If You See Red, Stop Your Tread

As a cyclist, there are few things that slow your roll more than stop signs and traffic lights. Getting back up to speed after stopping can take a lot of energy. Stopping at every light and stop sign can add minutes to your trip, and the extra exertion can leave you sweaty and tired when you get to your destination.

So, what do many cyclists do? Stop signs become yield signs, and often, traffic lights become stop signs. So called “California stops,” or rolling stops, are a common practice for both cyclists and motorists in Los Angeles, and across the country. The practice, while a boon to cyclist momentum, is unfortunately illegal. While states like Idaho, and more recently Virginia, allow cyclists to treat traffic control signals differently than cars do, California does not. In our state, bicycles are vehicles, and vehicles are bound by CVC 21462 and CVC 22450. While the first violation comes with a fine of less than $100 before administrative fees, additional violations increase the monetary cost of the infraction.

Setting aside the valuable, and very real point that bicycles are different than cars, and that bicycles are being made to adhere to a vehicle code that doesn’t totally apply to them, until statutes are changed, bicyclists should follow all traffic laws. They should do so for a number of reasons: Doing so will make cycling safer. It sets a good example for motorists, and it is the law. You might argue that treating a traffic control signal like a yield doesn’t harm anyone, and thus isn’t morally wrong, but this behavior can harm future plans for bicycle infrastructure, the lack of which can lead to real physical injury.

Running traffic lights works counter to the cause of those who want improved bicycle infrastructure because it creates community opposition to cyclists.  Tom Stafford writes that what really annoys drivers about cyclists is this rule breaking behavior, even if no one is actually hurt by it, because it upsets the “moral order” of the road. Drivers get angry when they see a cyclist doing something they can’t do, whether that’s weaving between cars to move to the front of the queue or treating a stop light as a yield. There is almost a collective “Why do they get to go if I can’t?” uttered whenever a cyclist breezes through an empty intersection. To drivers, the rules of the road are the rules of the road.

As long as bicycles and cars are governed by the same sections of the Vehicle Code, drivers will think cyclists are “getting away with something” when they run red lights. This annoyance with rule breaking cyclists wouldn’t be as big of an issue for bicycle politics in Los Angeles or around the world if it was limited to the rule breakers themselves, but this isn’t the case.

Though what is known as the “affect heuristic“, a driver’s emotional response to perceived cyclist misdeeds becomes generalized to the entire cycling population. “That no-good, rude rule breaking cyclist!” becomes “Those no-good, rude rule breaking cyclists!” or worse yet, “All cyclists are no-good, rude and rule breaking!”

Politically, you can see why this would be an issue. In order for the 2010 Bicycle Plan to be fully implemented, LADOT and cyclists across the city need to rely on local community support. If community members, having seen some cyclists treating a stop light as a yield, see this needed infrastructure as a giveaway to rulebreakers, it’s going to be an even tougher sell.

So please, I know it makes a lot of sense to safely glide though red lights and stop signs. I don’t like slowing my momentum putting my foot down for a full stop as much as the next cyclist, but fairly or unfairly, it hurts the cause of improving LA’s bicycle infrastructure every time you do. As long as bikes and cars have to follow the same rules, running red lights on two wheels just perpetuates incorrect generalizations that can make roads unsafe for cyclists in the short term, and make growing our bikeway network more difficult in the long term.

0 replies
  1. Doug
    Doug says:

    I think I remember a couple of years or so ago, didn’t someone propose to make stop signs like yield signs (Idaho Law)? Is there any way we can get this issue up again? I always slow down at stop signs, but don’t really make a full stop. I had a lady yell at me today for it, even though a lot of drivers do the exact same thing, and I’m sure she doesn’t pull next to them and yell at them continually.

    Reply
  2. Niall Huffman (@kneel28)
    Niall Huffman (@kneel28) says:

    I generally agree with most of this post. Having said that, a couple of things…

    a) Nothing in the law requires cyclists to put their foot down at a stop sign. I often do it myself, as I find that it’s an effective way of establishing right-of-way when I’m at a 4-way stop intersection where other traffic is approaching, but it’s absolutely not required. It’s perfectly legal to trackstand.

    b) “[W]eaving between cars to move to the front of the queue,” i.e. lane splitting, is not prohibited under California law as long as it’s done safely.

