KNOW YOUR LIGHTS




My chances, finally, of living out the edgy Clash lifestyle I’ve secretly craved, are doomed. This realisation flared up in my head, in synch with the lights in front of me, as they changed in turn from red, to amber, to green and I duly started churning my cranks. The problem is I’m never going to jump red lights. I will wait diligently for the correct colour to appear before humbly pedalling across. So you can gather from this that I am neither an iconoclast, nor an anarchist, nor an ‘RLJ-er’ (red light jumper). Obeying traffic signals, I fear, is not very punk rock.

I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the group responsible for White Riot, Guns of Brixton, Death or Glory, I Fought the Law, Bank Robber and Spanish Bombs, was not concerned with toeing the line and obeying all of society’s rules. That’s a major part of why the Clash are, in my estimation, the best band there’s ever been (I offer as exhibit A, their almost perfect album, London Calling). However, they were also strong advocates of respecting other individual’s rights – and in my book people (be they pedestrians or drivers) have the right to cross the road when the lights are in their favour without fearing for their physical safety.

There are arguments put forward by cyclists in support of the idea that it’s safer, more convenient and more sensible for bikes to nip across when the lights are red. If you use your head and can see that there’s no traffic coming, it means you pedal free of the revving cars you’d otherwise be tangled up in. And when those lights go green, it vey often turns the junction into a testosterone-charged F1 starting grid. No place for a stationary bike rider. To some extent ASLs (advanced stop lines) have mitigated this problem, although they are far from perfect.

There are also those who argue that cyclists can legitimately keep going over pedestrian lights which are red, when it’s quite clear there are no pedestrians anywhere near the crossing. Momentum is key remember. I’ve been tempted to subscribe to this school of thought - but no. I came to the decision that if you stop for one red, you stop for all, without exception, including ‘walk-don’t walk’, crossing places. This has resulted in many strange looks being directed towards me by taxi drivers and other cyclists. One late night on my commute home an inebriated reveller accused me of, ‘not being a proper cyclist. You weren’t supposed to stop at that light’, he told me accusingly, almost disappointed that I hadn’t adhered to the well-worn stereotype.

Surely you could argue that when there is not another soul in sight on road or pavement, it’s plain daft not to keep going across a red at a pedestrian crossing. But that kind of recidivism represents the proverbial slippery slope. Scoot across one barren crossing in defiance of the stop sign and where do you draw the line? Absolute adherence to the rules of the road makes life in the saddle much simpler, eliminating those, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” grey areas which could result in a spill or collision. It also provides a chance to catch your breath and, albeit briefly, rest those aching legs.

Anyway, sometimes there IS someone crossing whom you have missed. They may be wearing dark clothing. They may rush onto the crossing at the last minute hoping to catch the green man. They could be channeling Usain Bolt as they sprint for a bus.

Cyclists frequently suffer totally unwarranted abuse from many car, taxi, bus and lorry drivers. When these people see our fellow pedallers breaking the rules, they feel justified in their prejudices. I don’t want to feed into that anti-cyclist mindset nor do I want to cede the moral high ground. So I give the bike-baiters no ammunition – not a solitary squib of indisciplined bike behaviour. If I’m going to feel the need to complain about other people’s bad driving (which I frequently will) my own road-craft and adherence to the Highway Code needs to be beyond reproach.

It’s an urban myth that all cyclists jump red lights (and ride on the pavement and the rest). Of course many of them do but not all. And my experience of commuting through central London daily for two decades reveals an abundance of car drivers habitually committing the same heinous crime (although not the pavement-mounting misdemeanor). Many may just nip through, rather than wait for the next green, but they are crossing onto the intersection crucially, when the light has already turned red. Don’t even get me started on drivers who don’t indicate, who change road position without checking their mirrors, who use their mobile phones (despite the introduction of heavier penalties for this offence) and whose passengers blindly open car doors in traffic. 

Traffic lights interestingly were first tried outside the UK parliament in 1868. Developed by a railway engineer, they resembled railway signals more than the lights we know today. Powered by gas, they did little to promote safety. Quite the opposite, as they blew up killing a policeman. The first electric traffic signals were pioneered in the US between 1912 and 1914. The first three-coloured system appeared in London in 1925 at the junction of St James’s  Street and Piccadilly. These lights were operated manually by a policeman in a tower flicking switches. If this hands-on system still existed today you’d almost certainly do away with red light jumping of all descriptions!

Some towns in Europe – such as Bohmte in Germany - have experimented with taking traffic lights off their streets altogether. They claimed that light-free roads and intersections compelled road users to drive with more care and consideration for other road users. Surely that’s something worth considering for the future.

For the meantime however, I’ll be the cyclist leaning against a lamppost waiting for the green signal before pedalling forth. Feel free to say “hello” as you time trial your way through the red light past me. Towards the end of their stellar career the Clash recorded a song called Know Your Rights. I may never be as cool as Strummer and Jones, more’s the pity, but I can borrow their sentiment. When it comes to bike commuting, I’d strongly advise you to, Know Your Lights.






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