"Are you one of those cyclists that goes through red lights?" is often the first question somebody asks when they discover you are a cyclist. My response is diversionary. Don't accept the premise of their question, as AnnaBeth advised Leo in West Wing.
My response: "Can I ask you a question first. Do you ever drive over the speed limit?" The answer is, of course, always yes. To which the natural follow up is "So you believe cyclists should obey the law but motorists don't need to?" Or, if I'm feeling a bit more pushy, "So you believe motorists don't need to obey the law, even though it could (and does) kill people but cyclists should always obey the law, even when it is more dangerous to do so?"
Speeding is only one example. The truth is that if there were a society of law abiding motorists they could probably meet in a telephone box. Virtually all motorists break the speed limit some of the time and many also drive while using their mobile phone, having drunk alcohol, turn without indicating, or themselves go through lights that have turned red. All are either against the law or the highway code. And all are dangerous, contributing to the 2,500 people killed on UK roads each year.
Many criticise the self-righteousness of cyclists. But our attitude is nothing compared to that of motorists. Witness the outrage at speed cameras, and the idea that there should be restrictions on the car driver's innate right to drive fast and dangerously.
The fact is that it is often safer for a cyclist to go through a light while it is still red. This is often in the pedestrian green light, though I am always careful to give any actual pedestrians right of way. It is argued that it annoys motorists but I'd rather have the passive annoyance of a motorist seeing me head off ahead of them than the active annoyance of the boy racer, or the truck driver turning left, who finds me in their way when the light turns green. Probably the most dangerous point for a cyclist is when that light turns and car drivers speed off or, worse, take that left turn.
And be honest, if you are stopped at a red light and a cyclist stops in the green box in front of you - are you really willing them to stay put until the light changes. Or, like me when I am a driver, do you wish they would head off early leaving you free to accelerate away?
Of course some cyclists do crazy and dangerous things. I myself have been so angry on a number of occasions with the reckless behaviour of a fellow two-wheeler that I have cycled furiously after them to question them. Calmly and reasonably, of course (!?). There are crazy cyclists just as there are crazy motorists. But there is one crucial difference: Crazy motorists kill people, crazy cyclists in general don't (not even themselves - 86% of cycling deaths are the fault of the driver).
So, yes, I do cycle through red lights. I definitely cycle through them when it is safer, where it gets me through a potential danger spot and where it gives me a minute or so of safer cycling without the cars. And I will continue to do so until our road systems are redesigned towards the needs of pedestrians and cyclists rather than the car driver. We could certainly start with London, where less than 15% of people get to work by car - but so much of the transport system is orientated to the motorists' needs.
But cycling on the pavements, the bugbear of pedestrians, is different. Thats just naughty!