    Reply
    • Eli Glazier
      Eli Glazier says:

      Hi Niall,

      a) You are correct. I wrote it that way mostly for rhetorical reasons, but I can see that it is confusing. I’ve since changed it. When I ride, I try to trackstand as much as possible.

      b) I think the “as long as it’s done safely” part is key here. Remaining predictable on the road by signalling, etc. is the best way to stay safe and keep motorists’ attention and respect.

      Reply
  3. Moore
    Moore says:

    I agree and I stop always*

    *The only exception is that there are a few intersections where the light is only triggered by cars (otherwise never turns green) and the only way to go forward or turn left is on a red. One of those intersections is the only red I’ve ever run in my bicycle. FWIW, I’m speaking of is Beverly Blvd. & South Commonwealth Ave 90004. Even if you get off your bike and request the cross walk, you still won’t get a green light for traffic.

    Reply
  4. Dave
    Dave says:

    A lot of us cyclists see drivers in cars running reds, breaking speed limits to make that yellow light, not coming to a complete stop at stop signs, not yielding to pedestrians during turns, etc, but we don’t generalize and say, “ALL DRIVERS ARE LAW-BREAKERS!” Yet, drivers get billion dollar freeway widening projects, and tons of car-benefiting infrastructures… The small wrong-doings of cyclists isn’t the problem, it’s the car-centered culture in this city that is hurting the cyclists.

    Reply
  5. Allan
    Allan says:

    Oh I’m so glad this is brought up. I was recently in Sacramento for a little over a month and I found I wasn’t “breaking the rules” much. Granted when I did come to a 4-way stop and there’s absolutely no other vehicle there or coming up to the 4-way, I always put the hammer down and motored on through the intersection. I did notice I was never putting myself in danger or finding myself in a dangerous situation and I wondered why and quickly realized it was because there’s bicycle infrastructure on the roads! Take a look at Google maps for Sacto, you’re actually able to get around where you need to go! VERY few times I was at a point where I had to fight for the lane. And if I was, I was able to do it rather easily cause the drivers weren’t all stressed out!

    Which brings me to another point, drivers speeding! What I’d like to tell Tom Stafford is what really annoys bicyclist about drivers is this rule breaking behavior, even if no one is actually hurt by it, ( oh wait, they do get hurt by it!) because it upsets the “moral order” of the road. Bicyclists get angry when they see a drivers doing something they can’t do, whether that’s flying down the road going 50 – 100 % over the posted speed limit. There is almost a collective “Why do they get to speed and act reckless if I can’t?” uttered whenever a driver buzzes by them. To cyclists, the rules of the road are the rules of the road.

    As long as bicycles and cars are governed by the same sections of the Vehicle Code, cyclists will think drivers are “getting away with something” when they go flying down the road. This annoyance with rule breaking drivers wouldn’t be as big of an issue for car politics in Los Angeles or around the world if it was limited to the rule breakers themselves, but this isn’t the case.

    So you got to ask yourselves, “what is more dangerous out on the roads today? Billy riding his bike through a 4 way intersection with no cars around, or Billy’s dad flying through town with 2-3 tons of steel, glass and plastics going 50% or more over the posted speed limit?”

    So let me sum this up for you Eli! It’s bicycle infrastructure. No bicycle infrastructure means the bicyclist doesn’t feel like they are a part of the road network. Not being a part of the network means they are out there on their own dealing with it any way they can!

    And you really want to make the roads safer for all, and including drivers? Get the drivers to slow the f*** down! At least get them to drive at the posted speed! If that was ever to happen, the roads would be bliss and I wouldn’t need any infrastructure.

