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Temporary Traffic Lights and Cycling Accidents - When Green Means Wait

I was recently posed the following question by a Cycle Touring Club (CTC) member:

“I was cycling through temporary traffic lights. It was a long stretch, and although the light was green when I set off, a stream of cars came the other way before I was through. What would be the legal position if I had been hit by one of the oncoming vehicles?”

Had the cyclist been hit by one of the oncoming vehicles, there would have been two potential defendants: the motorist and the highway authority.

I would anticipate problems in pursuing a cycling accident claim against the highway authority as there is typically a presumption in law that existing traffic lights are working correctly.

Whilst the highway authority might be criticised for the phasing, it is difficult to show that traffic lights have been set incorrectly unless there is strong technical or anecdotal evidence to the contrary. In my view, it would be easier to establish liability on the part of the motorist.

The motorist could be criticised for failing to keep a proper look out for oncoming traffic, particularly cyclists. Rule 211 of the Highway Code states: “It is often difficult to see motorcyclists and cyclists, especially when they are coming up from behind, coming out of junctions, at roundabouts, overtaking you or filtering through traffic. Always look out for them before you emerge from a junction; they could be approaching faster than you think.”

The fact that the lights might have changed to green when the driver pulled away does not mean that he or she is able to continue if there is oncoming traffic. The motorist ought to stop or slow down and allow the cyclist to pass.

The leading case illustrating the duty of a motorist in this situation is Radburn v. Kemp [1971]. In this case, the claimant cyclist came to a large road junction controlled by traffic lights.

He wished to enter a street on the opposite side of the road but the lights were red against him. When the lights changed to green, he pulled away, but by the time he was two-thirds of the way across the junction, the light at the mouth of the street he was aiming for had changed to amber. He was then struck by a vehicle emerging from a street on his left.

Although the defendant motorist claimed the lights were green in his favour, he admitted to not seeing the claimant. At first instance, the court held that the cyclist was 50% to blame for not seeing the car.

Not surprisingly, this was overturned on appeal. The Court of Appeal held that the defendant, for whom the lights had just changed to green, was under a duty to ensure that there were no vehicles on the crossing - which might still be passing across.

In my view, motorists always need to exercise extreme caution at temporary traffic lights, where phasing is often short. If I were instructed by an injured cyclist in this situation, I would be pretty confident of establishing liability in full against the motorist.

Paul Kitson is a keen cyclist and Slater and Gordon’s Principal Lawyer for the CTC, the UK’s national cycling charity.

For a free consultation call us 24/7 on 0800 916 9046 or contact us online and we’ll be happy to help you.

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