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More than half of cyclists ignore red lights according to British motorising organisation, The Institute of Advanced Motoring (IAM). The Institute conducted a survey which found 57% of respondents answered yes to the question: “As a cyclist, do you ever jump red lights?”

It’s a highly sensational number but it’s also highly dubious. There’s every chance the tabloid media in Australia will get onto it soon, so it’s worth looking at it more closely to see what it really means.

For starters, it comes from an on-line self-selecting survey, so there’s no reason to believe respondents are representative of cyclists as a whole. Those more inclined to take risks – read young males in particular – might be over-represented.

Or the survey might’ve been “gamed” by members of a group unsympathetic to cycling – say the members of an activist motoring organisation.

The most obvious flaw though is the way the data is presented by IAM. What it shows when looked at more closely is just 2.2% of respondents said they jump red lights “frequently” when cycling. Another 11.1% said they do it “sometimes”.

Those figures are much closer to findings by the Monash Accident Research Unit than the 57% claimed by IAM. The Monash researchers filmed cyclists at intersections in Melbourne and at one found 13% of cyclists ignored a red light.

IAM got its inflated figure by adding in those who admitted they “rarely” jump a red light or did it “once or twice”. Now if the question is effectively “have you ever, ever run a red light?”, then I reckon many motorists would be guilty too (and on a point of methodology, what’s the difference between “rarely” and “once or twice”?).

I’m a conservative driver, but I admit to having run a red light in the car “once or twice”. One time I over-ran the amber by a nanosecond and got a ticket to prove it. There might even have been one or two other occasions when I’ve got away with that nanosecond because there wasn’t a camera.

I’ve also driven through a red light in the dead of night after waiting so long I convinced myself the lights mustn’t be working. There was no other traffic about but there’s no getting away from the fact I ran the red and would say so if I were responding to a survey.

Running a red light in a car however is very different from doing it on a bicycle. For all practical purposes, cyclists mostly only endanger themselves, not other road users. That’s why they take great care when ignoring red lights. They don’t often literally “run” them like motorists do, rather they negotiate them with great care.

One case though got attention in the media on the weekend. A City of Melbourne Councillor, Ken Ong, says he was almost hit while crossing the road outside the town hall by a cyclist who ignored a red light. He’s called for a 20 km/hr speed limit for cyclists in the CBD.

I don’t know how often pedestrian-cyclist collisions occur on roads but I expect it’s not common, if only because cyclists are as much at risk of serious injury as pedestrians. Cyclists are likely to be much more regarding of pedestrians on the road than motorists are. It’s a pity Cr Ong didn’t mention how many collisions and near-misses between cars and pedestrians there are in the city centre.

Nevertheless the last thing we want in our CBDs is for pedestrians to be fearful for their safety when crossing roads at traffic lights. Our city centres are the densest parts of the metropolitan area – they should be havens of walkability where people shouldn’t fear cars or bicycles.

The law already has provisions to deal with the sort of danger Cr Ong experienced. What’s needed isn’t a special speed limit for cyclists, but better enforcement of existing laws related to pedestrian crossings. The CBD is small enough and busy enough to justify greater resources devoted to enforcement.

I think there’s a more general point though. In some respects bicycles present a different hazard for pedestrians than cars. They’re much quieter so pedestrians aren’t always aware of their approach. Most importantly though, cyclists ride close to the kerb, potentially endangering those many pedestrians (and themselves!) who step out on to the street before looking for traffic.

Limiting cyclists to 20 km/hr on all streets in the CBD might lessen these risks, but enforcing a speed limit would be much more problematic than enforcing the law on traffic lights. The latter is a simple binary decision and the number of locations is limited to traffic lights. Not so with a speed limit.

Rather than pursue Cr Ong’s proposal, I’d much prefer to see Council and the State government take four other actions.

First, minimise the number of motorised vehicles in the city centre through road pricing and parking policies. Second, encourage cyclists to use the middle of the lane on CBD streets, not the edge. Third, as mentioned, take a more proactive approach to enforcing the law at locations where pedestrians interact with bicycles and cars. Finally, impose a maximum speed limit of 30 km/hr on all motorised vehicles using city centre streets.

This article is about roads. I’m aware I haven’t discussed conflict between pedestrians and cyclists on footpaths, bike paths or public squares. I’ve discussed that before (despite what some readers think, it isn’t possible to mention every related issue in an article).

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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