heavy goods vehicle or an aggressive driver will attest to the feeling of safety from getting away from that situation as fast possible.

In our recent piece about five of the greatest dangers cyclists face in London, heavy goods vehicles are right at the top.

Other anecdotal evidence suggests that red light jumping cyclists are less likely to be in a collision, because they are more confident cyclists.

So should you jump red lights?

I obey red lights for one good reason. Perception.

When the occasional cyclist jumps a red light, he or she creates a bad image for all cyclists in the minds of other road users. The knock on effects are many:

  • Drivers think that cyclists are rule breakers and treat them with less respect on the roads
  • People write in to their politicians and police about the menace of cyclists
  • The debate about cycling doesn’t move on beyond “but don’t cyclists jump red lights
  • The media feeds on the anger motorists feel and reports on red light jumping, which then fuels more anger
  • When it comes to politicians making decisions about providing safer infrastructure to cyclists, this negative perception clouds judgement

If you’re still going to choose to jump red lights whether it be for safety or for other reasons, then at least watch out for vulnerable pedestrians and do so cautiously.

Before you leave a comment on this post

Like the debate on helmet use, the question of red light jumping always flares up some heated commenting. What I’ve tried to put together here is a well reasoned post and I’d like the comments to focus on reasoning over anecdotal evidence and the emotions that rule breaking brings up. As always, any posts with swearing will be removed.

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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

118 Responses to How to jump a red light

  1. Mark 20/11/2014 at 10:49 am #

    to say that roads arent dangerous if you ride carefuly is ridiculous!

    you can be the best cyclist in the world and still be involved in near misses, aggressive driving, being hit from behind being cut up and left hooks!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Martin 01/12/2014 at 12:05 pm #

    What do they say about commonsense, ah yes, it’s not that common.

    I generally don’t jump red lights (mainly for the perception reason), but some junctions where there are filters and where the option to go straight on presents no risk, why wait. The best example used to be on the Eastway near Victoria Park in Hackney.

  3. sam 20/12/2014 at 1:48 pm #

    Having cycled in large cities for 20 years I’ve got into the habit of going through red lights more often than green lights. In fact I’ll even slow down if I see a green in the distance and wait for it to turn red. The logic being simple geometry, when travelling in the same direction as traffic you are in conflict with it, either one is trying to get around the slow cars, or visa versa. The conflict caused is usually exacerbated by cars not indicating or being able to see you in their mirrors (or not even looking).

    Compare with red lights, it’s very easy to time the gaps of the cars correctly to get across to the other side, there is no conflict because I am not in their way and they are not in mine, I simply weave through them. I have total control, how close I am to other cars is entirely up to me as I need not fear cars behind me coming close to me. I need not fear cars in front turning unexpectedly. Cars often hoot their horn, not because I get their way, but because they observe me doing something they lack the intelligence to understand.

    It seems crazy, but I know it’s much safer. I love it when traffic lights are broken, because EVERYONE slows down. The problem with green lights is they mean “go really fast and don’t look”, which is why most of cycle deaths occur with cyclists going through green lights and not looking around them properly. Now amber lights mean “go really really fast, because not much time left”. The logic is ridiculous, but lights are necessary for peak times otherwise traffic would become gridlocked.

    Now the necessity of lights only exists because of gridlock, something that only occurs with cars as they use up a stupid amount of space. In a world with only cyclists, there would be no need for traffic lights.

    I treat pedestrian crossings differently, I tend to really slow down because pedestrians are much less predictable than cars, children suddenly start running, people drop their belongings and suddenly stop. I’ll still usually jump them, but about the same speed as though I would be walking and therefore just consider myself to be a pedestrian.

    As for the low intelligence car drivers that think it’s “menacing” and “dangerous”, then they should be aware that simply be driving a one ton metal death machine they automatically increase the risk of killing other people. When a child runs out in front of me out of the blue, I can easily stop or swerve … even if I did hit them, they won’t die, a car will kill. The statistical danger to others of driving a car just a single mile is greater than cycling through red lights for an entire lifetime FACT.

