It’s Legal to Run Lights... and Other Things You Might Not Know About Cycling

Cycling is a misunderstood form of transportation. There are many styles of riders on bikes, each with their own prerogatives, attitudes, and theories of how best to ride. The routine behaviors of people who ride in the street with traffic are often met with confusion or even incredulity by those who have never attempted it. That may be because some common practices used by cyclists on the road can seem counterintuitive, with regard both to the law and to safety. Further, cycling laws are not all that widely understood. Here are some common, but perhaps not common enough, insights on cycling. They’re meant to create an understanding of how we can better coexist on our shared infrastructure.

1. No. The sidewalk isn’t safer.

One of the most common, benign suggestions given to cyclists by those who don’t ride is, “Why don’t you just ride on the sidewalks? Wouldn’t that be safer?” The short answer is no.

Sidewalks were not designed for the 10-20+ miles per hour that most bicyclists travel. They are often poorly maintained, which means they’re uneven and hazardous to ride on at any significant speed. It’s also illegal to ride on them in most business districts. That’s because sidewalks are designed for pedestrians, and cycling traffic would compromise pedestrian safety, especially that of people with disabilities. Curb ramps are similarly not designed for the speed of bikers, and sometimes involve odd or narrow turns.

Furthermore, when you’re traveling on a sidewalk, every cross street, alley, and driveway becomes a new intersection to face, and many of them have poor visibility. Drivers are not looking for cyclists traveling 15 miles per hour on sidewalks intersecting with these side streets, which makes for a high chance of collisions.

2. It’s legal in most states to run lights.

Many stoplights are motion-activated (or even weight-activated) with sensors designed for cars. Cyclists often can’t trigger them, and it becomes both legal and necessary to safely run the light after a period of waiting. The exact statute in Missouri, for example, reads:

304.285. Red light violations

Any person operating a motorcycle or bicycle who violates the provisions of section 304.281 or section 304.301 by entering or crossing an intersection controlled by a traffic control signal against a red light shall have an affirmative defense to that charge if the person establishes all of the following conditions:

(1) The motorcycle or bicycle has been brought to a complete stop;

(2) The traffic control signal continues to show a red light for an unreasonable time;

(3) The traffic control is apparently malfunctioning or, if programmed or engineered to change to a green light only after detecting the approach of a motor vehicle, the signal has apparently failed to detect the arrival of the motorcycle; and

(4) No motor vehicle or person is approaching on the street or highway to be crossed or entered or is so far away from the intersection that it does not constitute an immediate hazard.

The affirmative defense of this section applies only to a violation for entering or crossing an intersection controlled by a traffic control signal against a red light and does not provide a defense to any other civil or criminal action.

In some states, the “Idaho Stop” is also legal, allowing bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, rather than needing to come to a complete stop. These laws exist because intersections are the site of most collisions involving cyclists. The Idaho stop is meant to prevent the common occurrence of the “right hook” collision, wherein the cyclist occupies a blind spot of the car to her left and is struck when that car goes to make a right turn. Some studies have shown that allowing cyclists to move more quickly through intersections actually reduces the incidence of collisions. The law makes sense where stop signs are used as traffic calming measures intended for 30 or 40 mph traffic, something inapplicable to the average speed of cyclists.

Beyond legality and triggering lights, it is sometimes safer for a cyclist to move ahead of traffic, even when unlawful. Like in the case of the Idaho Stop, getting in front of traffic can greatly increase a cyclist’s visibility. There are instances where an upcoming intersection may be narrow, and it is better to get in front of the traffic in order to get through ahead of the oncoming stream of cars.

Please note: cycling laws vary by state, so your cycling law may not be exactly the same. Be sure to check cycling laws on your state’s website.

Bike path (via Pixabay)

Bike path (via Pixabay)

3. The bike lane isn’t always the safest place to be.

Bike lanes can serve to protect cyclists from unforgiving traffic and reinforce the right of cyclists to be on the road. While not all cyclists are fans of bike lanes, I am. But that doesn’t mean they are always the safest place to be.

