Fighting over red lights: To stop or not to stop

I confess, I make a point of stopping for red lights.

Last week, another rider wanted to fight me because of it.

As an experienced cyclist, I feel an obligation to set an example — both for other riders, and to show drivers that we don’t all run red lights.

Not that they usually notice, of course.

Human nature being what it is, they may not notice the riders stopped next to them waiting for the light to change. But they’ll sure as hell see any rider who happens to blows through it.

Besides, it’s not only courteous and safer to stop on reds, it’s the law. And evidently, that’s what got the pugilistically inclined cyclist upset.

Maybe he was just hopped up on testosterone, driven to distraction by a riding companion whose figure, to steal a line from Woody Allen, “described a set of parabolas that could cause cardiac arrest in a yak.”

Or maybe he was just a jerk.

Either way, I was riding north in the bike lane on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica just south of Colorado Avenue, when I stopped at the red light at the on and off ramps for PCH. I probably could have continued through the intersection safely; the only danger I faced in going through the light was that a car turning onto Ocean from the onramp might carelessly stray into the bike lane.

But I’ve learned over the years never to count on a driver doing the right thing. And I recognize that red lights usually exist for a reason, even if I may not always understand or agree with it.

So I sat patiently and waited. The two riders I’d passed a little further up the block didn’t.

They rolled by on my right and continued through the red light; as they passed, the guy sarcastically commented, “Seriously, a red light? In the bike lane?”

So I simply glanced over and responded, “That’s the law.”

The next thing I knew, he was off his bike and standing in the roadway, fists balled and coming towards me. Fortunately, the light changed and I continued on my way, shaking my head that anyone would feel compelled to fight over something so trivial. And not the least bit concerned that he might catch up to me, as I glanced back a few moments later to see him pedaling furiously in my wake, yet falling further behind with every pedal stroke.

That’s not to say that I never run red lights.

In fact, I ran one just the other day on my way to the Mayor’s Give Me 3 press conference, when I found myself at a light where my bike couldn’t trigger the sensor and there was no pedestrian button to push.

So when traffic going in the opposite direction got the green and I didn’t, I waited until all the cars in the left turn lane went through, then rode through the light. And hoped that the stop light that held back cars on the busy street I was crossing wouldn’t change while I was still in the intersection.

I also recognize there are situations where it may actually be safer to ride through the red than to sit at a dangerous intersection waiting to get hit.

But the fact remains that the law require cyclists to stop for red lights, just like cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians. And as much as I would prefer to see an Idaho stop law here, to the best of my knowledge, it doesn’t currently exist anywhere outside of the Famous Potato state.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I’m going to tell you to stop. Or chase you down and berate you in an attempt to police our sport if you go through a light. I assume you’re a grownup and fully capable of making your own decisions, whether or not I happen to agree with them.

But what I can’t accept are riders who insist on going through the light when someone else has the right-of-way.

Like the two fixie riders I recently watched weave their way through a crosswalk crowded with pedestrians, forcing the only road users more vulnerable than we are to get the hell out of their way or risk getting hurt.

(For anyone unclear on the concept, as long as they’re not crossing against the light, pedestrians in a crosswalk always have the right of way.)

Or the three riders I watched blow through the busy intersection of Santa Monica and Beverly Glen in Century City over the weekend, laughing as the drivers crossing on the green light had to brake or swerve to avoid them. And making me cringe with the expectation that one of those drivers might not be able to stop in time — whether to avoid the riders or the other cars scattering in their wake like so many pinballs.

Somehow, they made it across safely. Though one or more could easily have ended up adding to last weekend’s carnage.

Which brings up one last point.

Few things are riskier than going through a red light when opposing traffic is present. As bike lawyer Bob Mionske has pointed out, if you get hit after running a red light, you’re the one who’ll be held at fault, regardless of what the other person did or didn’t do.

And good luck getting your medical expenses paid after that. Or any kind of settlement, for that matter.

So when the light turns yellow, I’m reaching for my brakes. And making a quick calculation about whether I can make it through the intersection before it turns red, or if I need to pull those levers and wait until the light changes again, just like the drivers next to me.

Whether or not you choose to stop is your decision.

But just remember, going through the light is often dangerous.

And always illegal.


Gary says it’s time to stop letting the roadway bullies win. LADOT Bike Blog looks at sidewalk riding in the South Bay. Claremont Cyclist offers the history of roads in response to the KSU writer who claimed roads are for cars, explaining that roads are for general transportation and “not the hegemony of a single mode of transportation over others.” NorCal residents struggle to reclaim the street Caltrans turned into a highway; thanks to Brent for the link. More bicycle scorchers in 19th Century Denver. Zeke writes about his experiences on the Blue Ridge Breakaway. Bicycling Magazine offers seven steps to pain-free cycling. Austin on Two Wheels says the new riding stats from New York should be the death knell of vehicular cycling. A Maryland cyclist is killed in a right hook with a semi. Now that looks like a nice commute. A New Orleans community activist plans a 1600 mile bike ride along the Gulf Coast to raise awareness about fuel dependence in the wake of the BP oil spill. Bicycling through Tokyo at the speed of light. A insurance company plants unlocked bikes around London to show how easy they are to steal; turns out, no one wants them. Riding without brakes is illegal in the UK, and usually not smart. Miss Scotland rides a bike.