    By driving a car you are extremely selfish and extremely stupid, besides natural causes you are the most likely reason someone will die or become seriously injured FACT. Cars kill more people than wars and violent crime put together. You are also going to destroy the planet.

    • JonnyB 20/12/2014 at 5:28 pm #

      Wow. Just wow. That is the most twisted, demented (un)logic I’ve probably ever heard – designed to convince yourself that being a selfish tool is o.k. I shall look out for the reports of your demise in the papers – I just hope you don’t injure anyone else when it happens.

      p.s I’m a cyclist (commuter, club/race, and leisure) and don’t own a car.

      • sam 20/12/2014 at 5:55 pm #

        I’ve been jumping lights for 20 years, your going to have to buy a lot of papers at this rate to see my demise in them. Did you even read this article? Two, possibly three, deaths attributed to jumping red lights in over a decade. Now look at the 16 or so cyclists that died in the last year, most involve heavy goods vehicles *at green lights*.

        Yes my tactics are selfish, I don’t want to die, I don’t get anywhere near HGVs and jumping red lights helps me avoid them. My logic is undeniable, it’s based on evidence, not intuition, not laws, not convention, not social pressure, but statistics.

        The most recent death involving the young women and a HGV turning left, had she jumped the red light, or rode on the pavement she would still be alive, that is a FACT, your response is based on emotion and social pressure, not logic.

        • JonnyB 20/12/2014 at 7:29 pm #

          You mean not your “logic” and based on your “Facts” (the word works just as well not in upper case) and experiences – I’d be interested if you could supply a strong source for the last fact (not forum gossip or “heard it at the club”), and your hard (and I trust reliable) red light jumping survival rate statistics too – please don’t cite this article as a source as even the author says the stats he uses may not be reliable.

      • Duncan 20/12/2014 at 6:24 pm #

        I too am a racer and leisure cyclist and how I wish I could commute on a bicycle….FACT I can’t.
        But owning a motorcycle (a very good way of gaining road awareness), several bicycles, two vans (employee) and my wifes car I feel fairly well versed in the good and bad points of road craft.
        Maybe ifl cyclists should take a road awareness course/test (something I am drilling into my 8yr old sons head) before been allowed to cycle in busy areas/or even at all, then maybe horse riders and then we would hopefully be pointing (don’t laugh…) in the same direction?

  4. Duncan 20/12/2014 at 2:23 pm #

    Interesting FACTs, But, just another non real world calculation. You seem to have missed out half the cyclists by not mentioning those that have no idea of or possess any road skills.
    I was waiting in my van at the new 1.4 million pound Catholic church cross roads in cambridge on Thursday, the first in the country to let cyclists ride off 10 seconds before the traffic has the green light to go. The suited guy on a bike in front of me who did have a cycle helmet on (something I too always do) obviously couldn’t even even wait for the cyclist green light so road across the opposing carraigeway , through the pedestrian waiting raised area in the road, across the next carraigeway and carried on along the road to the right. While we have people behaving like this we must all observe the rules of the road.
    I have now driven more than 550,000 accident free miles since hitting an unlit cyclist who jumped a red light.. Now that’s a FACT.

    If you’ve got water pouring through your ceiling you’ll be making alot of phone calls before you find one who can get all his gear onto a bicycle & come and get you out of your troubles!

    • sam 20/12/2014 at 5:37 pm #

      // If you’ve got water pouring through your ceiling you’ll be making alot of phone calls before you find one who can get all his gear onto a bicycle & come and get you out of your troubles! //

      Fair point, which is why I particularly target “cars”, that is unnecessary transportation of usually one person who could easily use public transport or cycle. I worked as gardener a while back, so I know your point.

      Furthermore, van drivers, contrary to popular belief tend to be safe drivers. Same with taxi drivers, if your on the road for huge amount of time you become extremely skilled at it. Per mile travelled I’d bet any money that the statistics would agree.

      Given the true number of professions that genuinely require motor vehicles is quite small, and that those professions will induce highly experienced drivers, I don’t think it has any relevance to my central argument based on mortality statistics.

