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The case for running red lights

Physics, not laws, best govern cyclists
By Wayne Laugesen

The laws of physics are more important and powerful than the laws of man. So let them run red lights. It's a common practice in Boulder. Bicyclists ease up to a red light, slow down or stop, look both ways and ride on through if the coast is clear. Lately, nattering ninnies in SUVs-mostly from California, no doubt-have been making a fuss of it. When monster motorists are the slightest bit inconvenienced by a bike, they whine and ask the cops to crack down.

Which is exactly what Sheriff George Epp-normally an above average public servant on the scale of common sense and decency-agreed to do. In April, Epp's department set up a sting operation in the east Boulder County town of Hygiene. As a group of bicyclists violated a stop sign en masse, Epp's deputies wrote tickets. Much to the elation of the monster truck crowd.

On the heels of it, a 25-year-old bicyclist was critically injured April 29 in the intersection of 27th Way and Moorhead Ave. The cyclist turned left into the path of an eastbound motorist on Moorhead and was hit. Police say the cyclist acted illegally, and the motorist wasn't at fault.

Propaganda mill

Now that the public's attention is focused on bike behavior, every incident for months to come will be used as an example. We'll hear the mantra of SUV slaves, who will insist on better enforcement of traffic laws for bikes. Cycling advocates, in an effort to save face, have already gone public to say they'll try to educate cyclists about better behavior and etiquette.

Unfortunately, what we really need for bikes are fewer rules and less enforcement of those we already have.

At a recent city council meeting, a colorful resident stood up to ask council members to consider a new ordinance that would allow bicyclists to run red lights. Council members weren't certain they'd heard the man right. So he told them again to consider making it legal for cyclists to stop, look both ways, then roll through red lights. This, he said, would encourage cycling by making it easier and quicker for cyclists to get across town.

Council members politely ignored him. The next day, my good friend and colleague, Scott, wanted to joke about the man's request. "Did you hear that idiot last night who suggested we let bicycles run red lights?" Scott said, trying to elicit agreement and laughter.

Scott drives around in a four-wheel drive Dodge Ram pickup with dual rear wheels. One man, yet tons and tons of truck. When he isn't driving the Dodge, he tools around in a Hummer so large and powerful he has literally used it to plow fields.

Scott and I agree on much. He values gun rights and property rights and all that makes this country great. Despite his trucks, he loves the environment and has made tremendous personal financial sacrifice in the interest of maintaining his ranches as private wildlife preserves. On bike issues, however, Scott gets weird. "Bicycles are toys," Scott says. "They ought to be treated like toys, and not compromise the carrying capacity of the roads and highways just so the Spandex clad recreationists can buff their bodies."

Too often, Scott says, he's had to slow down on rural roads in order to avoid hitting cyclists. He whines about new shoulders on Jay Road between 28th and Diagonal, which he suspects were built to help cyclists.

"We spent a half million dollars building these bike lanes and the cyclists haven't paid one dime toward these lanes," Scott says. "I say if they want to ride with the big boys, then they need to be treated like the big boys. They need license plates and registration fees and points off of their drivers' licenses for violations."
Which is exactly the opposite of what needs to happen. Scott favors deregulation and market solutions to solve most other dicey socio-political issues. And the issue of bikes on roads should be no different.

It's time for Boulder, and Boulder County, to consider bicycle traffic laws that reflect reasonable and predictable human behavior. In Boulder, and elsewhere throughout the country, cyclists run red lights. A hundred new laws and enforcement campaigns won't change this.
"That's because they think they're saving the planet," Scott says. "They're so arrogant that they think they should be able to do whatever they please without consequence."

Not so. Cyclists run red lights because it's not in the interest of their survival to stop and wait for a light to turn green.

Why they run lights

The truth is, bad laws are seldom obeyed, because it's natural for people to disobey inappropriate laws. Traffic engineers and cops all know that ridiculously low speed limits, set to appease powerful neighborhoods rather than real safety concerns, are dangerous. They're harmful because a huge percentage of drivers disobey them, creating too much discrepancy in speeds on the road. In the simplest terms, unreasonable speed limits cause fast cars to hit slow cars. Traffic engineers know this, accept it, and act according to real human behavior.

Stop lights are ignored by cyclists for the same reason most motorists ignore silly speed limits: It's a ridiculous law, and it might get them killed.

Some traffic engineers in New York City agree. In a report titled "Transportation Alternatives," they explain the phenomenon of cyclists who run lights.

"New York cyclists are notorious for running red lights," the report states. "By now, going through red is an ingrained cycling tradition. Big-city impatience and the desire to maintain hard-earned momentum discourage bicycle riders from stopping fully when the law dictates-the same is true for pedestrians. But, though it may seem surprising for non-cyclists, many riders point to health and safety as reasons to disobey red lights.

"For one thing, going through a Manhattan red light gives the cyclist a block or two of respite from the exhaust fumes of accelerating cars and trucks," the report states. "More importantly, bicycles and cars accelerate differently. Motorists waiting behind a stopped bicycle are in no mood to wait for the cyclist to reach cruising speed. Pressure from impatient drivers is especially unnerving for novice cyclists, who need a modicum of open street space to start up. Because motor traffic occupies that space, the only way bicyclists can start up safely is by getting in front of the traffic, which often entails running lights."