Street cleaners often push hazardous debris into bike lanes, typically located on the side of the street. I’ve come across everything from glass to car rims in the bike lane. Plows sometimes block them completely with snow, making them unusable. In busy cities, bike lanes may just be blocked by unaware pedestrians—this happens frequently on the Brooklyn Bridge, for example. These are just a few reasons you might find cyclists in the lane with cars even when a bike lane exists.

A New York City rider memorably illustrated all the hazards that can accumulate in bike lanes in this viral video from a few years ago. Casey Neistat, frustrated after having received a ticket for riding outside the bike lane, tried to explain to the police officer who ticketed him that bike lanes aren’t always safe. He then made a video to prove it. Watching him purposely run into the numerous objects he encounters in the bike lane is hilarious, but it’s also the reality of much of our cycling infrastructure.

Furthermore, bike lanes are not always placed on ideal roads for cyclists. Complete Streets legislation has helped advance cycling infrastructure considerably. But unfortunately, the roads that end up with bike lanes as a result are not always roads that are preferable to ride on. They often consist of five lane stroads with fast-moving car and truck traffic. I routinely pick the neighborhood streets with numerous stop signs over the high-speed stroad with a bike lane near my house.

Admittedly, the lack of cycling activity in a place can sometimes be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more bikes are present, the more drivers are forced to adapt, and the more cyclists, in turn, may feel comfortable on that particular street. In reverse, a lack of regular bike traffic can make drivers more indignant and less likely to react kindly to a lone cyclist, whom they might perceive as out of place and in the way.

Most cyclists want to feel safe on their streets and are going to choose streets that feel safer, bike lane or none. This is especially true for newer riders. As cycling’s popularity grows, designing streets with inexperienced riders in mind becomes increasingly important.

4. Sometimes It’s safer to be visible in the middle of the street than invisible in the bike lane.

Visibility, or rather the lack thereof, is a cyclist’s greatest enemy. Notwithstanding some hyper aggressive motorists, most accidents occur as a result of cyclists not being seen. That means being relegated to the side of the road, near parked cars, in a driver’s peripheral vision, is probably not the safest place to be. That’s another reason some cyclists choose to take the lane when riding on the streets. It’s not to anger motorists or purposefully slow you down. It’s because they have calculated it’s actually a safer place for them to be.

5. No, most cyclists don’t want to be “treated like cars.” They want to be treated like humans.

Another of the most common misconceptions I hear from drivers is, “If cyclists want to be treated like cars, then why do they [insert transgression here]?!?!” To which I usually respond, “Well, first of all, they don’t.”

Bicycles are not cars. They don’t move like cars, take up the same amount of space as cars, or operate at the same speed as cars. It doesn’t make sense to pretend otherwise, and consequently, it doesn’t make sense to apply all auto-oriented traffic laws to cyclists. As described earlier, while laws like the Idaho Stop may seem counterintuitive, they can actually decrease collisions. So can installing bicycle-specific lights, such as those in Paris.

Most cyclists I know, myself included, have no wish to “be treated like cars.” We want to be treated like people. We mostly would like to operate and occupy space on the road without our lives being threatened.

6. Cyclists don't commit more infractions than cars, and seeing a cyclist break the law isn't a reason they “shouldn’t be on the roads.”

This one is admittedly more anecdotal. But everything from my personal conversations with friends and family about cycling, to the conversation on my local radio shows, to every comment I’ve ever read on an article about cycling—hones in on this one thing. It always comes back to that one time you saw a cyclist running a light, running a stop sign, not wearing a helmet, or committing some other unforgivable sin on the street that only seems unforgivable when a cyclist does it. I’ve literally had this conversation on the patio of a coffee shop while watching seven cars roll the stop sign outside within a matter of minutes.

Motorists commit traffic infractions and do it often. I have never heard this used in a conversation about the viability of cars on the road. So the question becomes: why is this so often used in the conversation about the viability of bikes? I don’t have control over other cyclists on the road. Some of them break laws or don’t signal correctly. Sometimes drivers assume cyclists have broken laws when actually they haven’t, as explained above. Both scenarios should be irrelevant to the conversation about creating better bike infrastructure.