Seeing red

A bold tweet’s been getting a bit of an airing this morning:

Shall we have a closer look at that one?

Firstly, I have some doubts about the practicality of actually getting the smoking-tyre photos needed to make this work. I presume the idea isn’t for fast-lensed SLR owners like me to camp out at the lights for a day, ready to get crisp face pics of the transgressors? Good luck using your BlackBerry camera for that.

And I presume it is faces that’s being sought here. I mean, otherwise you’d just be building a Tumblr of blurry lycra-clad arses. Which might be of some “specialist” interest–but not actually a whole lot of use.

Which means you need to be ready in waiting on the outgoing side of the junction. Having predicted that matey with the headphones and fixie is intent on diving over the red. OK…bear with me here.

So what use will all those faces be, then? For outraged anti-cyclist types to roar at the screen: “Naughty, naughty man! Is the advanced stop line not enough for you, you bounder?”

Or perhaps for some sort of vigilante action, especially in smaller towns where you might just see the same cyclist ever again? Stand by with your spoke-sticks, defenders of the peace.

Or for, oh wait–here we go, some kind of enforcement by the Authorities. Now that either means we get serious about facial recognition…or…we treat cyclists more like car drivers, and bring in a compulsory licensing-and-visible-identity-number scheme. Neither of which will be expensive, problematic or intrusive at all.

Hang on. What flavour of libertarian is this then?

One that prefers heavy-handed state surveillance and intervention over the free choice of the individual to exercise a decision (which will sometimes be flawed, but hey, that’s free choice) over the extent of their compliance with a system designed for much more dangerous vehicles capable of driving at far greater speeds?


I mean there couldn’t be another reason that someone would come up with a proposal to have a go at cyclists like this?

There must be one. I just can’t quite put my finger on it. No, it’s gone again. Damn. Nearly had it there.


  1. For the last five years I have crossed Uxbridge Road in west London at around 5.30pm on weekdays. I realised just how often I had seen cyclists ride through red lights (and between pedestrians) when I saw a blind woman waiting to cross on the other side and automatically closed my eyes when she stepped onto the crossing. I had come to expect that a cyclist would keep going even though the lights had changed. I assumed that she would be knocked down. Please come up with a better idea if you don’t approve of what has been suggested. I speak as a pedestrian who has never learned to drive or used a bike.

  2. Surely the answer is for the police to be asked to take an interest in dangerous cycling? Not – in the usual close-minded way – to immediately fine slowly puttering along the pavement because they are scared of the traffic, or turning left at a red light when there is nobody around – but those who actually or potentially put people at risk?
    While we’re at it, perhaps the police could start to be bothered about dangerous car and motorbike (and moped!) driving too…?

  3. There are no easy answers, of course. This post was very much rooted in the issues around identification in a networked world – and what the roles of individual, fellow citizen and state are in cases like this.

    The inherent problem with red light jumping is that it is not an inherently dangerous act. That might sound ludicrous if you’ve seen it done dangerously, but the one does not prove the other. We take a different view as a society of, say, carrying high explosives around in public: that is an inherently dangerous act, and we feel very differently about it.

    Drawing fine definitions between what is reckless and what is careful negotiation of a completely clear path is difficult. So we have a ban that is widely flouted.

    It cannot in practice be enforced at all times. There can be a few punitive penalties handed down “to encourage the others”, sure, but beyond that we are left with remedies that pursue the dangerous cyclist after the event, which is hardly much use to someone who’s already been seriously injured.

    I don’t think it’s merely coincidental that cyclists who cross red lights (I find jump to be a loaded term here – I’m more of a slow meanderer through a clear junction) have no detrimental effect on traffic flow. Were we to abolish lights for cars, it would be very different, with gridlock everywhere.

    I would prefer to see deregulation of red lights for cyclists, combined with much harsher penalties not just for those who hit someone, but who are observed being reckless. There are some parts of London where that does happen – I’ve seen full-on chase-and-stops by cycle police frequently around Blackfriars and City areas – so it’s not as if we need to jump to some licence plate system (which would in any case be wholly unimplementable).

    But my point remains that in jumping to easy conclusions like the internet providing a neat mechanism for peer-enforced social or legal compliance, we have to be very careful what we actually wish for.

  4. I cross Stratford Broadway in east London pretty much every morning and it’s a rare day when I don’t see at least one cyclist hurtle through the lights at full pelt. Last year I was in the middle of the road – the lights were red and I had the little green man beckoning my across – when a pack of 6 cyclists zoomed past, 3 in front of me 3 behind. If I hadn’t stopped I’d have been badly hurt. I wrote to my London Assembly member, who raised it with the mayor. Boris’s response was that there are already laws in place to deal with this and the Met does an excellent job policing them. And that’s the problem – the laws are NOT being enforced and absent any kind of compulsory licensing or registration scheme they can’t be. A photo blog may not be a practical idea but it’s a sign of extreme exasperation that it’s even being considered.

  5. It’s a fair point, Martin. We are in the invidious position where the law doesn’t work, and no remotely affordable regulation system will work either. This is what “policing by consent” entails though: gaps, risks, imperfections.

