Editor’s Note: Josh Zisson is a Boston-based attorney specializing in bike law. Check out his blog at BikeSafeBoston.com and find him on Twitter @BikeSafeBoston.

Running red lights on a bike is illegal. Specifically, Massachusetts General Law Chapter 89, Section 9 forbids it. However, I realized that in order to fully explain why we shouldn’t run red lights, I need to provide a rock-solid reason that all of us can agree on. At first, though, I didn’t really have one. Sure, it’s against the law, but we all know that that’s rarely enforced. It can be extremely dangerous, but most of the time it’s perfectly safe. It breaks the “social trust,” but what does that even mean?

As someone who formerly ran red lights with great zeal, I had plenty of reasons not to stop:

  • “I need to maintain my momentum! All they have to do is press a pedal, for me it’s hard work.”
  • “It’s actually safer! I’m most vulnerable and off-balance when I’m starting out from a dead stop.”
  • “I can see and hear way more on my bike than a driver can, so I’m in a better position to tell when it’s safe to cross.”
  • “I’m doing the cars a favor; I can get out of their way if I can stay ahead of them.”
  • “I’d only really hurt myself anyway. Why can’t I choose to risk my own safety?”

There are dozens of these justifications, and some are actually quite convincing. However, I realized there’s an argument that is so simple, reasonable and readily understood, that it completely negates any defense to running a red light.  So that’s what this article is about. The real reason to not run red lights is proof.

Cyclists in Massachusetts have it pretty good. Thanks to the efforts of organizations like MassBike, we have some of the most comprehensive laws in the country protecting us. As more and more bikers take to the streets, bike-only lanes have been popping up all over our roads. All of this progress is making it safer than ever to ride a bike in traffic, and that’s a great thing.

However, despite the impressive headway we’ve made in recent years, there is still plenty more that can be done, and plenty of people who will oppose it.  That’s where proof comes in. As a Massachusetts cyclist, I propose that it’s not enough to merely enjoy the many ways that we’ve been accommodated on the road; instead, we need to prove that we deserve every privilege that we’ve been given. As it turns out, one of the best places to do that is at a red light.

Every time you put your foot down and wait for the green, you’re making a statement. You’re sending a message to the drivers that are waiting with you, to the pedestrians that are crossing in front of you, and to the other cyclists approaching in the bike lane behind you. You’re silently telling everyone who sees you that you are a part of traffic, and that you deserve to be there. You’re telling them that you take this seriously. The longer you wait, and the more obvious it becomes that you could safely run the light, and the more powerful your message gets.

You’ve become proof. You’re proof that cyclists deserve all our new bike lanes, and that losing a lane of traffic or street parking to make room for us is a reasonable compromise. You’re proof that legislative efforts to protect cyclists are actually a good idea. Perhaps most importantly, you’re proof that not all cyclists are assholes.

The importance of our proof doesn’t stop at the state line, either. Like it or not, we’re one of a handful of examples of what happens when bike advocates actually get their way. In states like Florida, Alabama and even California, most drivers (and many legislators) don’t think the roads should be shared. Bike advocates in those states are fighting some of the same battles that we won in Massachusetts years ago. If we all put our foot down, we can become the proof that enables other states to follow Massachusetts’ lead.

Luckily, it’s contagious. It takes a lot more chutzpah to run a red light when doing so requires you to squeeze by a fellow cyclist with her foot down, patiently waiting for the light to change. Try it. Nine times out of 10, the other biker will wait with you. Who knows? Maybe after stopping behind enough people, he’ll make a habit of it on his own.

So, that’s why I’m putting my foot down when it comes to red lights. Hopefully, after reading this, you will too.

Image via Danny McL