News Rights

Red Light Blues

The ongoing struggle with non-motorcycle-friendly traffic signals continues…

June 15, 2021

By Joy Burgess

The red light blues. If you’re a street rider, you’ve probably had ’em. You ride up to a red light and you wait, expecting the light to turn green eventually. But when it doesn’t, or it cycles without giving you a left-turn arrow, you start to fidget. Maybe you jump up and down on your seat, hoping to trigger a sensor buried in the ground (which doesn’t work…read on!), or let a car behind you roll up and (hopefully) trigger things.

When that doesn’t work, maybe you take a few rights to get where you’re going. “I’ve even put my kickstand down and run over to a crosswalk to hit the crossing arrow to trigger a traffic light,” said AMA On-Highway Government Relations Manager Tiffany Cipoletti. Or, some folks say “the heck with it,” wait for a safe and clear moment, and run the light, risking a ticket.

While you’re likely familiar with the struggle, you may not be aware that 15 states have already passed Traffic Actuated Signals laws — which Cipoletti notes are referred to as “Dead Red” proposals by state motorcycle rights organizations — addressing this issue, which basically allow you to treat malfunctioning traffic signals as stop signs when it’s safe to proceed. Two additional states — Louisiana (H.B. 150) and Texas (S.B. 1737) — are actively pursuing such legislation.

Of course, this does not mean motorcyclists can treat any stoplight like a stop sign. Specifics vary among the 15 states with laws already in place, but one example is Virginia’s current code. It allows riders to proceed through the intersection on a steady red light when a sensor fails to detect the motorcycle only if they: come to a full and complete stop for two minutes or two complete cycles of the traffic light (whichever is shorter); exercise care and treat the traffic signal as a stop sign; determine it’s safe to proceed; and yield the right of way to the drivers of any other vehicles approaching from either direction.

In contrast, Arkansas simply requires riders to come to a full and complete stop, exercise caution, and proceed when safe at a light that fails to actuate. In Illinois, riders must wait at least 120 seconds before safely proceeding due to a signal malfunction or failure to detect their arrival, but this may only be done in municipalities with less than 2 million people, which means it’s not legal in the city of Chicago. So it’s a mixed bag.

Although this traffic signal problem isn’t new, many riders don’t understand why it happens. It’s a common myth that traffic signals are triggered by vehicle weight (which leads to the ineffective and somewhat-humorous jumping around on the bike at red lights). Many traffic signals use inductive loop detectors (ILDs), a type of in-roadway sensor that causes a light change from red to green when metal interrupts an electrical field at an intersection. These sensors aren’t as sensitive to motorcycles because they contain far less metal than cars, although according to the Federal Highway Administration, if motorcycles don’t actuate the sensors it is possible to adjust their sensitivity settings. We say, “Get those screwdrivers out, city engineers!”

Motorcycle at red light traffic signal

Many areas continue to move towards using traffic signals featuring newer technologies like video and radar detection, and while they’re far better at detecting bikes than ILDs, they still may not always sense motorcycles.

While it may seem like a small thing, this slight nuisance is symptomatic of a bigger problem — infrastructure that fails to take motorcycles into account. And as national discussions surrounding transportation have shifted towards a fully autonomous future, motorcycles must be a part of this conversation in effort to preserve the future of two-wheeled travel.

The AMA works diligently to ensure that every conversation about infrastructure includes motorcycles. The AMA also continues to advocate for motorcycle safety to be a critical component of all autonomous vehicle technology programs, voicing concerns about how other vehicles detect and respond to motorcycles and the vehicle-to-infrastructure component that comes with a fully autonomous future.

Along with engaging the DOT during public comment periods regarding autonomous vehicle policy, the AMA worked with Harley Davidson and the Motorcycle Riders Foundation during the 116th Congress to share joint concerns on the priorities of motorcyclists, and will continue to utilize that framework of concerns of the motorcycle community in autonomous vehicle policy while engaging during the 117th Congress.

Traffic Actuated Signal laws offer a way out when you’re stuck at a red light, but it’s better to avoid getting stuck in the first place. If you have a faulty traffic signal in your area, contact your local road authority to alert them of a malfunctioning signal that’s not working for motorcycles. Signals can be recalibrated to better detect bikes to prevent the problem. If your state doesn’t have a Traffic Actuated Signal law for motorcycles, contact your state legislators.

This article appeared in the June issue of American Motorcyclist.

Red Light Blues