    Driving above 70 (or indeed 80) on motorways is another – it happens, massively, and can’t be altered. To some extent we just have to live with these things, unpleasant as they are – as any alternative is often very much worse.

    I would like to see chase (motor)bikes in regular use on that stretch, of course, and massive fines. But I’d like a ton more of this sort of Judge Dredd-style stuff too; who doesn’t from time to time?

  6. I wasn’t going to reply, but I will just mention that I never suggested any further legislation/government involvement/surveillance/police involvement at all.

    Even if I had, however, it is not in itself unlibertarian. I believe – as a libertarian – that government has two responsibilities – to protect its citizens and those citizens’ private property. Therefore if someone does something which could impact on an individual’s life – such as hitting them with a bicycle as they sped through a red life – government has a degree of responsibility over that action.

    But as I said, I didn’t ever propose heavy-handed legislation or policing.

  7. Indeed you didn’t. That was purely my mischievous “but then what should be done..?” line of thought. And there are no easy answers here on the question of appropriate state interventions. If there were, life would be very dull (and I wouldn’t have much to blog about).

  8. Paul,

    my response is mainly about cyclists who go through red lights at pedestrian crossings while pedestrians are ON the crossing lawfully.

    I’d say there are 2 camps forming around this topic

    1) cyclists – who believe they are above the law and don’t have to stop at stop signs, pedestrian crossings and the like (and also think it’s ok to ride on the footpath and weave through pedestrians at high speed)

    2) Those that may have been swiped or nearly swiped by a cyclist as a result of the actions of group 1) above

    While I agree with your statement

    “intervention over the free choice of the individual to exercise a decision (which will sometimes be flawed, but hey, that’s free choice) over the extent of their compliance with a system designed for much more dangerous vehicles capable of driving at far greater speeds?”

    But if we let cyclists break road rules (and they are road users) then what other laws is it ok to ignore. Is it as you suggest above “ok” to break a few laws because they are exercising their right to choose?

    If a cyclist hit you on the side on a crossing would you still feel the same?

    The reason we have traffic signals is to regulate the flow of traffic.

    Pedestrian crossings allow pedestrians to cross a road at right angles to the flow of traffic safe in the knowledge that ALL traffic using the road has stopped.

    If cars and motorcyclists have to obey the road rules while using the road, then why not cyclists?

    The ones in group 1) I point the finger at are the ones that ride through pedestrian crossings while people are on the crossing.

    On more than one occasion, I have had to move quickly to avoid a collision with a cyclist while I was legally and lawfully using a pedestrian crossing.

    On occasion I have stopped dead on the crossing and the cyclist has had to swerve or hit the breaks to avoid me – then yelled at ME!

    You are right about one thing, a “shame on you” blog will not work.

    What will work is:

    1) police regularly enforcing the law and fining cyclists that break the law

    2) Cyclists deciding that one day someone’s going to get killed (and my then 2 year old in a pram was very nearly hit square on by a cyclist breaking the law some years ago thus my passion for the topic) and they should obey the law.

    While we’re at it – can I remind smokers that drop their butts on the ground that this is littering and liable for an £80 fine.

    When I remind them of this, they too yell at me – is it the nicotine rush that prevents logic in this case?

  9. I think it’s a mistake to assume ‘anti-red light jumping’ is ‘anti-cyclist’.

    I appreciate that’s not the main thrust of the piece but it does play to the theme that favouring following ‘the rules’ is only out of contempt for cyclists.

  10. Consider this scenario.

    A cyclist stops at a red light on a pedestrian crossing. The sole pedestrian crosses, turns 90 degrees, and begins to walk parallel to the road. There are – clearly – no other pedestrians in the vicinity.

    The light is still red.

    Why, in practical terms, should the cyclist not proceed, with care, across the crossing?

  11. @Andy: Turn it around… Why should the cyclist not have to observe the same rules as all other road users (including pedestrians)? Rules are best simple and consistent – that means some of the edge cases aren’t ideal.

    If anyone has a better solution then they should campaign for it to be taken into law – not just decide their own perception of priorities / risk is correct and act accordingly.

  12. Ben, there are no rules requiring pedestrians not to cross against a “red man”.

    Rather than responding to my question with a question, could you answer it, please?

  13. On my cycle home I ride up a one-way street in the right direction. I estimate that at least once a month, but probably more, a car drives down the wrong.

    Occasionally I have the temerity to point out to them they are travelling in the wrong direction. Mostly this draws a blank stare. Some, however, respond by telling me its not actually harming anyone. Which is true.

    As its not dangerous, should they continue to do this?

  14. @Andy: No, you’re right there are no rules about that hence it’s allowed, but jump a level crossing as a pedestrian and you’ll get fined. My point was that – where laws exist – no-one has discretion over whether they wish to follow them.

    My answer to your question is simply: It’s the law and you don’t get to choose. If it’s a bad rule, campaign to have it changed.

  15. Andy, same could be said for cars. If there is no-one coming and no other traffic, then why not just drive on? Same argument – “in practical terms” no different for cars/cyclists. Why? Because it is the law.

