Why it’s not OK for cyclists to run red lights

By Felix Salmon
August 5, 2012
Randy Cohen, the NYT's former Ethicist columnist, has now attempted an ethical defense of running red lights on his bicycle.

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Randy Cohen, the NYT’s former Ethicist columnist, has now attempted an ethical defense of running red lights on his bicycle. “I flout the law when I’m on my bike,” he writes; “you do it when you are on foot, at least if you are like most New Yorkers.”

This, of course, is one of the weakest ethical defenses imaginable: if lots of other people are flouting the law, that doesn’t give anybody else the ethical right to do so, let alone the legal right. But Cohen continues:

I roll through a red light if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection — that is, if it will not endanger myself or anybody else. To put it another way, I treat red lights and stop signs as if they were yield signs. A fundamental concern of ethics is the effect of our actions on others. My actions harm no one. This moral reasoning may not sway the police officer writing me a ticket, but it would pass the test of Kant’s categorical imperative: I think all cyclists could — and should — ride like me.

The “should” at the end of this passage is utterly indefensible. At best, Cohen has demonstrated that he’s causing no harm to others (although I’ll take issue with that in a moment). But if Cohen is doing something illegal — which, by his own admission he is — then he needs something much stronger than “no harm to others” before he urges such behavior on all other cyclists.

There are cases where flouting the law can be the ethical thing to do, but those are generally cases where following the law, or standing idly by in the face of something which is clearly wrong, cannot be ethically justified. In this case, stopping at a red light and waiting for it to turn green does no harm to anybody, and there’s no morality I know of which would frown on such behavior.

It is important to cyclists that we get the full respect of drivers as fellow road users, with just as much right to be riding down the street as they have. The biggest danger facing cyclists is when drivers get annoyed if we slow them down, or drive as though we’re simply not there. Developing a relationship of mutual respect between drivers and cyclists is the most important thing we can do to improve cyclists’ safety, and to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on the streets. And cyclists will find it much harder to earn that respect if they visibly flout the law every time they reach a red light.

Do pedestrians flout red-light laws all the time? Yes, of course they do. But they also fear cars, and respect the fact that the roadway is built for the purposes of cars and not for themselves. No pedestrian insists on the right to walk down the middle of the road at any time of day or night, and to be respected by drivers while doing so.

Similarly, Cohen — quite rightly — saying that cyclists “are a third thing, a distinct mode of transportation, requiring different practices and different rules”. I wrote as much myself, in my unified theory of New York biking. But that theory was based on the idea that the tragedy of New York cycling is that everybody — pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists — treat cyclists too much like pedestrians. Cohen, by contrast, says that “most of the resentment of rule-breaking riders like me, I suspect, derives from a false analogy: conceiving of bicycles as akin to cars”. I wish that New Yorkers would conceive of bicycles as akin to cars: pedestrians would look first before stepping out in front of us; cars would respect our right to be on the road; and fellow cyclists wouldn’t endanger everybody by riding the wrong way down the street.

One of the weirder parts of Cohen’s essay is that he extols Amsterdam and Copenhagen, which are cities where, to a first approximation, all cyclists always stop at all red lights, and don’t go again until the light turns green. Doesn’t he understand that in order for New York to work as a cycling city, cyclists will have to stop taking the law into their own hands? “Uninterrupted motion,” he writes, “gliding silently and swiftly, is a joy.” Well, yes, it is. Uninterrupted motion is quite nice for car drivers, too, but they stop at red lights. And even pedestrians generally wait until the way is clear before they cross the street.

More to the point, I simply don’t believe Cohen when he writes that he only breaks the red-light rule “if and only if no pedestrian is in the crosswalk and no car is in the intersection”. What about when there’s a pedestrian in the crosswalk who’s walking away from the bike? I’ll bet he does it then, too. The point is, when you can make up your own rules, you can also make up when to bend them. I can understand that Cohen would prefer it if New York had rules like Idaho’s. But whatever the rules are, we should obey them. If Cohen wants to agitate for a change in the rules, I’ll join him and support him. But I’m not going to pretend that it’s OK to break the rules just because you think the rules should be changed.

It’s quite common for pedestrians to thank me when I stop at a red light behind the crosswalk. That’s nice of them, I guess — but it’s also a bit depressing: it shows that most pedestrians expect most cyclists to flout the law. And that makes them afraid and resentful of cyclists in general. That’s the last thing anybody wants. And so for the time being it behooves all cyclists to adhere to the law as it stands, even if they’re convinced that they’re doing no harm. Running red lights is highly visible behavior, and every time a pedestrian or a driver seen Cohen do it, that only confirms in them their prejudice that cyclists are lawless people with no respect for the rules of the road. They can’t see the counterfactual case where Cohen would have stopped had there been a pedestrian in the way: all they see is the law-flouter.

I’m no angel on this front: I’ve done, on my bike, everything Cohen has done on his. I just don’t kid myself that I’m behaving ethically when I do so. And I’m trying to set a good example, even if I don’t always succeed. If you ever see me run a red light on my bike, feel free to tell me off. I’ll deserve it.

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