Traffic skills: How to handle stop lights and lines

Rules explained for these common junctions

Traffic lights are amongst the most cycle-friendly junctions; cyclists like the predictability they bring to the traffic around them. However, they have their own specific rules and can still cause difficulties and confusion to cyclists in certain situations. Advanced stop lines also have their advantages, but you have to know how to use them...

Are there any techniques to time my approach to red lights so I don't have to stop?

Before knowing the techniques, it's worth recapping the basic rules at traffic lights in the UK (many of these apply in the US as well ¬ Ed). All vehicles must stop behind the white line unless the traffic lights show green. The only exception is if you are so close to the white line that to stop may cause an accident.

You may have a long approach to green lights, which will allow you to observe the likely time phases of the lights - especially if the lights are on a regular route. In any event you should always be approaching at a speed at which you know you can stop should the lights change. The book Cyclecraft gives these stopping distances (no gradient, dry weather):

10mph = 6m/20ft
15mph = 11m/36ft
20mph = 17m/56ft
25mph = 24m/79ft

Clearly these vary depending on type and quality of brakes, tyres, rider weight and road condition. Still, if you are not confident that the lights will remain at green for the time it takes you to pass the stop line, ideally you should be travelling at 10mph or less on your immediate approach to the lights.

In the real world of course, you may be travelling in a traffic stream much faster than this. In this case, stop at amber but only if you judge it's safe; a particular danger is that sudden braking may cause the vehicle behind to run into you.

You can often tell from the engine noise of the vehicle behind whether it's slowing or accelerating and a quick glance over the shoulder may also help you judge.

As you make up your mind, gear selection is crucial - change up if you need to accelerate through changing lights and down if you know you are going to have to stop and restart.

Will a lone bike trigger lights to turn green?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no! Most lights are triggered by electromagnetic wires under the road and their sensitivity varies, as does the amount of magnet-attracting metal in bicycles that sets them off.

If stuck at red with no cars in sight, try laying the bike flat on the trigger area (usually a box delineated by cut lines in the tarmac). If this doesn't work, dismount and negotiate the safest route on foot.

What's the idea of advanced stop lines? Must you use them?

Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs) aim to make traffic lights safer for cyclists by providing a 'cycle only' space at the head of the queue (occasionally there are dual bus and cycle advance stop lines). The Highway Code rule 154 on ASLs states: "motorists, including motorcyclists, must stop at the first white line and should avoid encroaching on the marked area." Advantages include making you more visible to other road users and allowing you to take off without having to compete with surrounding motor vehicles.

If you don't feel it's appropriate to use ASLs you don't have to; there may be some situations where using them is riskier than staying in the traffic queue. For example, you may judge that you're simply too far back in the queue to negotiate your way to the ASL before the lights change - if they change whilst 'queue hopping' you may be in a more perilous position than if you had stayed put in the main traffic stream (for specific tips on queue hopping see last month's Ride Right). If you find yourself in moving traffic whilst trying to get to an ASL you'll have to move back into the appropriate traffic stream by signaling and, if possible, making eye contact.

There may be a filter lane leading to the ASL, but you're not duty bound to use this - only do so when it aids your safety and convenience. Sometimes a filter lane is placed between two lanes of traffic, but more often, they're found alongside the kerb, inviting you to undertake. It's worth reiterating some of the comments in last month's Ride Right:"Undertaking... should be practised with extra caution; drivers expect to be passed on the right... it may be okay to undertake where there is insufficient space to overtake. Whatever the circumstances, make sure there is sufficient space to pass safely and cycle at a reasonable speed... Never be tempted to undertake larger commercial vehicles or buses as their length and high sides mean they simply can't see you..." An especially dangerous and inappropriate use of kerbside ASL lanes is to turn right - this means you'll have to cut across moving traffic who won't expect this. In this case you should overtake your way to the ASL if there is time and space and you feel confident enough; a safer (but slower) option is to stay in the appropriate traffic stream.

If there are no ASLs, it is illegal for cyclists to cross the solid white stop line at the head of the queue other than at green. If safe, you may wish to position yourself near the queue head and just outside it, ready to cut back into it, which you should do by making eye contact with the driver behind the space you want to use and signalling when the traffic begins to move. Again, this is a riskier but faster manoeuvre than remaining in the main traffic stream.

Whether or not ASLs are available, when stopping at traffic lights it's a good idea to gear down as you come to a halt so you are in the best gear to accelerate away (more important with derailleur gears than hub gears).

What's the difference between pelican and toucan crossings and how should cyclists treat them?

Pelican - a pedestrian light-controlled crossing i.e. the push button, green man style. You can go through lights at flashing amber, provided there are no pedestrians on the crossing.

By counting the timing of the green and red men signals on those pelicans you cross regularly, you may be able to judge when red lights are about to change to green and time your approach accordingly.

Toucan - a corruption of 'Two Can'. A light-controlled crossing for both pedestrians and cyclists. The same comments apply as to pelicans - but expect to see cyclists riding across as they are entitled to (toucans are often used to take traffic-free routes across roads).

Is track standing okay when waiting for lights? How do you do it?

Track standing is balancing on a bike with the feet on the pedals as they are held horizontally to the ground. It's useful at traffic lights if clipped into pedals and is perfectly legal provided you are in full control of the bike. It's easiest on a slight slope.

Practice the following away from public roads until you've truly mastered it:

1 Find a gentle slope, similar to the crown of a road.
2 Unclipped, ride towards the slope, with it uphill to your right.
3 Stop when your right foot is forward with the front wheel turned 30-45o to the right. The pedal angle will be horizontal, or with the front just above the rear.
4 Stand on the pedals and, with the front foot, push gently uphill against the slope for a few seconds, then release the pressure and let yourself roll back.
5 Get the forward and backward roll as slow as possible. About 12in is okay at first - the better your balance becomes, the less distance you'll need.
6 As you rock back and forth you'll start to notice a point along the trajectory where you feel well balanced. This is the 'sweet spot' at which you'll be able to rest stationary and trackstand.

© BikeRadar 2007

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