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The Most Common Reasons Cyclists Run Red Lights (and How to Make Intersections Safer)

According to a study by Monash University that was recently published in Accident Analysis and Prevention, almost 40 percent of Australian cyclists admit to running a red light. However, researchers behind the study suggest that fines may only play a small role in developing an effective strategy to improve safety and encourage cyclists to obey the rules of the road.

Following a survey of over 2,000 cyclists, the most common reasons cited for ignoring a red light were:

  1. The rider was making a left turn (33%)
  2. The rider couldn’t activate the sensors in order to get the light to change (24.2%)
  3. No other traffic was present (16%)

In these three instances, researchers from the Monash University Accident Research Center determined that more inclusive road infrastructure, amendments to road rules, and targeted education programs could have a significant impact on making intersections safer and possibly reducing the amount of infractions by cyclists.

Regarding the most commonly cited example of turning left on a red (the equivalent of American cyclists making a right), Dr. Johnson, one of the study’s authors stated, “The most obvious safety benefit for cyclists if they turn left during the red light phase is that they then don’t have to negotiate the corner with the vehicles.” Rather than penalizing cyclists with fines, Johnson said “A well-planned trial with adequate signage would be a good first step to see if permitting cyclists to turn left on red at some intersections would improve cyclists’ safety.”

Additionally, when it comes to riders being unable to activate a traffic signal, the study recommended painting the road to more clearly indicate exactly where a rider needs to be in order to trigger the light. It’s incredibly frustrating for cyclists attempting to obey the law when the entire light cycle passes them by because they’re not heavy enough (or in the right position) to trigger the signal.

As for what to do about cyclists blowing through stop signs when no other traffic is present, that’s where education comes in. Although Johnson states, “Fines continue to have a place in enforcing road rules for cyclists,” he also cautions that “these will be more effective when combined with measures to make the roads a more inclusive place for cyclists.”

Educating cyclists on the importance of riding predictably and responsibly–as it relates to their overall safety–could deter some cyclists from bending the rules when no one is around. Even though it’s not always a popular sentiment among the cycling community, as a part of the regular traffic flow bikes are still required to obey stop lights, stop signs, and other basic regulations regardless of whether it’s annoying or inconvenient. Fortunately, studies like this highlight some of the simple things cities can do to improve safety for cyclists while also cutting down on the number of cyclists running red lights… Now the next step is just getting these changes implemented.

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  1. Robert Prinz

    “the entire light cycle passes them by because they’re not heavy enough (or in the right position) to trigger the signal.”

    I can’t think of any cities in the US that use weight sensors for traffic signal actuation. If a signal is not on a “dumb”, timed loop, then it is usually using either an electromagnetic loop embedded in the pavement to detect traffic on the roadway, or cameras (which detect contrast) installed above the intersection somewhere. Either of these could potentially be tuned incorrectly to not pick up bicycle traffic, but once reported it is thankfully a pretty easy fix.

    Painting “sweet spot” stencils on the pavement is only part of the solution, however, as I have spoken to plenty of cyclists who see them but don’t know what they are supposed to mean. Many times I have pulled up to an intersection with a number of bike riders waiting in the crosswalk, past the stencil, and wondering why the light isn’t changing for them.

    A newer technology, microwave detection, is way more foolproof, not prone to desensitization, cheaper than cameras, and can even detect the difference between a car and a bike waiting at the light and provide an appropriate green phase.

  2. Robert Prinz

    Also of note is that actuated traffic signals usually default to green in the direction of an arterial street, whereas cross streets where bike routes are found default to red until a cyclist actually arrives at the intersection. This means that bike riders will see a lot more red than car drivers.

    One way to get around this is advance detection, so that the signal “sees” the cyclist further down the block so that the light is already green when they arrive at the intersection. Now to just get city planners on board with this concept!

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