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
- 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
- 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.