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The Uncomfortable Relationship Between Bikes and Red Lights

The Uncomfortable Relationship Between Bikes and Red Lights
Reuters

It'll come as no surprise to cyclists—not to mention irritated drivers—that bike riders tend to have what we might kindly refer to as selective vision when it comes to stop signs and traffic signals. Cyclists regularly run stop signs and signaled intersections when the coast is clear. Momentum is key for the bike rider, and coming to a complete stop when nobody's around is hard to justify. But even so, there's an inherent risk in not obeying traffic laws.

A recent study by Portland State students monitored intersections around campus to see how well drivers and cyclists adhered to red lights. As The Oregonian reports, the city's bike riders don't give the red light much respect.

The report [PDF] is available here, and shows that of the 497 cars observed only 36 ran red lights, while 58 of the 99 bicycles observed blew right through. That's about 7 percent of cars compared to 58 percent of bicycles.

Two of the three intersections the students chose to study have a cycle track, or a bicycle lane separated from traffic lanes. The researchers found that cyclists were more likely to run red lights at the intersections with the cycle track, with about 70 percent of riders running lights compared to less than 40 percent on the shared street intersection.

“While the study probably wasn't thorough enough to be considered scientific,” student Aaron Cole said, “we thought this paper could at least lead to more discussions about safety concerns and bicycle conflicts with pedestrians on campus.”

The city has conducted limited research into red-light running among different modes of transportation. In 2006 and 2007, a PBOT study of several intersections with stop signs showed bicyclists came to a complete stop only 7 percent of the time. It also showed that motorists stop completely only 22 percent of the time.

While it's not likely that cyclists will begin to comply fully with the laws of the road, this study does shed some more light on the potential dangers of the road. More pedestrians are put in danger when other users of the road ignore the rules. And though bike-person accidents aren't incredibly widespread, they do happen. Even more concerning should be the increasing potential of car-bike accidents that can occur when stop lights are ignored.

For those of us who ride bikes regularly, it's pretty obvious that we're not just blindly speeding through traffic lights with no regard to oncoming traffic. But there's also a danger that the more comfortable we get going green on a red, the more likely we are to relax our reflexes and de-elevate our senses to the four-wheeled threats that surround us.

Photo credit: Christian Charisius / Reuters

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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