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The rules of red lights – part 1

27 October 2010

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:

  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!


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