Tuesday, August 10, 2010

red lights

The Scientist and I were walking back from a wonderful dinner at the Russell House Tavern last weekend, when a bike passed  us in the bike lane next to the sidewalk.  As is my habit, I noticed.  BSO-ish mountain bike, no lights, guy in baseball cap.  Moments later, without slowing, he sped into an intersection against the red.  I have to admit I shrieked- I was sure he was going to get killed.  The driver with the green either had good brakes, or good reflexes, or both.  The biker wobbled a little and headed on.

The Scientist has been riding to work a lot more lately.  I don't know if it's hanging out with me, or being older and wiser,  but he said to me that now he's much more likely to just sit and wait for a red, where back in his grad school days he was more likely to stop and then run it.  He noted that  if you're in that mentality that you don't really have to stop, every intersection becomes a judgement call.  Last week he made a judgement call that was a little close-  OK but too close for comfort.  What's riding on a quick look and a quick decision is an awful lot.  The consequences are asymmetric for the rider in any sort of car-bike collision.  He's beginning to realize that stopping is just so much simpler.

There was a tragic death yesterday in Boston.  When the biker dies, no one will ever completely know what happened,  but several eyewitness accounts say that she ran a light at speed, and was hit hard.
The driver with the green got the green while they were approaching the intersection instead of being stopped, and so they proceeded normally.  It's possible that the biker checked the stop line and didn't see anyone, and made a judgement call.  If she did, she was wrong in judging the speed of the oncoming car.
If the facts are as presented in several accounts are true,  she will be the 2nd cyclist killed while running a red light this year in the Boston area.

This young woman by all accounts was bright and had a great future ahead of her, and will be missed by many. It is a great tragedy for her friends and family, and for the driver who will always wonder what they could have done differently.
 But like the guy on the BSO, I see so many people running lights, usually slowing or stopping, but sometimes just charging ahead.

You could lose 60 seconds of your life waiting for the light.  Or you could make a bad call and lose your life.
Isn't the 60 seconds worth it?


  1. As a gift, program all the relevant traffic dept phone numbers into the Scientist's phone. That way he can easily complain to the right people if he hits a light that won't recognize a cyclist no matter how long he waits. It'll help reinforce the "I'll wait" attitude.

  2. That accident was a tragedy, for sure. She had a very bright future, and was apparently an amazing person. But no matter who you are, 60 seconds is not worth it. It simply isn't.

    I hope that if anything comes of this, it's that we all start being a little more careful, and for god's sake, that people who don't currently wear helmets start wearing them.

  3. I live in SF. Here, many bicycle commuters run reds. There seems to be a herd mentality to it. If I'm waiting patiently at a red, and 5 other people are too, the next cyclists wait to. But if people start to trickle across while waiting, then others will too. If more of us were to hold fast and wait, then I think we'd see more people do the same.

  4. Steve,
    Actually most lights in Boston/Cambridge metro area aren't on sensors- they change on a schedule not because anyone's there. And honestly, I don't have a problem with someone running a red light when there are no cars waiting and no cars coming crosswise. I suppose the problem would be if there was steady cross traffic and no other car to trigger the light, but I've never run into that here.

  5. how horrible.

    I have no words, I'm getting a bit twitchy as it seems like a lot of accidents since may in the area.

  6. For a cyclist, every intersection, whether there's a light or not, is a hazard. I admit that there are places where I won't wait, because the roads are such that no one is going to cross my lane. Also, 7 am on Sunday is a different ride than rush hour commute. But a big part of the problem, at least around here, is lack of enforcement. Cambridge cops will sporadically make enforcement efforts, but not enough to make riders feel there's much of chance of getting a ticket. (I've gotten a warning once, and saw another rider pulled over once.) Maybe we need to petition for more enforcement. Cops are used to cyclists complaining about drivers and vice versa, maybe it's time for cyclists to look out for cyclists.

  7. That is heartbreaking. Almost everyone here runs reds, often at speed. Sometimes it's clear that the person is making the decision while he or she is running the light -- his or her bike wobbles and the like. I have seen far too many near-misses and one crash that thankfully did not result in serious injury for anyone involved. I run lights only when I can clearly see there is nobody remotely nearby and that doesn't happen often. It's just not worth it. This post is a good reminder of that.

  8. Moopheus. Oh, I'm definitely willing to run a light if there isn't anyone else at the intersection (7am on Sunday). I have actually asked the cops to enforce more. I think that a little more enforcement might help Cambridge (which is kind of on the edge) tip into a more law abiding culture. The Scientist disagrees, and feels that enforcement would discourage more biking. He feels that having experienced bikers leading by example is the best policy. I will say that most older (30+) experienced bikers seem to stop for reds. Maybe that's how they got to be older!

  9. "Isn't the 60 seconds worth it?"

    Not always. But nowadays I *always* stop for red lights, and rarely pass before the green. Your posts had a significant influence on my riding style. (Pass me once is working well for me, thanks for asking!)

  10. Herzog,
    I'm SO glad that you've tried, and like, "Pass me once"
    The main reason I'm such a proponent, is that it just made me a much more relaxed rider. I hope that others try it and enjoy it too, although today I _was_ tempted to filter by the godawful traffic coming up cambridge street. I think that they've messed with the signals, because it's been horrible lately- takes 3 or 4 cycles to get from the firestation to the top of the hill.

  11. I'm a huge fan of the Idaho system - Stop signs are yields and red lights are stop signs - full and complete stops, with feet on the ground. To me this fits the pace of city cycling and I applaud the good sense in Idaho.
    I think this system could have helped in our most recent tragic accident.

  12. I would like to believe that the Scientist is correct, and that people would be influenced by good examples, but I am cynical enough to know that in practice, that will not be sufficient. No enforcement means many will continue to think that the rules do not apply to them. Perhaps, as Charlotte says, a more rational rule system for bikes would help, too, but for the moment we have to deal with the rules we have.

    And don't get me started on the cyclists that ride the wrong way!

  13. This happened a couple of weeks ago here in Austin as well....it really does beg the question of whether rushing is worth it. But also, I wish that cars were more attuned to cyclists being around them. I don't know about Boston, but here in Austin there is very much an "us vs. them" attitude between cyclists and cars. I wish that cities would do something to help both forms of transportation notice and work around the the other...