Bicycles and defective traffic signals

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007
By Yokota Fritz

It's a common problem for cyclists: You pull up to a controlled intersection with a traditional loop detector, but the loop will not detect your bicycle to trigger the traffic signal. What do you do to get through the intersection?

The canonical answer among cyclists is to wait an appropriate amount of time (or not), wait for cross traffic to clear, and run the light. Supposedly, the light is considered defective; hence, running this light is considered by bicyclists to be perfectly legal.

Is running "defective lights legal, though? In the United States, is anybody aware of any provision in state vehicles codes or the Uniform Vehicle Code stating what is commonly considered fact among bicyclists?

Warren in Kansas went to the trouble of asking the local police what is legal. The police officer responded: "Bike riders are required to obey all traffic laws. I see your problem but I must tell you what the ordinances state."

I realize, of course, that police officers are not lawyers, but fighting a traffic ticket in a local court based on what many local judges consider a legal technicality is often a losing proposition.

What do the vehicle codes state about this situation? Do the ordinances address "defective" traffic lights that do not detect bicycles or motorcycles?


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Minnesota has a law that states motorcycles can consider these lights to be "malfunctioning." I consider this applicable to bicycles as well.

Sec. 42. Minnesota Statutes 2000, section 169.06, is amended by adding a subdivision to read: Subd. 9. [AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE RELATING TO UNCHANGING TRAFFIC CONTROL SIGNAL.]

(a) A person operating a motorcycle who violates subdivision 4 by entering or crossing an intersection controlled by a traffic-control signal against a red light has an affirmative defense to that charge if the person establishes all of the following conditions:

(1) the motorcycle has been brought to a complete stop;

(2) the traffic-control signal continues to show a red light for an unreasonable time;

(3) the traffic-control signal is apparently malfunctioning or, if programmed or engineered to change to a green light only after detecting the approach of a motor vehicle, the signal has apparently failed to detect the arrival of the motorcycle; and

(4) no motor vehicle or person is approaching on the street or highway to be crossed or entered or is so far away from the intersection that it does not constitute an immediate hazard.

(b) The affirmative defense in this subdivision applies only to a violation for entering or crossing an intersection controlled by a traffic-control signal against a red light and does not provide a defense to any other civil or criminal action.
Wisconsin passed this law last winter:

Act 466 was effective on 10-01-06. One of the changes provides that the operator of a motorcycle, moped, motor bicycle, or bicycle facing a red signal at an intersection may, after stopping for not less than 45 seconds, proceed cautiously through the intersection before the signal turns green, if no other vehicles are present at the intersection to actuate the signal and the operator reasonably believes the signal is vehicle actuated.
I make a right on red, a u-turn, and then a right turn, in the form of a shallow gesture down the road to the right. That's assuming u-turns are legal where you are.

You can also try laying your bike down on the loop: there was a parking-lot gate behind my building that wouldn't open if you set a soda can on the loop, but if you lay the soda can on its side, it had enough magnetic impact to do the trick.
Bureaucrats response to the problems created by an "elegant" transportation system are defective traffic signals? Clearly two wrongs don't make a right.

The suggestion that these electronic pads can be activated at a particular point (which should be designated) would be helpful.

There is nothing in the Uniform Vehicle Code that addresses the issue. States regulate it individually, including many that have nothing to say about it. Here are a couple of more examples. Colorado has a statute dealing with inoperative or malfunctioning signals. In Idaho, cyclists are allowed to treat stop lights as they would stop signs (i.e., stop until it's clear to go), so it doesn't legally matter if it's functioning or not.

42-4-612. When signals are inoperative or malfunctioning.
(1) Whenever a driver approaches an intersection and faces a traffic control signal which is inoperative or which remains on steady red or steady yellow during several time cycles, the rules controlling entrance to a through street or highway from a stop street or highway, as provided under section 42-4-703, shall apply until a police officer assumes control of traffic or until normal operation is resumed. In the event that any traffic control signal at a place other than an intersection should cease to operate or should malfunction as set forth in this section, drivers may proceed through the inoperative or malfunctioning signal only with caution, as if the signal were one of flashing yellow.

49-720(2) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a steady red traffic control light shall stop before entering the intersection and shall yield to all other traffic. Once the person has yielded, he may proceed through the steady red light with caution. Provided however, that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a right-hand turn. A left-hand turn onto a one-way highway may be made on a red light after stopping and yielding to other traffic.
Thanks for the comments, all. I learned a few things from your posts!
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