Running Red Lights

Posted on August 8, 2012 · Posted in Commuting, Laws, Today's Violation

Randy Cohen, the original writer of “The Ethicist” column in the New York Times, wrote an op-ed over the weekend defending the running of red lights by cyclists.

It’s a remarkably weak effort. When your best arguments are “everyone else is doing it” and “it feels good”, it’s time to go back to the well.

Which is not to say I disagree with Cohen’s conclusion. I pass through 18 stoplight-controlled intersections each way to and from work. I don’t know that I’ve ever had a day where I didn’t run at least one of them. It’s just that I don’t see the question of whether one complies with traffic lights as an ethical quandary. We may comply with traffic rules for a lot of reasons – habit, because it’s safer to do so, because we’re coerced into it, or because of the cost of compliance is so low compared to the bad outcomes of being caught. But ethics doesn’t enter into it.

One popular theme among cyclists is that we shouldn’t run red lights because of the “message it sends” about cyclists. This is a coercive argument, disguised as ethics.

But when it comes to malum prohibitum laws (like those governing traffic), there’s no moral dimension. Unlike murder, robbery or rape, there’s nothing innate in our culture that imbues cyclists stopping at red lights with moral weight. It’s not hard to imagine a set of laws where cyclists have different signals (as in Copenhagen or Amsterdam) or different obligations with respect to signals (as in Idaho). Indeed, even Cohen’s protestation that he is not an anarchist because he (almost) never rides on sidewalks makes no sense from an ethics perspective. Sidewalk riding is legal in many places, including Seattle.

Which doesn’t mean riding on the sidewalk is an inherently good idea – just as it is not in a cyclist’s best interest to obey every traffic signal. These are pragmatic judgments to be made, based on circumstances. For me, safety comes first. I don’t stand on my rights when it comes to signals, and I don’t obey them if it feels safer not to.

And so doing doesn’t make me lose sleep, or get into neo-Kantian justifications to make myself feel better.