There are times when, as a cyclist, I blow through a red light. I’ve got momentum, I don’t feel like stopping, I’m running late.
I’m not alone. In America, about 865,000 cyclists commuted to work each day. Forty percent of them charge across a red light intersection, according to one recent study.* (Other informal studies put this number much higher). Why do we feel so emboldened to disregard the rules, putting our lives on the line in the process? While there are no national statistics on whether motorists or cyclists cause more deaths, an Arizona study found that 44 percent of deaths in bike/car crashes were the cyclist’s fault. A Minnesota study faulted cyclists in 49 percent of all accidents, with failure to yield the most common cause.
Riders rationalize their chancy behavior by resorting to physical science. Chris Juden, Chief Technical Officer of the UK’s 137-year-old Cyclists Touring Club, writes that “every time a cyclist stops, they lose kinetic energy and have to work harder upon starting off in order to accelerate and restore that kinetic energy.” At the typical riding speed of 10 mph to 12 mph, one stop-start is equivalent to biking an additional 300 feet. In that sense, if a bicycle rider commuting to work comes to a complete stop, say 15 times, he has “added” about a mile to the ride. Which makes it no surprise that some may try to cut that by running wisely selected lights.
I’ve come across other pragmatic justifications to keep rolling, including: There were no oncoming cars; it was only a pedestrian crossing; it’s easy to get away with because traffic laws are loosely enforced; running a red light allows the rider to stay in a relatively safe zone ahead of traffic.
But the real answer is deeper than that. One study out of SUNY Buffalo recorded the behavior of 451 cyclists with video cameras at three intersections in Beijing. Fifty-six percent of the commuters ran red lights. According to the researchers, young and middle-aged riders were the primary culprits. “The probability of a rider running a red light was higher when he or she was alone, when there were fewer riders waiting and there were already riders crossing on the red,” co-author Changxu Wu explained. In short — people are more likely to break a law if they see other people already doing so.
And for a determined subset of cyclists, such violations are a form of payback for the way they feel marginalized by a transportation system created for and dominated by motorized vehicles. For them, running a red light is an injudicious act of defiance, like back country snowboarding in the shadow of an unstable cornice.
That feeling of defiance is amplified by the adrenaline rush even the tweediest of cyclists get as they weave through cars to buy a carton of milk or go to work. As Toby Young, who has biked in London for decades, write in his aptly titled “The Only Way to Survive as a Cyclist is to Behave Like You’re Suicidal,” riding in traffic makes him feel like a fighter pilot: “One tiny lapse in concentration and it’s certain death.”
He’s right. According to a 2014 NHTSA report, there were roughly 49,000 bike/car crashes in 2012. There were 726 deaths. That’s 2.2 percent of all traffic fatalities, an approximately 50 percent increase over 2003. Other statistics in the same report suggest that the popularity of adult city cycling may be responsible for the upsurge: In 2012, 69 percent of bike/car incidents took place in urban settings. The number of bicycle commuters exploded between 2005 and 2012; up 107 percent in Massachusetts and up 112 percent in Maryland, for example.
Clearly, urban cycling, despite its green patina, qualifies as risk-taking endeavor. Running red lights and other outré maneuvers only enhance the adrenalin rush.
Marvin Zuckerman, pioneer of research into risk-taking, wrote in 2000 that the most common outlet for sensation-seeking was reckless driving. In 2015, I would venture, heedless cycling is an emerging rival.
* Correction: An earlier version of this piece linked to the wrong study.