The report stops just short of recommending an amendment to the traffic code. But it does suggest that cops look the other way.

"Rather than trying to issue a ticket to every cyclist who runs a light-a futile endeavor-the police department should focus its efforts on cycling offenses that endanger others," the report states. Such as riding on sidewalks.

It suggests the city adopt practices common in Europe. Some European cities have separate signals that allow cyclists and pedestrians a five to 10 second head start on cars. It's civilized, it's rational and it works.


Such a system would work for Boulder, but the solution is much simpler. Just legalize that which is already in full-fledged practice: Let the bikes stop, look both ways, and then run lights.
Natural law-I mean the laws of physics-will keep the cyclists safe. They run the lights in order to be safe in the first place, knowing the danger of having 25 aggressive motorists lined up to pass them when the light turns green. They run the lights knowing some idiot in a Bronco will cut them off in order to turn right without waiting on a bike.

Therefore, it's reasonable to assume cyclists only run red lights when there's no oncoming traffic. Are mistakes made? Of course. They're made whether or not we apply traffic laws to bikes that were designed for cars. But overall, any seasoned cyclist will say it's best to take responsibility for one's own safety and get away from traffic as quickly as possible. Meaning run the red lights, when prudent to do so.

Is it fair to monster trucks, which must wait on the light? No. But who cares? Cars and trucks should stop and obey lights because they're at the top of the food chain. Motorized vehicles are lethal weapons. Bicycles, except in rare freak exceptions, are threatening only to those who ride them. If a Hummer runs a red light because the driver thought it was in his best interest, and it turns out he was wrong, someone else is likely to die.

Not so with the cyclist. If he runs the red light, and it was a poor judgment call, it's mostly a threat to himself. Again, rare exceptions prove this wrong. In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, car/bike accidents harm only the cyclist.

Bike riders, unlike motorists, don't count on rules of the road to save their lives. One mishap, no matter who's at fault, can be lethal. Such high stakes do far more to regulate behavior than traffic laws ever can or will. The laws of common sense cause cyclists to run red lights. The laws of physics guide the hundreds of decisions they make on every ride. Traditional traffic laws for cars make no sense for bikes. So let them run lights.

Wayne Laugesen can be reached at Wayne@Laugesen.com or 303-499-4187. Send letters to the editor to: Boulder Weekly Letters, 690 S. Lashley Lane, Boulder, CO 80303; e-mail to letters@boulderweekly.com; fax 303-494-2585.

(The opinions expressed above are not neccesarily the opinions of SCAAB)

Butt Weight, There's More!

Few U.S. youths hike, bike to school
Changing the trend of little exercise should be a national goal, report says
By Kristen Wyatt

ATLANTA - Only a quarter of American children walk or bicycle to school, which may be contributing to the country's growing problem of childhood obesity, federal health officials said Thursday.

In its first national survey to look at why children are not walking, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked parents their reasons for not sending their children to school on foot. The top concerns: distance, traffic, weather and crime.

The CDC described the lack of exercise as a worrisome trend. The number of overweight teens has tripled since 1980, and in 1999 about 13 percent of children and teenagers were overweight.

At the same time, Type 2 diabetes, once unheard of in children, is increasing dramatically among adolescents.

Getting more children to walk or bike to school should be a national health objective, the CDC report says. It sets a goal of getting at least 50 percent of children who live less than a mile from school walking or cycling by 2010.

It also advocates sending children to schools within walking distance of their homes and making the walking routes safer.

"We need to build physical activity into a child's daily routine," Jessica Shisler, a CDC public health specialist, said.

The CDC survey, conducted in 1999, found that about 19 percent of school children walked to or from school at least once a week, and 6 percent made the commute by cycling. The numbers were about the same for students in elementary through secondary school.

Even students who live within a mile of school typically get there in an automobile, the survey said.

Only 31 percent of the children who lived less than a mile from school walked or biked there in an average week.

Other parents cited crime as a concern in the survey.

Tracy Power of Lawrenceville said she was afraid to let her 10-year-old daughter walk to school, even though the trip is less than a mile through an upscale neighborhood.

"You hear too many things about kids getting picked up," she said.

At Centennial Place Elementary in Atlanta, so many parents drive their children to school, the school recently assigned each car rider an ID number so they can be directed to the correct car out of hundreds waiting in line.

Nine-year-old Asha Hakityler said she would rather walk -- but because she lives seven miles away, "I'd be walking all day."

Aa'zia Taylor, 7, walks the few blocks to school every day. Her mother, Tara Taylor, walks with her and values the exercise.

"I do it because the schools don't give them enough exercise anymore," Taylor said. "I think it gives her more energy when she starts the day, and then when she comes home she's had a walk so she's ready to settle down."

The CDC report also discussed community programs that have succeeded in making school walks safer.

In Marin County, for example, a two-year campaign for safer paths and bike lanes doubled the number of students who used them.

The Marin County Bicycle Coalition asked parents to walk the routes to school and keep a list of hazards, such as uneven sidewalks or intersections without crosswalks. Then the parents lobbied the local government to fix the problems.

"It's been such a success because it's showed us how healthy a community can be when we don't rely on the car for every single trip," coalition director Deb Hubsmith said.