Running Red Lights

So long and fractious was the Web thread following a Guardian opinion piece in August (331 comments, before the page barricaded itself against new ones only two days later) that one contributor accused the paper of having cynically posted the original piece as “clickbait”. What was the topic sure to whip the readership into a Pavlovian lather — extraordinary renditions, housing benefit “apartheid”, Israeli settlements? Oh, no. Bikes running red lights.

The Guardian’s Ben Adler was rebutting a New York Times op-ed by Randy Cohen, formerly the author of “The Ethicist” column. A self-confessed cyclist scofflaw, Cohen had dared to advance the argument that, with caution and respect for others’ rights of way, it is defensible — the horror, the horror —for cyclists to jump red lights.

Cohen would have stirred less hysteria on the Guardian webpage with a bare-all about a history of paedophilia. Yet between 2001 and 2009, British motorists killed 3,495 pedestrians, while cyclists killed 18; not a single cyclist-motorist accident resulted in a fatality for people in cars. Puzzling why this statistically minor issue raises such a disproportionate stink, I theorise: cyclists being highly visible and newly numerous, those who don’t toe the line of the Highway Code are a litmus test of one’s attitude towards the law.

Let’s skip any quarrel about cyclists who scatter small children in their wake and bring vehicles with the right of way to a screeching halt. Cohen wasn’t writing about these cowboys, so that Adler’s huffy objection that walking through Cohen’s own Brooklyn neighbourhood he had just had three near-misses with such cychos is irrelevant. Cohen claims to be an apple, and Adler had been sideswiped by oranges.

Instead we’re talking red light, zero oncoming traffic, no pedestrians. Go ahead, hyperventilate: I jump the light. (I’m unmoved by haughty declarations that even if I’m not trammelling anyone’s rights I’m “giving cyclists a bad name”. I’m not a diplomat; I’m riding to Tesco. When mobile yakkers who jaywalk blithely across the path of bikes doing 20mph are finally upbraided for “giving pedestrians a bad name”, maybe I’ll reconsider.) But why, in those benign circumstances, do you care? Righteous indignation seems to mingle with envy.

Why do any of us obey the law? 1) Fear of punishment — the lowest rung of moral reasoning, on which the state heavily relies.  Few people pay taxes purely from civic fervour to do their part. 2) Belief that the law is sound. 3) Conviction that any law, in and of itself, is sacrosanct. Thus we obey the law purely because it is the law, end of discussion.

I’d venture that the British (or at least the English) are constitutionally inclined to revere the law for its own sake. The culture is rectitudinous. But me, I have an anti-authoritarian streak a mile wide, and I can’t think of a single law I’ve obeyed in my life just because it’s the law. I know too much about politics to regard the state with awe.  Oh, I’m as fearful as the next person, and if there’s a cop car purring alongside, I’ll sit dullwittedly at that deserted intersection for minutes waiting for a green light. But the vast majority of the laws I adhere to faithfully are those I feel are rational and right.

Randy Cohen’s op-ed was titled “If Kant were a New York cyclist”. Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” loosely equates to the golden rule — the test of ethical behaviour being, “What if everybody did that?”  

Yet resultant aphorisms like “honesty is the best policy” can prove problematic.  Does that mean when your aunt wants to know if you like her new dress you have to tell her it’s ugly? On the contrary, categorical imperatives can be refined into more specific guidelines. Hence, “If honesty merely serves your vanity about how honest you are and is hurtful besides, keep your trap shut” is a viable rule of thumb.

Accordingly, the categorical imperative “Cyclists should stop at red lights” sure beats “Ignoring all traffic laws, cyclists should endanger and inconvenience all and sundry in order to get to whatever incredibly important place they’re headed as fast as possible.” But let’s refine that first version.  “Cyclists who are violating no one else’s right of way should be able to slip through red lights without everyone having kittens” is a viable rule of thumb.

That’s why my more specific imperative actually is the law in Scandinavia, France and even Germany, where cyclists are often allowed to treat red lights as mere stop signs. This prevents one of the great recent hazards of London traffic: the build-up of cyclist swarms that glut at lights. In other words, if everybody cycled like Randy and me, we’d all be fine. If you object with knee-jerk vehemence, “But that’s not the law here!” you’re reasoning that the-law-is-the-law-is-the-law, and you’re probably British.

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