    Reply
    • Vahe
      Vahe says:

      Thanks man very much.
      I’m getting so upset every time somebody says they totally support your good ideas (in this case riding and promoting biking) and then starts repeating you stupid ideas of ignorant people who never cared about it. Cars should be ready to stop for bikes for all times day and night, where have you seen car drivers who don’t break any rules? I have to pass red light when there are no cars SOMETIMES because otherwise I’m trying to go ahead when cars/buses try to blaze through me on green light and each car doesn’t see me behind other car, sorry ladot but I’m not going to risk my life, fix the problems, fix the roads so we won’t have to swerve, last thing bicyclists want is dealing with cars or make them angry, even hearing a horn directly to your ears is enough deterrent than getting a ticket and etc.

      Reply
  6. Michael Sullivan
    Michael Sullivan says:

    Riding to work yesterday, I was coming up on another cyclist who was slower than me. I never got to make the pass, though, because for the next few miles he blew through *every* red light he encountered. But this wasn’t just an academic concern. Each intersection was loaded with cars. As I was finally approaching him for the pass, he made his turn off the road. I never got to thank him for helping to make the rest of us look like jerks.

    Reply
    • Eli Glazier
      Eli Glazier says:

      Thank you Michael. The point is not that motorists obey all the rules or that cyclists riding through red lights/stop signs is the main thing that makes the road a sometimes dangerous place, but that if LA cyclists want more bicycle infrastructure, particularly in places where it may be a tough sell, it would be easier if cyclists didn’t people a reason to dislike them or spite them. It isn’t enough to say “fix these roads and put in more bicycle infrastructure” because LADOT is not the one slowing down bicycle infrastructure construction. Politics is. And what is part of that? Animosity towards cyclists because they “break the rules.”

      Reply
  7. james
    james says:

    Ladot should also consider a campaign to remind both motorists and cyclists that bicycles don’t have to vacate the bike lane at an intersection to make way for cars turning right. I don’t recall ever coming across a southern californian who thinks bicycles have the right to remain in the bike lane at an intersection during a red light. Everyone seems to think they need to yield to and make way for right turning cars.
    Affect heuristics also play a role here. Motorists seem to think that when I am waiting in the bike lane at a light I am making a political statement, oppressing motorists, impeding the flow of traffic, hogging a full lane even when it is a 4 foot bike lane etc. The verbal abuse I receive often takes the form of affect heuristic response. I become a membing of a group of scofflaws and am referred to in the plural. When I obey the law, act in my own self interest and in accordance with a sense of self preservation I seem to elicit an affect heuristic response in motorists. This was never really a problem in the past when I lived elsewhere, but seem to really disturb motorists here. If I get out into the cross walk or in front of it to make room for a right turning car it may be interpreted the same way. Do they understand that I am trying to avoid being right hooked by being to the left of cars making a right hand turn? Or do they merely feel “those cycists are assholes who think they are above the law sitting out there in front of me like they are better than me fucking assholes” etc.

    Reply
    • Vahe
      Vahe says:

      I always let the cars turn right. It’s a very south californian thing to turn right on red (in NY I think it’s even prohibited unless special sign). if the car doesn’t turn right on red and there are cars that want to go straight behind that cars and if on green they get stuck yielding for pedestrians then the whole thing is stopped just because you didn’t move a little left

      Reply
    • f ron
      f ron says:

      I let the cars make the right turn whenever possible as well. I consider it common courtesy. I dont like to be held up by others anymore than I want to hold others up. Keep the traffic flowing.

      Reply
  8. Sine Metu
    Sine Metu says:

    Amen. I’m an every-day bike commuter and this is one of my pet peeves. Every time I see another cyclist run a stop or a red I think to myself “lazy”.

    I look at stop signs as opportunities for extra exercise. If you can’t handle breaking momentum then you might want to try a less demanding mode of transport.

    Reply
  9. Mark Elliot
    Mark Elliot says:

    Consider the relative potential harm, right? Ticketed in Beverly Hills for a rolling stop a block off Wilshire, I pointed out to the officer that at any given light change on Wilshire, about 3 or 4 vehicles full-on run the red at many intersections. That’s about 400 or so light runners every hour on even a short stretch, say between Beverly Dr. & Doheney Dr. And there is never any enforcement on Wilshire. Cyclists crossing Wilshire on a fresh green light: look to your left and it may save your life.

