Stop...or else

by Doug Mink, Former President, Bicycle Coalition of Massachusetts (now MassBike)
Reprinted from the January 1988 Boston Cyclist
Copyright 1988 Boston Area Bicycle Coalition; used with permission
The recent death of a local bicycle messenger who was struck from behind while waiting for a red light to change brings forth some of the deepest fears of an urban cyclist. We're most comfortable in traffic when we're in control of the situation--WE decide when to cross an intersection, not a stupid light that only changes when its timer tells it to. But we're never as in control as we think we are. We are sharing the road with vehicles many times heavier than us, driven by people who often don't notice bicycles at all. Bicyclists must not only obey traffic laws, we must go beyond the law. In Massachusetts, a green light no more means "GO" to a bicyclist than a red light means "STOP" to a car. Here are a number of conditions that must be taken into account regardless of the color of a traffic light (or for that matter the presence or absence of a light, stop sign, yield sign, or any other form of traffic control):
  • Road conditions: How will you cross the intersection? Consider any potholes, water, ice, trolley tracks, or loose gravel you might have to cross. Can you get across without having to move in front of cars coming through behind you?
  • Cross Traffic: Can you see traffic coming from both directions on the cross-street? Will cars moving on that street see you? Even if you have a green light, cars in Boston don't always stop. Is there someone on the cross street making a right turn on red who might turn into you as you cross in front of them?
  • Parked Cars: What will you do on the other side? Are parked cars on your street going to narrow the effective roadway such that you and a car won't fit simultaneously? Are there people in the cars ahead who are likely to open their door in front of you if they don't see you coming?
  • Bicyclists: Are bicyclists hugging the side of the road coming toward you from the side? Are there wrong-way cyclists coming at you across the intersection? Will you (or they) have to swere into traffic to avoid a collision? Are there bicyclists coming from behind who might be passing you as you're starting up?
  • Pedestrians: They are always unpredictable. Are there any stepping into the intersection from behind signposts or parked cars. Remember that your bike extends behind you; if you're passing in front of a moving pedestrian, give them more space than you think they will need.
  • Overtaking Traffic: If you're going straight through the intersection, allow room for cars making a right on red. If you don't feel comfortable in the middle of the street with an open lane to your right, get right next to the curb, and wave cars past. Beware of right-turning cars trying to pass you on the left and cut you off. A rear-view mirror is the best tool to prevent surprise in this situation.
  • Oncoming Traffic: They may not have the green light at the same time you do. Unsignaled left turns are more common than signaled ones, and a car in any lane may make it. Even if the light is in your favor, try to make eye contact with all oncoming drivers.
  • Turning Red: If the light is turning red as you approach the intersection, remember that the rule of thumb in Mas sachusetts is "three cars through the red". It's against the law for them to be doing it, but if you want to avoid being run down, get out of the way, all the way to the curb if need be. Remember that bicycles are not as visible at night from the side as from the front or rear; avoid a broadside collision; stop for the light.
  • Red Light: This means stop, even if a right turn is allowed after stopping. If you go through a red light and are hit, you are at fault and will have a hard time collecting an insurance. Other traffic expects you to be stopped and will not take you into account when they plan their strategy for crossing the intersection. They are then more likely to hit you rather than stop if you get in front of them. Cars have also been known to follow bicycles through red lights; think of how you would feel if you were a bicyclist on the cross street and a car led by a bicycle suddenly appeared in front of you. If you consider all these possibilities while approaching a red light, it will probably change before you've convinced yourself that it's safe to run it. Your bicycle may be a vehicle, but it's the most defenseless one on the road. Drive it carefully, and stay alive.

Not-for-profit distribution of this safety message is encouraged with proper attribution to the author and the Bicycle Coalition of Massachusetts, which the Boston Area Bicycle Coalition has become.

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