    • MJ Ray 23/12/2014 at 10:24 am #

      Do you think that there were no plumbers before there were motor vehicles? It’s even making a comeback in some places. For example of a short-term UK comeback,

  5. Graham J 20/01/2015 at 12:25 pm #

    So you’re worried about being hit by a truck at the side of you while you’re waiting at a red light?

    I ride a motorbike for my daily commute and during my riding lessons prior to passing the bike test I was taught not to pull up alongside trucks, because they can’t see me.

    So I don’t. They are bigger than me so I give them room.But I still wait at red lights.

    I was nearly knocked over last night on a pedestrian crossing when the traffic lights were on red, the cars had all stopped and I crossed. Then a cyclist filtered at some considerable speed down the middle of the road (2 lanes of traffic) through the red light and narrowly missed me and another pedestrian. He didn’t stop. He just kept going.

    Another lesson I was taught – be respectful to other road users.Including pedestrians.

    Perhaps the government should bring back the Cycling Proficiency test.

    • MJ Ray 21/01/2015 at 10:34 am #

      So what do you do when a truck pulls up alongside you?

      • Angel 01/10/2017 at 10:26 am #

        Own the damn lane! Don’t let them besides you.

        Park right in the middle so they know you’re there and can’t leave you in that position.

    • MJ Ray 21/01/2015 at 10:36 am #

      And the Cycling Proficiency never went away: it’s now called something like the National Cycle Training Standard and the most famous course for that is called Bikeability.

  6. Duncan 20/01/2015 at 1:34 pm #

    Totally agree, it’s even got to the point where lorry, bus &van drivers etc have to put large warning stickers on the nearside rear of their lorries so as to inform some of the more kamikaze cyclists who obviously lack self preservation.

    • MJ Ray 21/01/2015 at 10:35 am #

      No, they choose to apply the “Cyclists eff off” stickers to their vehicles to warn other road users that either the vehicle is unroadworthy or they aren’t competent to drive safely and have given up trying.

  7. samsaundersbristol 21/01/2015 at 3:50 pm #

    I would like to make the point that traffic behaviour in general and levels of injury related to variations in general traffic behaviour are matters that cannot be observed from a driver’s seat or a cyclist’s saddle. There is no practical point to sharing anecdotes and prejudices. It might be fun or it might be cathartic, but deep down it’s unreliable.

    Why not have a peep at the closest we have to a full record of who bashed who and at what time, place, state of the road, level of daylight, red light, lamp light, and whatever else you want to know about? It might have flaws, but compared to personal observation it’s very very good.

    It also give you the opportunity to find any recorded collision you might have been involved in in recent years.

  8. Chris 03/10/2015 at 5:39 pm #

    I’m all for people respecting rules put in place to make the streets safe for everyone but I also know the sort of robotic and frightening society we get when the letter of the law is made king. Case and point:

    I’m a cyclist who rarely skips red lights (for example at night on empty back streets!). Today I got a ‘notice’ from a disproportionately angry and heavy-handed police officer who stopped me for pushing off early from a back-street t-junction when the light was still red. I had stopped at the light, the one pedestrian had crossed the street, and there was literally not another pedestrian or car in sight. I can’t argue that the light was still red… but REALLY??

    Weren’t there bigger fish to fry today than the admin and police time being spent on my situation? There are so many more perfectly legal situations I experience every day that are exponentially more dangerous than what took place today. It was muscle flexing for the sake of it. Shouldn’t police exercise fair judgement rather than ‘crackdown’ tactics? It makes me wonder if this is about revenue rather than principles? What’s next? Fining pedestrians for crossing outside of crossing points?

    • Greg 04/10/2015 at 4:44 pm #

      What about those lights that are supposed to detect vehicles, but sometimes don’t? You have no way of knowing whether you’ve been detected unless the lights turn green. I’ve sat at red lights for ages before on my bike, whilst the lights have gone through two or more phases for traffic from other directions, wondering whether to go through them at red or not, then a vehicle has turned up behind me and they’ve suddenly turned green. One particular set in Croydon, at a junction which also control trams doesn’t detect cycles. And there is a large building blocking the view from which trams come from – an accident waiting to happen. I did report to the London Borough of Croydon, but they didn’t get back to me. The outer boroughs don’t seem to think cycling is important enough to worry about!

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