No one should pay for a mistake with their life.
That’s the key message being pushed by the NZTA ad that’s gone viral and now has over 5.6 million views (up from 440k when I posted about it last Wednesday). It’s a key part of the way we design many roads, for example it’s why we have barriers between motorway lanes, light poles that are designed to shear off at the base if someone accidentally hits them. It’s also why we spend money to improve our roads through the likes of easing corners and why transport agencies run advertising campaigns.
The sad event last week where a cyclist died after apparently running a red light and crashing into a truck is obviously a horrific situation but instead of asking what can be done to make things better so it doesn’t happen again, most seem to only be focusing on who was at fault. Now just so everyone is clear on my thoughts, I think there is no excuse for anyone using any mode of transport to be barrelling straight through an intersection on a red light – it’s a recipe for disaster.
The reality is people make mistakes or poor judgement calls all of the time yet when a cyclist makes one it seems to bring out an absolute hatred towards them from some in the community. Just like for cars and trucks, the only way to effectively minimise the risk of cycling is through improved infrastructure that reduces the risks. It’s an area that many people think AT have very poor at despite what they have said they are doing. Now this isn’t completely AT’s fault, the government policy statement that spells out the funding bands for each mode and only allows for very small amounts of the total transport budget to be used for cycling and walking projects – despite many projects performing substantially better under standard economic analysis than many of the massive roading projects currently on the agenda.
However in what appears to be a bid to draw attention away from questions of what can be done to improve conditions for everyone using roads, Auckland Transport appear to wanting to play the blame game by suggesting that not just this one cyclist made a mistake but by implying that it is something endemic among all cyclists and therefore implying that cyclists deserve the consequences of whatever happens to them. I think this is an extremely sad development in what is already a sad situation. To do this they released the results of a survey on red light running however the numbers actually raise far more questions than answers.
The headlines were that of the intersections surveyed there were 116 cars, 4 trucks, 3 buses, 1 motorcycle and 217 cyclists that ran red lights – although it appears there are a few counting errors but they don’t fundamentally change the result. Now the results sound really bad but here’s the thing, the survey was only done at four intersections across all of Auckland and three of them (the three that saw the most cyclists running red lights) were along the waterfront (not that this excuses it). When we look at the results by intersection this is what we get.
A couple of quick thoughts spring to mind about these intersections, on Quay St/Lower Albert is it cyclists travelling through the intersection while the pedestrian phase is running? On Tamaki Dr are the numbers high due to pack cycling? At Tamaki Dr/Paterson Ave there was clear trend of cyclists running red lights towards the city in the mornings and away from the city in the afternoons. On both the Quay St/Lower Albert and Tamaki Dr/Solent St intersections the red light running by cyclists was almost exclusively by those going westbound. Why are westbound cyclists more likely to run reds at the intersections (perhaps at the Solent St intersection it is to do with the cycle lane on the footpath being clogged up with traffic signals?
However as I said, there were really just four intersections that were studied and I doubt they give a fair representation about how most cyclists at intersections behave. By releasing the information as it has I wonder if AT have done more harm than just letting the issue blow over. The information and how it has been reported in the Herald and other sites is only helping to create an us vs them attitude between different modes which is exactly the opposite of what needs to be happening.
In saying all of this it’s also useful to understand why cyclists may run red lights. This research from Daniel Newcombe at AT helps to shed some light on the issue. The learnings were that
- Cyclists make choices about their behaviour on an intersection-by-intersection basis
- Overall, cyclists’ red light running is a relatively infrequent and safe behaviour
- Levels of red light running vary but (if use of Barnes Dance phases excluded) it’s the same as jaywalking (3.9%)
- Higher numbers of vehicles ran red lights than cyclists but the proportion was lower (1.2%)
- Cyclists want to clear the intersection ahead of other vehicles for safety reasons – not impatience
- Commonly cyclists run red lights to turn left
And what can be done?
- Sensor loops in the right place
- More cycle lanes and boxes
- Use technology to give cyclists head start
- Legalise low risk red light running (Barnes Dance, left turn) – make cyclists give way
- Stop slagging off cyclists for running red lights. Pedestrians are just as bad and neither group kills people like the alarming number of cars running reds
It seems AT need to heed their own advice on all of the recommendations that were made.
Lastly let’s stop pretending that only cyclists are the ones breaking road rules. There must be 10’s of thousands of speeding tickets issued each year along with thousands of other traffic offences. This study from the Ministry of Transport suggests that in Auckland 5% of the people they checked were either holding a cellphone to their ear or probably texting while driving
Once again we need to stop blaming people and start building our roads so that they are safe if people make mistakes because people don’t deserve to die because they make them.