    I’ve yet to see a car jump a red light even when in the middle of the night there are no other cars. Why should cyclists be treated differently?

  16. I agree with Ben and Andrew, if there’s a rule obey it because that means that everyone concerned knows where they stand and what to expect. I’m the idiot waiting at the crossing for the lights to change when there’s no traffic. As for “Cycling on the pavement is not always an offence“ – which I take to be a quote (it would be helpful to know what from but I expect that’s too much to ask) – I’ve had too many negative experiences of it to think it shouldn’t be. I’ve found the best way to cope when a bell suddenly goes off behind me is to stand still immediately because I don’t know what side they’ll go past on. I think the local police have taken an interest recently but it reached the stage where I dreaded walking home from work and genuinely felt I might be be seriously injured or killed. I think Martin is right – it is frustrating that the law isn’t enforced where it exists.

  17. Great, now I have to mouse over every piece of text I come across just on the off chance I’ve missed a link that hasn’t been highlighted or darkened. Remind me to kneel down and suck in gratitude.

    So cyclists may be entitled to ride on paved areas sometimes? So what? That’s not the issue. If you are a cyclist and you are on the road you should stop at red lights just as vehicles should.

    Paul, to bring it back to what you were saying to begin with: I posted something on Monday which I also mentioned on Twitter. It happened to be about bad behaviour by cyclists and pedestrians. Within hours I became aware that it had been passed on to the local police who are now acting on it. I suspect it was mentioned to them by the leader of the local council who reads my blog. Probably a lot more effective that the Judge Dredd baseball bat and fluorescent spray can tactic I was beginning to consider.

    • Albertina – links in comments how blaze out in a fiery red. Please don’t hurt your knees while you’re down there.

  18. @Albertina: Thank you for your kind offer, but its Paul’s site so it’s him you’ll need to discuss that with. I understand he’s in a relationship, so please be discrete.

    Riding on footpaths became an issue when at least two other commenters raised it. I didn’t notice you complain then.

    @Garry: Perhaps the question that requires asking is why that street is one-way, and whether it needs to remain so?

  19. @Andy: that question is whole other can of worms!

    I’m in the pro-obeayance band for cyclists because cycles are vehicles and vehicles should operate to the Highway Code.

    Although most instances of these acts are harmless of themselves I do believe they have a cumulative impact of both the standards of highway code observance by cyclists but more importnatlty it degrades cycle saftey for all cyclists from some motons who consider this makes cyclists fair game.

    I worry most about this because it makes for trying to get my kids to adopt cycling as their primary form of transport, but its hard to take them on the road.

    I’ve had other cyclist’s behaviour quoted at my on at least three occasions. One of them when a car hit me from behind at 30mph. The driver suggested that I couldn’t expect safe driving because of other cyclists jumping red lights and up and down pavements at junctions. Now I know that is an issue of the driver not other cyclists, but I do think its indicative of the way cyclists as group of road users are seen, and that nots because of cyclists like me who observe the highway code.

    Some cyclists and some drivers makes the roads less safe for all of us. It would be better if we all made more effort to coordinate an open traffic system by agreeing to the opearting standards – the Highway Code.

  20. As we’ve headed rapidly (as such threads do) into moral relativism, and are unlikely to emerge with anyone’s opinion particularly altered, coloured as it will have been by myriad personal experiences that speak louder than a small blog post on the internet will, I will confine my comments to a few brief points:

    1. there are many systems which “fail” in that their rules are not adhered to. This is life, and we delude ourselves (IMHO) by thinking that they are in fact broken. They are as they are. There’s a great example actually linked to from Andy’s link: Are we to pretend that such rules are ever, or even rarely, complied with in full?

    2. clearly there is something that makes the issue at hand more potent: I suspect it has a root cause in the sharp contrast between the visibility of the act of crossing on red and the impunity with which it’s done (because you are, to several 99.99s) not going to be penalised.

    3. I think there’s a London factor at work. I don’t know what cultural forces at play if you do this in, say, Liverpool, but there is definitely an unwritten law of zebra crossings in London that means they are harder to use than provincial ones. I’d love to see some testing of this, but it’s obvious that in London a pedestrian has to exercise far greater “visible intent to cross” – even to the extent of stepping off the pavement – before cars will stop.

    4. which in turn makes me think in systems terms about things that reroute themselves around problems (like the internet does). If the city (to use a grandiose image) decides that it needs to flow faster, and without hold-ups from presumptuous pedestrians standing next to the black and white stripy bits, then it will simply rewrite its conventions to permit that. Or at least make it so unexceptional as to attract no comment. Something similar may be happening with cyclists. The context of cycling v-a-v pollution v-a-v highly publicised deaths under lorries cannot be ignored either.

    5. and finally, should we be that surprised if a “if the law doesn’t make sense then it’s ok to ignore it (especially if the system is complicit in providing an ability-to-ignore by not having a visible tracking number pinned to every cyclist – and THAT’S why the cars stop at red at 4am – for no other reason)” culture grows. Idiot ministers who are happy to write off various local government strictures (whether on street parties, flag flying or health and safety) on the grounds they think we should “use more common sense” are contributing to this, whether they realise it or not.

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