Should a red light mean ‘stop’ for everyone?

1st December 2016

David Williams, national motor journalist and road safety award-winner

It was as I was driving to work along my usual route one morning – some years ago – that it happened.

The traffic lights were green so I made the usual checks and moved through the junction. Suddenly there was the briefest flash of movement to my right and – before I could even react – a massive thump as something smashed into the side of the car I was driving.

A cyclist, who had ignored a red light and sailed right through the junction, was sprawled, unmoving, in a heap in the road next to his bicycle. Heart in mouth I parked and sprinted back. By the time I reached him he was picking up his bicycle and examining it for damage.

It’s strange how you react in such circumstances. Despite his scuffed knees, evident damage to his cycle and the car we had a civilised discussion as we swapped details. I offered to drive him and his bike onwards, but he declined. I didn’t challenge him over ignoring the red: as he dusted himself off, evidently shaken, it would have seemed a little brutal.

The incident came to mind as I read a new press release from the Green Party, calling on UK cities to follow Paris’s lead and allow cyclists to travel through red lights if the way is clear on agreed routes.

In Paris signs, erected this summer, with an upside down triangle, an arrow and a picture of a bicycle, indicate which direction cyclists can travel without stopping at a red light and authorities there hope the new rules will reduce delays and improve safety for cyclists if introduced in the UK.

Paris’s Green deputy mayor, Christophe Najdoski said the move would speed up cycling journey times across the French capital and I’m sure that, in some cases, it will. The Green Party’s local transport spokesperson, Caroline Russell welcomed the announcement and said a similar scheme could be “implemented quickly” in the UK as an interim measure to encourage cycling.

It might do that too but it’s a lousy idea. I enjoy cycling and make more bike than car journeys during the week and never, ever, go through a red light, and don’t feel the need to (and the fact that I quite like a little rest now and again as I wait at the front of the queue is neither here nor there).

The fact is, if everyone obeys the red (and green, and amber) lights, we all know exactly where we stand. There’s no confusion, no possibility of conflicting traffic. It’s difficult enough driving a car in London without worrying that a significant number of road-users are using a different version of the Highway Code and ignoring rules that have, largely, worked for years.

Speed isn’t everything for cyclists or car drivers. Are a few seconds or minutes shaved off your commute to work really worth the risk of a crash or conflict? Such a move would simply condone ignoring red lights at non-approved junctions too; it really is a ‘thin end of the wedge’ affair. What next? Pedestrians or motorcyclists demanding similar privileges?

That crash made quite an impact on me (and the car, which had over £400 worth of damage). It reinforced my belief that we’ll all be safer on the roads – the most dangerous arena most of us habitually inhabit – if everyone knows the same rules and plays by them (with the threat of penalty if they don’t).

If the rules do change be sure of one thing. I’ll keep my dash cam (on bicycle, car and motorcycle) on permanent alert, ready to prove that I was the one endeavouring to follow common sense rules.

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