While it’s red light jumping cyclists that (stereo)typically attract the ire of the tabloid press and below-the-line commenters, it’s clear to any bike rider that many motorists treat amber lights as advisory rather than a warning, putting their foot down while trying (and all too often, failing) to beat the traffic signal turning red. We don’t have to tell you which one has more potential for harming other road users.
So, when a road.cc reader submitted a video of a driver making what he described as a “clear red light jump” on the morning of 18 January in Thornton Heath, South London, he assumed that the Metropolitan Police might act on the footage. It turns out he was wrong.
His email exchange with the officer who reviewed the footage after the cyclist queried why the driver would not be prosecuted gives an insight into issues police have to consider in deciding whether or not to refer a case for prosecution.
The cyclist is still well short of the traffic signal at the junction with the Ponds roundabout as it turns amber, but as he slows down, the driver of a BMW passes him to his right and goes through the red light.
The junction has an advanced stop line, use of which is governed by Rule 178 of the Highway Code, as follows:
Advanced stop lines. Some signal-controlled junctions have advanced stop lines to allow cycles to be positioned ahead of other traffic. Motorists, including motorcyclists, MUST stop at the first white line reached if the lights are amber or red and should avoid blocking the way or encroaching on the marked area at other times, e.g. if the junction ahead is blocked. If your vehicle has proceeded over the first white line at the time that the signal goes red, you MUST stop at the second white line, even if your vehicle is in the marked area. Allow cyclists time and space to move off when the green signal shows.
In the short clip above, it’s clear that the lights have changed to amber well before the motorist is even in shot, and while it is difficult to judge whether he or she speeded up, equally it seems no attempt was made to slow down. And while the light remained amber when the vehicle crossed the first line, it had changed to red before it crossed the second.
The reviewing officer told the cyclist that after watching the footage, he agreed with the member of staff who had initially decided that “the case should be dealt with as one of NFA (No Further Action) IETP (Insufficient Evidence To Proceed),” and went on to explain the reasoning behind the decision.
“The vehicle in question does pass the primary stop line on amber and is within the ASL cycle box,” he explained. “Due to the speed of the vehicle it would have been impossible to stop at the Advanced Stop Line. If the vehicle was travelling at the posted speed of 30mph it would have taken 75 feet to stop in time for the secondary Stop line of the ATS (automatic traffic signal). The CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) will look at this and in particular Rule 178 of the Highway Code.
“The vehicle would have stood no chance of stopping at the secondary stop line and it would have been more dangerous to apply the brakes on in an attempt to stop and in so doing, possibly lose control, and cause more danger to the occupants of the vehicle and other road users.
“Vehicles should stop at the Primary stop line and or the secondary stop line *if safe to do so*. There would be a statutory defence whereby if the driver of a vehicle is deemed to have contravened a Red ATS and it would be considered that severe braking would cause even more danger then no offence would be committed.”
He added: “The Highway Code is a guidance to road users and is not statutory traffic law through an Act of Parliament i.e. RTA (Road Traffic Act) 1988.”
(Editor’s note: The Highway Code is annotated throughout with details of the specific legislation relating to each Rule, in this case sections 36 (as amended by the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2002), 36 (1) and 42 of the Road Traffic Act 1988).
The officer added: “On this occasion I would respectfully consider that there is insufficient evidence to bring this allegation to a successful prosecution under current CPS guidelines which we must adhere to.
“Please continue to send in reports of bad driving as we have a Seventy Five (75) per cent successful prosecution rate with footage provided by members of the public.”
The cyclist replied, suggesting that “consideration be given to whether the driver was driving dangerously and/or speeding,” and saying that he felt that “the conclusions in your email imply that driving at speed or in a manner which leads to exactly this situation are to be tolerated.”
He added: “I appreciate that the Highway Code is a guide, but the parts that say ‘must’ are legally enforceable.”
That email elicited a detailed response from the same reviewing officer, who said that it “would be hard to prove in a court of law.”
He said: “Police cannot prove the speeding element unless a Home Office approved calibrated speeding device is used to calculate the speed,” and that “with regards to proving they had no intention to stop,” the driver’s mens rea – state of mind – “could not be proved.”
He continued: “The vehicle had no chance of stopping at the secondary stop line and it would not have been safe to do so.”
In conclusion, he said: “CPS guidelines are clear in that any offence capable of proof the evidence must be apparent to do so. This allegation would be looked on and the decision would be one of vehicles should stop at the primary stop line and or the secondary stop line *if safe to do so*.
“There would be a statutory defence whereby if the driver of a vehicle is deemed to have contravened a Red ATS and it would be considered that severe braking would cause even more danger then no offence would be committed.”
So, there we have it. We suspect most cyclists viewing that footage would consider it a clear-cut case of a driver ignoring a red light – but based on the evidence available and the impossibility of proving to the extent required at court that the driver had speeded up, the police were unable to take it further.
Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.