Is running red lights public health? Randy Cohen, the New York Times "Ethicist," recently justified it as ethical practice for cyclists in an opinion piece. Since I once incurred ridicule from peasant farmers in China for forgetting how to ride a bike ("like riding a bike" my foot), I thought it best to turn this question over to 4 great public health minds for their diverse and expert perspectives. Hit the comments below for your own take.
To start off, their glittering credentials (more complete bios available on their respective post pages):
David Hemenway: Commuter cyclist; PhD in economics, Harvard; currently a big deal in injury prevention
Oliver Hsu: Serious 'gearhead;' MS in Health Policy, HSPH; currently works in healthcare consulting
Amy Lee: Commuter cyclist; MPH in Public Health Practice, UW; currently works in clinical research
(apologies for my lack of tech savvy, they don't teach this in public health school)
David: Ride (and run lights) safely and sensibly
Oliver: Respect the rules, or risk causing harm
I'm definitely one of those cyclists who does not run red lights and stop signs. I am an avid gearhead so that may bias my response. I get annoyed when cyclists flaunt the rules, especially, in the back roads of California where vehicle speed is much higher and there are more blind corners. The environment is more dangerous yet that there is less regard for the rules just because traffic is infrequent. I would disagree that just because a bike is not moving as fast or is as heavy as a car that it is somehow less dangerous than a car. There is still roughly 200 pounds of rider plus bike traveling at 20 miles per hour. ... (Read more)
Cass: Our imperfect laws keep you from hitting me
As a frequent active commuter (until very recently I didn't own a car and walked nearly everywhere I went in Philadelphia and Baltimore), I am concerned with transportation safety. On more occasions than I can count I have witness cyclists putting pedestrians and motorists at risk while they occupy a lane of travel but ignore traffic laws. Of course, I will admit to crossing the street against a light, but always in the crosswalk of a very empty intersection. ... (Read more)
I do not run red lights when I'm biking. Although I think some lights are ridiculous to sit through (especially during rush hour when I'm breathing in car exhaust), I follow the rules because I believe that this is public health. I am a fairly experienced biker, but I can make mistakes. Following biking rules helps reduce the temptation for me to make a poor decision when I'm in a rush because it is habit for me to slow down and stop when I see a red light or a stop sign. This is true for drivers, too, which is why we don't allow drivers to make illegal turns when the roads are completely clear. ... (Read more)
Their individual practices may differ, but David, Oliver, Cass, and Amy all point to the need for better bike infrastructure. They also recognize that while traffic regulations are designed to keep cyclists from endangering themselves and others but given imperfect regulations, cyclists must also rely on individual discretion in deciding what is safest for them.
Policy Implications: Altering bike infrastructure (e.g. better lanes, more vigilant and sensible enforcement, tolerant bike culture) can improve road safety and behavior for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike.
Photo credits for this post: Kent Dayton via UVM.edu (DHem), and Oliver Hsu, Jim Kercher, and Sasha Tan via facebook (Oliver, Cass, and Amy).