So how do you tackle traffic lights?

This article was published in 2002, in Newsletter 45.

Cambridge junctions with traffic lights come in all shapes and sizes and, apart from roundabouts (including roundabouts with traffic lights), create the most significant obstacle for the less experienced cyclist. Many a cyclist will dismount to negotiate a junction on foot rather than execute a right turn with motor traffic.

There are some simple rules which I use in these situations. They will help you, and make your intentions clearer to other road users, especially motorists. Most of my cycling is done at peak traffic time in and around Cambridge, and much of the advice I give here assumes a good knowledge of your surroundings.

Cyclecraft by John Franklin, ISBN 0-11-702051-6 published by The Stationery Office (HMSO) also covers this topic, so my jottings here are hardly original.

I’ll start with a basic set of lights at a cross-roads, with single lane approaches and no advanced stop line. You may have noticed that motorists, like cyclists, often fail to make their intentions clear until very late, and it is this that can leave cyclists particularly vulnerable. If you are going straight on or turning left, you must always watch out for the vehicle on your right that turns left! You are especially at risk when you are able to cycle up the nearside of a stationary or nearly stationary queue. If you cycle right to the front and wait beside a vehicle that is not indicating left, you can be sure the driver is only watching for the lights to change. Quite often, as the lights change the driver will start to indicate left and move off at the same time as you.

Never stop alongside the first vehicle in a queue where it could turn left

Image as described adjacent
Never stop alongside the first vehicle in the queue where it could turn left.

I always stop just to the rear of the first vehicle where I’ll be able to see if the indicators start flashing, and the second vehicle’s driver can see me clearly. If the first vehicle is already indicating left as I arrive, I always try and position myself so that he can see me in his mirrors, and not in some blind spot waiting to be squashed. I’ve often had a friendly wave from a left turning driver who’s recently passed me when she realises I’ve deliberately positioned myself to be seen and is reassured that I’m waiting for her to turn left.

Turning left on red is not allowed unless a filter is provided (unlike the equivalent rule in the USA). Unfortunately, I gather it is not legal to have a left turn filter for cyclists only unless an island separates them from other traffic.

Turning right: correct position is vital

Image as described adjacent
If there is right-turning traffic opposite, try to cross its path like this, so that you can see and be seen better.

When turning right it is important to position yourself on the right so as to discourage drivers from overtaking you. I keep a good look out to the rear when approaching the junction, then really stick my arm out when a suitable gap appears in the traffic, before moving across to the centre of the road. This means you can arrive at the Stop line well positioned, even when the lights are green. If the lights turn red it’s important to remember that braking with only one hand on the handlebars can cause a tumble and is to be avoided, so you’ll have to stop signalling for those few seconds while braking. When you are actually in the junction, keep signalling as long as you feel stable. If there are opposing right turners I always try and ‘hook’ them. The Highway Code (section 157 describes this as ‘right side to right side’) says this is generally the safest method as it gives a clearer view (for, and of you). Even on simple light-controlled junctions you’ll get right turning drivers who don’t understand hooking and will cut across in front of you. Usually you can see over the top of them but might not be visible to traffic coming towards you, so beware.

I get worried when I see timid cyclists who stop on the left near the lights, try and pick a gap in the following traffic, and then cross both following and opposing traffic in a single manoeuvre – perhaps they would be better crossing as pedestrians?

Green does not always mean Go

Finally remember what the Highway Code says about green lights: ‘GREEN means you may go on if (my emphasis) the way is clear. Take special care if you intend to turn left or right and give way to pedestrians who are crossing.’

Cyclists stranded at junctions often suffer from motorists who believe a green light gives them the right to proceed, whoever may be in their way.

Why not cross as a pedestrian? It may seem surprising but, although pedestrians feel safe crossing at lights, collisions are not infrequent, and standing with a cycle in a central refuge designed for just pedestrians often leaves the bike obstructing the carriageway. Pedestrians, too, suffer from road users, including cyclists, who haven’t read, understood, and remembered the paragraph in the Highway Code about green lights quoted above.

Next time: how I deal with more complex junctions, including cycle approach lanes and advanced stop lines. If you really want to explore more advanced cycling techniques don’t wait for my few amateur words, but get a copy of Cyclecraft. Last time I checked, Heffers had copies in stock.

Jim Chisholm