Just Ask Jack — Red Light Procedure?

Lance sent in the following question:

“I’ve been okay with traffic protocol except for this one thing. In the instance of a red light and there are several cars in front and in back of me, is it proper procedure to stop behind the car that’s in front of me as any other car would do or do cyclists have the right to pass everyone like a motorcycle and come to a stop right at the crosswalk?

I’ve been stopping behind cars so they don’t get p*ssed at me but I’m nowhere close to sure that it’s the right thing to do.?

Lance, first of all, it is NOT ok for motorcyclists to pass everyone on the right to get a favorable spot at the front of the line. This is a version of “lane splitting?, which is commonly practiced by motorcyclists (and a good number of bike commuters), but is absolutely illegal in most jurisdictions.

A technique for solving this traffic protocol riddle that I have found useful is to sneak up on the right until you are in the second or third position in line…and stop between cars rather than alongside one of the cars. Then, when the light turns green, you let the first and/or second car do their thing while you get up to speed, get clipped in to your pedals, etc. Oftentimes, that first or second car will make an unannounced right turn, so by hanging back for the first few seconds, you avoid the dreaded “right hook“. Once I’m rolling at speed, I try to hog the lane a bit (getting out into the middle of the lane and standing up) to prevent other motorists from trying to hook a right (or a left) in front of me until I am clear of the intersection.

I mention “sneaking up? on the right side of cars because I have found that doing it blatantly really pisses motorists off. If you do it slowly and steadily (being careful to avoid rearview mirrors and the like), you are less likely to step on any toes.

Regardless, there are a few considerations to keep in mind when passing on the right, particularly if there are any driveways or parking-lot entrances between you and the light. If there’s any spot where a car could conceivably turn right (into your path), be extremely cautious or forgo right-hand passing altogether. Better safe than sorry, I always say! Also, gauge the amount of room you have on the right — if you’re passing and you run out of room between the cars and the curb, you can get screwed pretty quickly. Finally, be wary of the rare but extremely painful right-hand “door zone? — someone suddenly getting out on the right-hand side and throwing their door open to step out onto the sidewalk will ruin your day in a heartbeat!

Blind adherence to motorist laws is as dangerous as being a total scofflaw. Please, use common sense and judgement for your own safety. If breaking a motorist law turns out to be safer for you, by all means DO SO!

Here are some collision avoidance tips from the folks at Bicyclesafe.com. Pay particular attention to collision types 3, 4 and 5.

And, since we here at bikecommuters.com are not lawyers, it is up to you, our readers, to check all applicable local laws for your situation. In some municipalities, passing on the right will get you a pricey ticket (or worse). Be safe, be smart and be aware!

Have a cycling-related question? Just Ask Jack! Click on the link in the right-hand column to send me your questions.

2 Comments

  1. Jerry February 16, 2008 11:16 pm 

    It all depends on whether you are riding in a marked bike lane or not. If you are, and I usually do, my city has lots of them, then you are in a completely seperate lane from other traffic, and have every right to proceed to the front of the line. In fact, I pull up just a little bit past the first car in the right lane, blocking them from making a right turn until I have proceeded far enough across the intersection that they have room to turn without hitting me. If there is no bike lane. but there is a sidewalk, I use it, and have never been hassled by the police for doing so. The fact is, there simply is no reasonably safe way to ride in traffic if there is no bike lane. I have a bar end mirror on the left side, and have had it hit several times while trying to ride with traffic. Not once did the driver that hit me stop. So obviously, I have no problem with pissing off drivers who don’t seem to care about my safety. I am not a racer, but I ride very aggressively in traffic. I was almost hit once while riding in a bike lane, when a car pulled out from a side street, ran the stop sign, and came within inches of hitting me. I got off my bike, and started walking toward the car. I’m 6’2″, 230 pounds. The driver put the car in reverse and floored it, backing into a block wall at about 30 mph. I got back on my bike and proceeded on my way. Ride safe. Well, at least as safe as possible.

  2. Sungsu July 4, 2008 11:36 am 

    For me, it depends on the traffic conditions. If I know that the cars will just have to pass me again, and it’s difficult for them to do so, it’s just common courtesy not to pass the cars at the traffic light. If, however, after the traffic light, there’s a wide shoulder, or if I’m turning right, I move to the front if it’s safe to do so.

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