Finally, a Connecticut driver encourages cyclists to share the roads, but please act like adults and leave your egos at home. Somehow, I get the feeling he doesn’t like us very much.


  1. JRF says:

    A self-preservation reason for waiting for the green light is the tendency for motorists at light-controlled intersections to pay attention ONLY to the lights for when it is safe to proceed, rather than using the light to determine right-of-way and THEN checking the actual traffic situation for when it is safe to proceed.

    While I support “Idaho” interpretation of stop signs, I don’t see how it is compatible with light controlled intersections because the traffic behavior and expectations is not at all the same.

    On sensor controlled lights not responding to bikes, check your local road folks about how to report such things. I have found the Seattle Department of Transportation to be extremely responsive, dispatching crews within days to both adjust sensitivity and mark the pavement with the optimal spot for cyclists to be detected.

  2. bikinginla says:

    Thanks for the advice, JRF. I only wish L.A. officials were as responsive as Seattle.

    As for the Idaho Stop and red lights, it wouldn’t come into play that often in busy urban areas like ours. But I have found myself stopped at red lights at times when I’m the only one there, and it would be much easier and safer to go through.

  3. Mr Agrro is just crazy stuff, though I had a tailgating guy belligerently offer to kick my ass when I stopped for some pedestrians and he ran into me.

    I don’t know why Austin claims NYC’s 127% increase in cycling is an endorsement for cycling facilities. Riverside, CA adopted a bicycle master plan in 2007, after which they painted 22 miles of bike lanes and completed a half mile section of the Santa Ana River Trail. From 2005 to 2008, Riverside’s bike mode share shot up 127%; from 2007 to 2008, the change was 56% increase.

    I commented more at Austin’s blog, but I suspect there are other factors in play besides just more bike facilities.

    • bikinginla says:

      I agree about Austin. While I think the huge increase in New York ridership is at least in part due to better infrastructure, it also has a lot to do with the current international boom in cycling. As you’ve point out, biking has also exploded in cities that have done little or nothing to improve infrastructure and safety, L.A. being a perfect case in point.

      This is the second boom period I’ve seen. The first followed the release of Breaking Away, which is when I started riding, followed by the American’s success at the ’84 Olympics, when Connie Carpenter, Rebecca Twig, Alexi Grewal, et al medaled, and Greg LeMond’s victories in the Tour de France.

      The question is, how many of those new riders will keep it up, and how many will eventually give up riding, as so many riders from the ’80s boom period did.

      • The counter-example in San Francisco, which has had a similar biking boom as NYC in the midst of a court injunction prohibiting any new bike project at all during that time frame.

  4. Eric B says:

    You basically nailed the appropriate red-light philosophy for LA: Use judgement and never violate someone else’s right-of-way.

    As for those T intersections, it’s not clear who would be at fault if a car swung wide turning onto Ocean from PCH and hit a bike that ran the red. I hope to never find out.

  5. Eric Weinstein says:

    Ted –

    Bike that way often. Probably you had the right response. When they get out of the truck / get off the bike – the best action is to leave. Too many people take way too many drugs. They were clearly not rational as that point. He won’t be any more rational after you knock him over either.

    That being said; I go threw most T-intersections like that, unless I see some potential danger: pedestrians in the crosswalk, big truck, unlicensed overloaded pickup, etc. My personal rule is to stop pedaling, look around, stop if warranted. The same at stop signs – if there’s no traffic, I go through. If there’s a car/ pedistrian / blind corner. I stop. Almost the same for lights. I stop, look around, continue only in the unlikely situation that there’s no traffic. One of the many advantages of bicycling over a car is vastly better sight-lines.

    Don’t see any need to respond to the “challenge” presented by another cyclist blowing threw a light. Even if they say something. I look for myself, then decide.

    Usually catch ’em by the next light…

  6. CYCLER says:

    Whew- someone had too much coffee this morning.

    Although I only infrequently call people out for running a light with no cross traffic, I had to yell at TWO people running the light right in front of me when _I_ had the green this afternoon. I was riding the rod brake bike and going slow, otherwise in one case there would have been a real problem.
    There have been two bikers killed in the Boston area in what appear to have been light running incidents, and I just don’t get why people think it’s cool to blow intersections, or would have hostility to people who choose to obey the law.

  7. “On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I’m going to tell you to stop. Or chase you down and berate you in an attempt to police our sport if you go through a light. I assume you’re a grownup and fully capable of making your own decisions, whether or not I happen to agree with them.”

    Does this mean you don’t agree with Chris Frost’s stance that we should “police our own sport”?

