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The rules of red lights – part 1

27 October 2010
by blondwig

You know what it’s like: you’re sitting halfway across the junction already, waiting for the cross-traffic to get out of the way so you can push off before the light goes green and the cars roar past.

You look round and a police car has pulled up to the red light behind you. Suddenly you feel a bit exposed.

So have you done anything wrong? And can they do anything about it?

Red lights – the basics

This is all relatively common knowledge. But bear with me.

Generally speaking, a red light for general traffic will be accompanied by a stop line painted on the road. It’s an offence to cross the stop line when the light is red. (RTA s. 36(1); TSRGD rr. 10(1)(e), 33(1), 36(1)(a), 43(1)(a))

To successfully prosecute you for this offence, the police have to prove that you crossed the line when the light was red. This will be easiest for them if they see you do it. Of course they could also rely on other witnesses. But the simple fact that they find you sitting out beyond the line at a time when the light is red is not enough on its own.

For example, if you’re in slow-moving traffic, and you cross the line on green, but you can’t get across the junction before other traffic gets in the way, you might end up waiting on your side of the junction but beyond the stop line when your light is red. You wouldn’t have committed an offence.

A few other details:

  • the amber light means the same as the red light, except for a vehicle “which is so close to the stop line that it cannot safely be stopped without proceeding beyond the stop line” – a vehicle in that position may proceed. So if the light goes amber up ahead, you crouch, grit your teeth, flip up a few gears and hoon it wildly for the line, you might get in trouble. If you speed up to cross on amber, you’re likely to have committed an offence. (TSRGD r.36(1)(e))
  • If there’s a red light but no stop line, you have to stop at a “wait here” sign if there is one, or otherwise by the time you’re level with the light post (or whatever structure the light is mounted on). (TSRGD r. 43(3))

Pedestrian crossings at red lights

This is one thing that people might not know. Often red lights are accompanied by pedestrian crossings – so beyond the stop line, there are two parallel dotted lines for a pedestrian crossing.

Where there is a pedestrian crossing at a red light, you’ll commit an offence if you stop within the limits of the pedestrian crossing (i.e. within the dotted lines), unless you are prevented from proceeding by circumstances beyond [your] control or it is necessary for you to stop within the crossing to avoid causing injury or damage. (RTRA s. 25(5); ZPPPCR r. 18; Sch. 4 pt 1 §2(1), pt 2)

Quite a few cyclists seem to sit out front, beyond the stop line, so that they’re visible to cars and motorbikes (or so that they get in front of the motorbikes which ignore the stop line to get in front of the cars). As I’ve explained, unless the police see you crossing the stop line on red, it might be hard for them to prove you’ve jumped the light. But the crossings rule gives them an alternative: if you’re sitting within the pedestrian crossing and you could have avoided it (stopped a bit before, or a bit beyond) then you’ll commit a separate offence.


All of the offences mentioned above are fixed penalty offences – so a constable in uniform can give you a fixed penalty notice. The maximum fixed penalty for a cyclist is £30. (RTOA Sch. 3; FPO Sch. 1)

If the police choose to prosecute you rather than issue a FPN, the maximum possible fine is £1000. This will be more hassle for them, though, so it’s presumably quite unlikely. (RTOA Sch. 2)

But, as I’ve posted before, the chance of prosecution is higher if someone gets hurt. If you jump a red and injure someone, you might even be charged with the more serious offence of causing injury by wanton or furious cycling – see my earlier post.


Photo by Fin Fahey from here:

11 Comments leave one →
  1. simon permalink
    30 March 2011 12:42

    Hi the other morning I saw a load of coppers waiting to ticket cyclists at this junction:,-95.677068&sspn=37.188995,62.226563&ie=UTF8&hq=clapham+sw8&hnear=&radius=15000&ll=51.461307,-0.149045&spn=0.014305,0.030384&z=15&layer=c&cbll=51.461318,-0.148881&panoid=XZh4xphOL2c7GinGBFz6wA&cbp=12,177.51,,0,0

    As you can see the lights also control the cycle path coming off Clapham Common. Is it still an offence to ignore these lights seeing as the Common is not actually part of the carriageway?

    • 30 March 2011 13:23

      hi simon

      that’s a complex question. from the picture I can’t see the type of lights, but it looks like there’s a good chance that they’re dedicated cycle lane lights – see this post. If so, then your safest bet would be to obey them!

  2. Sean dower permalink
    16 October 2012 14:07

    Is red-amber (as a traffic signal turns to green) legally classified as red?
    I was recently given a stop caution by the police, which states that I cycled ‘through red ATS Traffic Lights’. The fact is: I stopped and waited behind the line at a red light and when it turned Amber-Red, looked in all directions and then set off. It is possible that I crossed the line during the 2 second delay between amber-red and green, but it absolutely wasn’t red. What is more, as it was a one way street, there were no lights on the opposite side of the junction where the officers were stood, meaning that they had entirely based their accusation on my leaving before the 2 lanes of cars at my side. There was no advanced line for cyclists and I do accelerate fast. I’m annoyed that I may have a potentially inaccurate record for this. The officers also threatened me with a fine rather than a caution, if I didn’t stop remonstrating – but this is a separate matter.

  3. Rob permalink
    14 November 2012 10:22

    What if you dismount at a red light and walk through, wheeling your bike? Does that then mean that you are a pedestrian and so not committing any offence? Or if you pick your bike up and carry it as a parcel?

    • blondwig permalink*
      19 November 2012 15:48

      Hi Rob

      As I understand, you’re talking about the situation where you ride up to a stop line at a red light, get off your bike, walk across the line, then re-mount and keep going (all while the light is red).

      The question is whether you will still have committed the offence of crossing the line on red. As far as I’m aware the law doesn’t have an established answer, but I suspect the courts would take the view that you would still commit the offence – i.e. you would continue to count as ‘vehicular traffic’ for the purposes of r. 36(1)(a) TSRGD, and would have contravened the requirement to stop, despite the short spell as a pedestrian.

      • Linus permalink
        28 December 2012 11:22

        I’m not convinced; as far as I’m aware, case law is clear that someone walking and wheeling a bike is just as much a pedestrian as someone walking and not wheeling a bike, in which case I can’t see you’d count as vehicular traffic at that point in time. Although there may be some offence of walking on the public highway under which they could get you instead.


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  5. How can safety at advanced stop zones be improved for cyclists? | Jorren Knibbe | Environment |

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