By Peter Fenton
There are times when, as a cyclist, I blow through a red light. I’ve got momentum, I don’t feel like stopping, I’m running late.
I’m not alone. In America, about 865,000 cyclists commuted to work each day. More than half of them charge across a red light intersection, according to one recent study. Why do we feel so emboldened to disregard the rules, putting our lives on the line in the process? While there are no national statistics on whether motorists or cyclists cause more deaths, an Arizona study found that 44 percent of deaths in bike/car crashes were the cyclist’s fault. A Minnesota study faulted cyclists in 49 percent of all accidents, with failure to yield the most common cause.
Riders rationalize their chancy behavior by resorting to physical science. Chris Juden, Chief Technical Officer of the UK’s 137-year-old Cyclists Touring Club, writes that “every time a cyclist stops, they lose kinetic energy and have to work harder upon starting off in order to accelerate and restore that kinetic energy.” At the typical riding speed of 10 mph to 12 mph, one stop-start is equivalent to biking an additional 300 feet. In that sense, if a bicycle rider commuting to work comes to a complete stop, say 15 times, he has “added” about a mile to the ride. Which makes it no surprise that some may try to cut that by running wisely selected lights.
I’ve come across other pragmatic justifications to keep rolling, including: There were no oncoming cars; it was only a pedestrian crossing; it’s easy to get away with because traffic laws are loosely enforced; running a red light allows the rider to stay in a relatively safe zone ahead of traffic.
But the real answer is deeper than that. One study out of SUNY Buffalo recorded the behavior of 451 cyclists with video cameras at three intersections in Beijing. Fifty-six percent of the commuters ran red lights. According to the researchers, young and middle-aged riders were the primary culprits. “The probability of a rider running a red light was higher when he or she was alone, when there were fewer riders waiting and there were already riders crossing on the red,” co-author Changxu Wu explained. In short — people are more likely to break a law if they see other people already doing so.