Motorcycle waiting at a red light that's not changing - Dead Red Lights for motorcyclesEverything is getting “smarter” these days. Our phones, our cars, our clothes washers and our televisions. Believe it or not, the same is true of our roads. Yes, autonomous cars are on the horizon but our very roads are also getting smarter as traffic experts attempt to use road data to make our commutes easier and more efficient. One way they do this is through road sensors. But what if these sensors don’t recognize your motorcycle or bicycle? Is it legal to run a red light on a motorcycle when you’ve been sitting there for too long?

As with everything else, the answer is yes… and no. It depends on which state you’re riding in.

How Long Do You Have to Sit at a Red Light Before You Can Run It?

Red stop light - can motorcycles run red lightsMany states now have laws that allow motorcyclists and bicyclists to run a red light if they have been stopped at the intersection for a certain period of time. Each state is different and some are oddly unspecific about the time period, while others make the rules very clear.

For example:

  • Arkansas: Motorcyclists can proceed with caution after coming to a full stop through a red light that fails to detect the bike. (No word on how long they have to sit in order to assess the light’s failure to detect.)
  • Idaho: A motorcyclist can proceed after coming to a full stop if a signal fails to operate after one cycle of the light. (I like the specificity on how long a motorcyclist needs to wait for a red light to change.)
  • Illinois: Motorcyclists who face “a red light that fails to change within a reasonable period of time not less than 120 seconds” may proceed through a red light. (I think it’s better to use the number of times the traffic signal has changed versus seconds on a clock. Who uses a watch while riding a motorcycle?)

Those are just a few examples from the 18 states that have passed so-called “dead red” laws allowing motorcycles to run red lights legally. (To see a full listing, click here.)

Unfortunately, Colorado does not yet have a dead red law to help bicyclists and motorcyclists more safely and legally negotiate their way through intersections that don’t recognize their presence.

Why Are Dead Red Laws Necessary?

If you’re asking that question, you’ve never ridden a motorcycle or bicycle on city streets. Because today’s streets are so “smart,” sensors are now in charge of when traffic lights change. Today, there are two kinds of sensors that alert traffic lights when someone has stopped at an intersection and is waiting for a green light. Unfortunately, they don’t always pick up light-weight vehicles.

How Do Traffic Lights Know to Change?

Motorcycle Rider at dead red light

  • Over-the-Pavement Sensors: These sensors include motion-sensing cameras, lasers and infrared fields. Over-the-pavement sensors are designed to “see” vehicles that reach a certain point in the intersection and they are often very good at picking up small vehicles, like motorcycles, bicycles and scooters.
  • In-Pavement Sensors: These sensors are typically the culprit when it comes to dead red lights for motorcycles and bicycles. In-pavement sensors usually rely on a vehicle’s weight or metal mass to trigger a scale or magnet. You can sometimes tell if an in-pavement sensor has been added to a road because the asphalt has been cut into a circle or square. Beneath that slab of asphalt lies the sensor that is stubbornly ignoring your bike!

If you live in a state that does not allow you to pass through a red light that refuses to change, you can try to trick the in-pavement sensor. Note the marks on the asphalt that I described above and then position your bike exactly on top of the cut marks. That is where the loop wires rest, connecting to the main sensor. If you’re riding with a buddy, have him or her park on the other side of the saw marks. (For example, if the asphalt was cut in a square, you and your buddy should stop your bikes on top of the left and right arms of the square.)

Turning Left Across a Dead Red Intersection

Now, even in the states where it is legal, I strongly caution you to wait as long as possible before turning left across oncoming traffic when you’re sitting at a dead red light. If you get hit, it will be your fault because you shouldn’t have turned in the first place. (That’s why nearly every state with dead red laws requires motorcyclists to come to a complete stop and proceed only when it’s safe: the onus is on the motorcyclists to assure his or her own safety.)

One more note of caution to those of you who live and ride in states with dead red laws: Don’t abuse them. Just because you’re sitting at a red light doesn’t mean it’s “dead.” Give the light plenty of time to turn green. If bikers start blowing through red lights, behaving as though they have a “free pass” at intersections, they will inevitably make states think twice about these laws.

Should Colorado enact a dead red law for motorcyclists? I’d love to hear from you!