Why Cyclists Run Red Lights

One of the common complaints of drivers against cyclists is that cyclists run red lights.

This complaint is echoed across the water to Australia, where researchers from the Monash University Accident Research Centre surveyed over 2,000 cyclists to find out why. In a paper published in Accident Analysis and Prevention, the researchers broke down the reasons given and found that “the most common reasons  cited for riding through red lights could be at least partially mitigated by more inclusive road infrastructure, amendments to road rules and targeted education programs“. Based on the research,  there are 3 mitigation measures to reduce infractions: infrastructure, laws, and education.


Sensor Trip Marker

Sensor Trip Marker

Apparently cyclists “down under” are just as frustrated at signalized intersections that do not sense the presence of their presence just as many of the signals here in the OC fail in a likewise fashion.

Supposedly we are to have painted decals on the road sensors that will indicate where to place the bike so as to trip the sensor, and the researchers in Australia suggest doing the same. When you see one, be sure to let us know.

From the release:

Dr Johnson said infrastructure adjustments could help resolve the problem of detector loops not being triggered by bikes and leaving cyclists stranded during low-traffic periods.

“Cyclists across Australia were frustrated by their inability to change traffic lights,” Dr Johnson said.

“At some sites, cyclists can activate the signal change if they ride over the right spot. Painting that spot with a bike symbol may be an easy and very cheap solution. At other sites, we need to reconsider how these detector loops are calibrated to ensure all roads users can activate the signal change.”

The sensitivity of traffic sensors can be adjusted, although  more intersections are using cameras at intersections to sense traffic flow and trigger signal changes.  So although you properly rode all the way to the intersection, if the light doesn’t change what do you do; especially if you’re trying to turn left in a two lane turn pocket?

As the suburbs of the OC decay into the high-density tax generating urban developments that are needed to accommodate  growth in population, infrastructure design and implementation becomes a key in allowing all road users to go about their way in a timely and safe manner.

An earlier survey in England found:

“While 54 per cent of cyclists surveyed agreed that cyclists should improve their behaviour by sticking to the Highway Code at junctions, 48 per cent said that poor road layout at such junctions was their top safety concern.”

Martin Gibbs, policy director at British Cycling, said: “Some junctions are so badly designed that people on bikes feel they have to choose between riding legally and riding safely, and this urgently needs addressing.” Mr Gibbs added: “Cycle provision and cycle safety must be designed into roads and junctions before they are built, and existing problem junctions re-engineered, so we create an environment in which people can cycle safely and no-one feels excused from obeying the law.”

Alton Cycle Sensor

Alton Cycle Sensor – LF – credit BdS

As a recent example of cyclist provisioning into roads before they are built, look no further than the most recent new pavement in the OC , Alton, in Lake Forest, continuing from  from Trabuco/Irvine reveals a cycle sensor placed in the pavement in the bike lane  to trip the new signal – yay!

With all the new and planned development about to occur in the County, not to mention the 54 road projects approved by the OCTA, it’s encouraging to see progress in the implementation of cycle-friendly road design in the OC. Kudos to the city of Lake Forest! (and happy Anniversary)

Brea is another city with these sensors, and they work great – when properly calibrated!


So the motorists are right, cyclists are running red lights all over the planet! Madness, Mayhem, and Chaos ensues! Or not.

Enforcement of flagrant stop sign and red light violations will help curb bad behavior of both cyclists and motorists, while good infrastructure will encourage safer travel and better behavior by all parties.

As far as amending road rules; California could adopt the Idaho Stop Law. After all, there isn’t a “requirement” that drivers “put a foot on the ground” to indicate a complete stop. Even if you can track-stand for 15 minutes, some jurisdictions will consider you “moving” and issue a citation.

Carl Bianchi is regarded as the father of the Idaho Stop and says, ““Police were ticketing bike riders for failing to come to a complete, foot-down stop. Judges, however, saw “technical violations” clogging up their courts. “We recognized that the realities of bicycling were a lot different than driving a car,” Bianchi said. But the year after the Idaho Stop became law, bicycle injuries in the state actually declined by 14.5 percent.For a history of how the law came to be, see here.

For a “debate” about the law, see here. A FAQ about the law is here, and the San Francisco Bike Coalition’s 4 point plan to “Idaho-ize” California is here.


With respect to the Idaho Stop, it would appear greater awareness and education would be required throughout the state and in fact education was a requirement in the original 1982 version. In 1988 the  provision authorizing bicycle safety education programs was eliminated from the codified statute because as it turned out, special training was unnecessary; people naturally understood the concept and respected the right of way of others.

Education is an on-going effort for road users, developers, and  traffic engineers alike. New technologies, lessons learned (ie: best practices), and new laws all require an occasional update to our worldview.

The OCBC incorporates the latest and best practices in its cyclist education and outreach efforts to teach rights and responsibilities, safe and defensive riding skills, and good behaviors. Sign up for our next class here. Additionally, we provide input to planning processes to represent cyclist interests – contact us for details.

Wrap Up

Since there are many cities in Orange County, not all have their signals synchronized with their neighbors, nor are all signal detectors set to detect cyclists. You can help identify and fix this by noting the intersection, and contacting the appropriate city through our Street Repair page, or tell us by Blowing the Whistle On It, and we’ll take it from there.

For answering the question of why cyclists run red lights, sometimes it’s because the car-centric infrastructure gives them no other choice, sometimes the signal timing is too short to safely cross an intersection at bicycle speed, and sometimes it’s because they’re just jerks willing to risk their life at the expense of another’s right of way.

While better enforcement, or (sadly) natural selection will take care of the latter, join us to lead Orange County to a more cycle friendly future.