Bikers who can't trip traffic lights might get to run them

State Patrol official opposes measure

THE NEWS TRIBUNE (TACOMA)March 27, 2013 

A bill allowing motorcycles to go through red lights might get a green light from lawmakers.

If passed, Senate Bill 5141 would allow motorcycles to proceed, “after exercising due care,” through an intersection if the vehicle detection device fails to operate after one full light cycle.

Currently, when motorcyclists find themselves stuck at a light that won’t trigger for them, they are forced to abandon their intended route and turn right. Or they can proceed through the red light and risk a $250 traffic ticket.

The proposal to allow red-light running — sponsored by Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima — received wide support in the Senate, passing 47-1. The bill is now in the House Transportation Committee, where Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said she thinks it is a good solution for a problem that frustrates many motorcyclists.

She said she doesn’t expect the proposal to encounter any significant opposition in the House.

Mike Toursal, owner of the Auburn and Lakewood motorcycle gear retailer Eagle Leather, said his customers encounter problem traffic lights frequently.

Toursal recently asked customers who subscribe to his business’ newsletter and blog to report instances of weak traffic sensors. The store received more than 50 responses, with riders citing nearly 60 intersections throughout the Puget Sound area where they said they’d been stuck waiting for a red light that wouldn’t change.

Many traffic lights are triggered by vehicle detection systems that rely on equipment to sense a disturbance in a magnetic field. Those systems can fail at detecting motorcycles and scooters as those vehicles frequently don’t have enough metal to disturb the sensors. Some motorcycle and scooter owners mount powerful magnets on the bottom of their bikes in hopes of triggering the sensor.

King’s bill would provide another option, but some are less than thrilled about the proposed change.

Capt. Rob Huss with the Washington State Patrol has testified twice in opposition to the proposal. He said WSP is concerned that allowing motorcycles to go through red lights would be distracting to other drivers and that distraction could be dangerous.

“It’s human nature,” Huss said. “Have you ever been stopped at a light and see someone in another lane start going, so you go too? It happens.”

Huss said he understands the frustration riders have, but he said that it’s a problem that can be addressed without modifying existing law.

“People aren’t taking advantage of the systems already in place,” Huss said. “The Department of Transportation and city and county public works departments have complaint procedures in order for drivers to alert them about malfunctioning traffic control devices. They’re just not getting the complaints.”

Most of the problem intersections reported to Eagle Leather fell into city or county jurisdictions. However, the business did forward a list of the nine intersections that fell under the DOT’s jurisdiction to state officials.

DOT spokeswoman Alice Fiman said the agency has received only 16 calls in the past four years from motorcyclists or bicyclists complaining about traffic light sensors. DOT does monthly maintenance checks on its traffic control devices, but will check out problems as motorists alert them. Fiman said the cost of an unscheduled maintenance check of a traffic light sensor can run from $100 to $300.

Clibborn said her committee might consider amending King’s bill so the elapsed time a rider has to wait before continuing through a red light is more defined. She said a House version of the bill was clearer, requiring riders to wait 90 seconds, not just “one full light cycle.”

Jimmy Lovaas: 360-943-7123 jimmy.lovaas@ thenewstribune.com Twitter: @jimmylovaas

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