Rules of the Road

Is that bus driver crazy for running a red light? Actually, they’re following the law

A WTA bus uses a queue jump lane to bypass traffic on Lakeway Drive on Friday, Sept. 30, in Bellingham.
A WTA bus uses a queue jump lane to bypass traffic on Lakeway Drive on Friday, Sept. 30, in Bellingham.

A few days ago I received a question, or actually a report of complaints, by way of the folks at Whatcom Transportation Authority. It seems that people have been calling them to report bus drivers running red lights at a couple of locations in Bellingham. Maybe you’ve also seen bus drivers sneaking ahead of the traffic on Lakeway Drive at Lincoln Street or on Alabama Street at James Street.

What you’re seeing isn’t actually a violation of the law; at those two intersections WTA has worked with the City of Bellingham to set up queue jump lanes.

Perhaps you’re not familiar with queue jump lanes. If that’s the case you’re not alone. Besides the angry calls to WTA, I heard a rumor (I won’t give up my source, but I’m pretty sure it’s true) that a police officer, unaware of the queue jump lanes, stopped a WTA bus driver intending to give the driver a ticket for running a red light.

If queue jump lanes create so many complaints, why do we have them? The simple answer: They solve a problem.

On Lakeway at Lincoln as well as Alabama at James, the westbound traffic has a right-turn-only lane. These intersections also have bus stops near the turn lane. In order for the bus driver to pick up or drop off passengers, he or she has to pull into a designated bus area, just before the right-turn lane.

From an overall traffic flow perspective, this works pretty well, because the bus moves out of the through-traffic lanes to prevent backups when the bus stops, and it leaves plenty of room for right-turning drivers to move into the right-turn lane after the bus.

The problem arises when the bus needs to merge back into traffic to continue west. On a red light, when traffic backs up, the bus driver can’t get into the westbound lanes. If the bus driver has to wait until the intersection clears before moving into a westbound lane, other drivers won’t be able to take a right turn, and eventually the right-turn lane could back up into the through lanes, causing more traffic congestion.

The solution is to give the buses a little head start at the traffic light. When a bus reaches the intersection on a red light, a sensor in the traffic signal recognizes that a bus is in the queue jump lane. When it’s time for the traffic lights to turn green, the light in the queue jump lane turns green first, giving the bus time to pull ahead of the other vehicles at the intersection. A few seconds later, the lights turn green for the rest of the drivers.

If you were waiting for a green light on Lakeway Drive, and you looked toward the queue jump lane, you wouldn’t see a light turn green for the bus. That’s because the light for the queue jump lane is only visible from that lane. Traffic engineers designed the signal that way so other drivers don’t mistakenly start driving through the intersection on the wrong green light.

However, to drivers unfamiliar with queue jump lanes, it looks like the bus just ran a red light.

Queue jump lanes keep the buses on schedule and help reduce traffic congestion. Once we all become familiar with them, the phone lines at WTA might cool down a bit and the bus drivers won’t have to worry about getting mistakenly pulled over for running red lights.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.