    • bikinginla says:

      Yes and no. My effort to police our own sport is done by expressing my opinions right here, and riding in a way that I hope sets an example and avoids any unnecessary risk to myself and those around me.

      My experience is that trying to correct the behavior of other riders invariably results in getting the finger, or worse, and just leaves both parties pissed off, while changing nothing.

      By and large, the results just aren’t worth the aggravation.

  8. gg says:

    When I ride alone I never run reds. I’ve been very tempted at T-intersections but I know that the day I do it is the day I’ll get a ticket. It always seems to go that way.

    I’m a girl so avoiding conflict and being safe is very important to me. Sometimes people say something to me if I’m going too slow, too fast, stop at a light or sign, etc. I just don’t say anything back. Better I come off a wuss than get beat up or worst. People are crazy and I can live with being punked by some stranger for a couple of seconds if it means dodging their wrath. Guess that does make me a wuss.

    Where I do have conflicts is when I go on group rides. There’s little to no traffic usually and the rest of the group likes to barrel through the reds. I always feel iffy about it but then I don’t want to be left behind. So I’m inconsistent with groups. :-

  9. Jim Lyle says:

    Locally, the fine for running a stop sign is $200 (double that to include court costs, etc.) Running a red light is $500 plus costs. More costly is your life or well being if you are involved in an accident. When I was younger, I frequently blew through stop signs and the occasional red light. Now that I’m older, I stop at all red lights and at the very least slow down, look both ways, and pay lip service to all stop signs. Take time to smell the roses while you still can. Just my dos centavos.

    • bikinginla says:

      Let’s see…at today’s exchange rate, that works out to 0.15 cents. I think you’re shortchanging yourself, Jim; your advice is worth a lot more than that.

  10. Richard says:

    I have had little success getting lights fixed. There is a light on my route that will not change when going south but works when heading north. When I contacted someone about it I was told they could not fix it to work for bicycles. I treat all dysfunctional lights as stop signs. Stopping at a light and then going after waiting through a full cycle is not running the light as long as you yield. You could possibly get a ticket anyhow. But you are meeting the general requirements of the law. My brother was picked up at work and hauled in for 17 tickets at the same light. He worked a nigh shift and an officer watched him wait at the light and when he came through he would ticket him. When it came before the judge he was not happy with the officer and told him he did not want this situation repeated.
    I quit riding with large groups because of the lack of intelligence they use at intersections. I had a clown on a road bike. Buzz me at a red light. He hit the 13″ safety flag I use on his way by. He felt it necessary to call me a looser and other choice names after I asked him what his problem was. The outcome was not going his way so he called 911. He told me this while I continued on my way home. I was close to home when his personal friend with a badge showed up and fed me a line of garbage. I let the badge know that I would go to court and the stupidity stopped. Since then I have vocalized my anger at 46 people who have run lights on there bicycles. Some of them have attempted to get physical. I will continue doing this to idiots. I speak to every officer I see requesting them to ticket people for not only running lights but also riding on the sidewalk without giving the right away to pedestrians and wrong way riding. I carry a heavy chain or a hitch ball when walking with the wife to discourage motorists from invading my space at intersections. You would be surprised how many motorists backup out of the crosswalk or quit the illegal left turn as my wife steps of the curb when they see heavy metal. I am careful not to be to violent. Exercising your rights is a form of violence. I like riding the tandem because motorists avoid being stupid more often when riding it than when I ride the single. I am going to get a cargo bicycle and through a motor on it so I can haul the wife to Trader Joe’s. I will have a sign on the back of it beware this bicycle will stop at every light and stop sign.

  11. Will Campbell says:

    It’s one thing to ridicule someone for breaking the law but to shame someone for obeying it? That’s a new one for the next edition of The Book of Dickbags and Douchewads, Vol. VII.

    • bikinginla says:

      Vol. VII??? Dang, with so many previous editions, I’m bound to be in at least one of them. And maybe more than once.

  12. Joe says:

    Congratulations for a sane and fair approach to the topic.

    One minor quibble: as I understand it, your legal responsibility is to not enter the intersection on a red; if you are already in the intersection when it turns red, you’re not breaking any law, and cross-traffic is required to let you clear the intersection before they go.

    • bikinginla says:

      Very true, Joe. As I understand it, the standard for motor vehicles is as long as you have two wheels inside the intersection when it turns red, you’re legal. I don’t know if we need one wheel or two to meet the standard.

      On the other hand, even though cross-traffic is required to wait, I try to avoid putting that much faith in drivers to stay put until I’m all the way through.

  13. Michael says:

    I ride that stretch of Ocean several time a week. I would like to claim that I stop for all red lights all the time, but that’s not true. I occasionally run the light at T-intersections when there is no entry/exit on my side. I probably shouldn’t and will get a ticket eventually, but I get really frustrated that the lights are timed so that you cannot build any momentum. Thus, I can see the argument for just continuing when you won’t cross the path of traffic. But getting angry at a biker who stopped is just crazy. People like that cause us problems because provoke confrontations with drivers.

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