    Reply
  10. Karen
    Karen says:

    I think cycling is an incredible form of exercise and transportation and I am glad that cycling has become more common in Los Angeles. I always try to be very aware and courteous to cyclists when I am driving, particularly as I live in the Beverly/Fairfax area where streets are very narrow and traffic flow is very tight. As much as I want to fully embrace cycling, I do find it incredibly frustrating (particularly as a pedestrian) that I have never, and I mean ABSOLUTELY NEVER seen a single cyclist stop at a stop sign in my neighborhood. I’m out walking my dog at least four times a day on the avenues between Fairfax and La Brea and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to yank myself and my dog back from the front tire of a bicycle that has flown through an intersection that I was already lawfully in the process of crossing before they even reached the intersection. I know that cyclists argue that cars run stop signs too, but honestly I can’t even remember the last time as a pedestrian that I had a car run a stop sign and then try to weave around me in the intersection. I know bikes are more maneuverable but it’s still scary to have someone fly within an inch of you on a bike and really frightens my dog. When I’ve tried to politely point this out to cyclists, I’m afraid to say I’ve always been flipped off or sworn at. Cyclists, I know you are not all like this, and I REALLY do want to support you, but I’m sad to say I’ve never experienced anything else. All I’m asking is that we all be respectful of each other and all abide by the same rules.

    Reply
  11. Scott
    Scott says:

    Some people on this blog sound like little kids whining when they say “The cars do it so why shouldn’t bikes be able to do it.” or “make them stop and then we will stop” (In regards to stopping at a red light or stop sign.) Wow is all have to say to those people if they older then 5 years old.

    I am guessing that at least 90% of the people riding bikes also have drivers license. This means that they have to follow the rules of the road in their car or truck but once they get on a bike the rules of the road don’t matter. For me, when I ride a bike, my own safety trumps everything. So I stop and I give the car or truck as much room as I can to go around me because I don’t want to get hit. I always get eye contact with them if our paths are going to cross, like someone coming out of a driveway.

    Taking or expecting special treatment because it is harder to get back up to speed after stopping is crazy. I believe, there is a true or a core lack of respect in this thinking. I see it when the Tour De France people group up and block traffic or when bicycles head up to the front of the line at a stop to make a left turn. Then the light turns green and then they block traffic from moving because of the getting up to speed time. This means cars in the back miss the light. Had they waited until the cars went they would have been up to speed before reaching the intersection.

    Reply
    • Allan
      Allan says:

      Thanks for avoiding my question Scott. And no I’m not a whinny 5 yr old. If cars were doing the posted speed limits, I’d be a happy camper!!!!!!!

      Here’s my question again and this is with Billy going 50% BELOW posted speed;

      So you got to ask yourselves, “what is more dangerous out on the roads today? Billy riding his bike through a 4 way intersection with no cars around, or Billy’s dad flying through town with 2-3 tons of steel, glass and plastics going 50% or more over the posted speed limit?”

      Reply
  12. Brittany
    Brittany says:

    Honestly, as a Southern California driver, I couldn’t care less about bikes blazing a stop or red light if no one is around. What seems to me that the point that is being avoided to discuss is doing this same action at loaded intersections. Twice last week I had to hit my breaks in the middle of a 4-way stop because a cyclist refused to stop. I had the right away and I wasn’t the only car crossing that had to avoid the cyclist. Why didn’t I see the cyclist in the first place, you may be wondering? The car that approched the stop to my right blocked him from veiw. I am always very aware of cyclists and usually enjoy sharing the road with them. I always give them extra room and don’t mind them blocking a right turn lane, etc. However, it’s the ones that ride in the middle of the car lane three feet to the left of an unblocked bike lane and refuse to give way to faster traffic or the ones that like to dart out infront of other vehicals that clearly had the right away (giving me a panic attack) that need to understand that they are not physically invincible. It is the animosity toward these cyclists that make me not want to get back on my own two wheels. And when I see a cyclist obeying vehical laws I give them all the respect I can and ENJOY sharing the road with them.

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] LADOT Really Wants Cyclists to Follow Laws (LADOT Bike Blog) […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *