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Is it ever acceptable to ride through a red light? One London cyclist explains why he thinks it is (+ video)

Jack Shenker fined by Operation Safeway officer - but says concerns for own safety prompted him to ride through on red

Is it ever okay to ride through a red traffic light? While it is definitely against the law, one London cyclist fined during the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Safeway for doing just that, believes it is if there is no other way of negotiating a junction safely.

Helmet camera user Evo Lucas, who regularly uploads footage to YouTube, was passing the location close to the junction with Procter Street and Holborn where the rider had been stopped, and spoke to him, uploading the footage to the video sharing site afterwards.

The start of the video gives an idea of some of the hazards facing cyclists at that specfic junction - note how Lucas himself, with a car to his right, slows down as a lorry moves across him to take the right hand lane.

The RLJ debate

The rider in question is 30-year-old journalist and author Jack Shenker, who lives in north east London. In an email, he told road.cc that while he didn’t condone reckless jumping of red lights, he did believe ignoring traffic signals was warranted at times on the grounds of safety.

I think the debate over cyclist behaviour in general, and jumping red lights in particular, is a fascinating and important one. For what it's worth, I have seen cyclists jump red lights recklessly, sending pedestrians scattering as they go, just as I've seen road users of every type drive without consideration for others.

But on the whole, my impression is that most cyclists who jump red lights do so because they find themselves at junctions with little provision for cyclists, or where the provisions that have been made for cyclists (bike lanes, bike boxes) have been encroached upon by vehicles, and sometimes – not always, it depends of course on the specific location and circumstances – it feels safer in that situation to get out in front of the traffic, especially when there are no pedestrians or other vehicles moving through the junction, and move off before the lights turn green and everyone gets going.

This is particularly true at junctions where there are several lanes of traffic and vehicles potentially trying to cross over one another as they move off on green (especially when there is another junction ahead, forcing everybody to filter themselves into the correct lanes) – cyclists can easily get caught in the middle of all that tangling if they haven't already got themselves out in front – and at junctions where vehicles are making sharp turns as they move off from the traffic lights.

Cyclist explains why he rode through a red light

Describing yesterday’s incident, he said:

The notorious Holborn junction where I received my ticket yesterday ticks both of those boxes. In my case, as I tried to turn right from Procter Street into High Holborn, I found myself caught on the left hand side behind a bus that was already half-turned at a tight angle and encroaching upon the bike box as it came to a stop at the traffic lights.

I could have waited to the side of the bus, stuck between lines of traffic to my left and right and invisible to the bus's mirrors, and then tried to thread my way across a couple of lanes of heavy traffic on the turn once the lights went green (the left-hand lane at the subsequent High Holborn / Kingsway junction is for turning left onto Kingsway, but I needed to go straight ahead).

Instead, I did what felt safer, and manoeuvred in front of the bus, which put me ahead of the bike box and into the pedestrian crossing area. There were no pedestrians, and no other traffic moving on the junction ahead of me, so before the lights went green I moved off onto High Holborn, and was immediately pulled over by a policeman.

No appeal against fixed penalty notice

He acknowledges that many cyclists would not approve of riding through red lights in any circumstances, and outlined his reasons not to challenge the £50 fixed penalty notice.

I'm sure there will be plenty of people, including some other cyclists, who disagree with that sort of action, and I respect their views – I don't know what the definitive answer is to staying safe in these kind of situations, and I suspect that ultimately each cyclist has to reach their own conclusions several times every day about how best to protect themselves and show courtesy and consideration to others when they're riding through the city.

I won't appeal the penalty, partly because I don't have the time or money, and partly because I've seen far more clear-cut cases where cyclists have technically broken the road rules but were patently in the right and it's those cases we should be concentrating on to win public support and a change in the status quo.

What I do know is that these kinds of dilemmas will crop up for cyclists time and time again as long as we have a road system that fails in so many respects to accommodate different users, including cyclists, and throws them all together at dangerous junctions in the hope that everyone will just sort themselves out.

In those circumstances it always the most vulnerable – cyclists – who end up being harassed, injured or killed; when the system is rigged against you, there will be times when you subvert it to stay alive.

Is Operation Safeway missing its target?

The fine was issued as part of the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Safeway, but Shenker feels that targeting bike riders who are breaking the law as a result of putting their own safety first is missing the point.

The police told me they were blitzing the junction to protect cyclists' safety, but on the whole cyclists who break the rules in a minor way after taking thoughtful action to protect themselves are not a threat to anyone's safety; the merging of heavy goods vehicles on narrow roads with cyclists, crap road and junction design, and politicians who lack the political will to improve the situation – those are the things threatening cyclists' safety, but the police are rarely blitzing them.

What do you think? Should it be allowed for cyclists to ride through red lights in some circumstances? Or does doing so, irrespective of the excuse, simply give people ammunition to use against bike riders? Let us know in the comments.

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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