Saturday, January 07, 2006

Red Lights/Red Mist Part 2: Responsibility

Background: December 1st I wrote about recognizing the problem of red light running as a vehicular problem, not just a bicycle riding problem.

Background: December 10th I wrote about the upcoming Annual City Bicycle Plan Meeting and a question I was prepared to ask it.

Section 10-34 - Every person driving a bicycle shall have all of the rights and all the duties applicable to the driver of any other vehicle by this Code…

So, there you go. It is the duty of every person driving a bicycle to follow all the applicable ordinances. Section 40-116 says vehicle drivers must obey traffic controls. Section 40-119 even bothers to provide the definition of a red light. It’s not just a color.

I ride through some red lights.

One of the ways cities try to improve vehicular traffic flow is to cut down on the number of red lights on high volume roads. A way to do that is to install what I call “switched traffic controls.” These traffic controls tend to be used for intersections where high volume roads meet significantly lower volume roads. The control stays green for the dominant road, until a switch is activated on the less dominant road.

The switch is activated for cars by metal detecting sensors embedded in the pavement in areas where they’re likely to stop for the red light. The switch is activated for pedestrians by pushing a button usually located in areas where they’re likely to stop. For bicycles, well…yeah that’s the thing.

At previous city bicycle plan meetings the request to make these sensors stronger to detect bicycles has been dismissed on the grounds that stronger sensors introduce the problem of phantom red lights caused by cars passing by the sensors, not specifically stopping and expecting the light to change. I’m no rocket scientist but I think it’s arguable that phantom red lights isn't just a traffic flow problem, it's a psychological one too. An increase in phantom red lights correlates to an increase in ignoring red lights. A “never cry wolf” problem.

The answer to the problem for cyclists, given to us by representatives of our city, is literally to get off the bike, walk to and push the pedestrian switch, and get back on the bike. My answer to the problem is to wait at the red light until the road is reasonably clear and cross against the red light. Hopefully, to a reasonable reader, reading that I ride through these red lights seems like a reasonable thing to do. If you don’t, I'd really like to know your better suggestions.

I acknowledge a problem with my choice of behavior. I experience intersections like these all the time. I know which ones they are. I know that they are not going to change for me, no matter how long I wait. When I come to one of these I stop. If it’s clear, I go. I can’t find every possible observer and explain to them what I’ve described above so that they know I’m making a carefully thought out and reasonable decision to break the law. Therefore, a driver, pedestrian, or child, observing me, would think that I had just completely disregarded the red light.

It's also a psychological problem for me. I already go through lights that I know won't change for me. What about lights at intersections I'm not familiar with? How long do I wait to determine whether or not this traffic control will switch for me? I'm pretty sure an independant observer would probably find that the number of minutes I'm willing to wait to find out if a traffic control is going to switch for me is linearly connected to the air temperature at the intersection.

Stay tuned for Red Lights/Red Mist Part 3: Rights


Anonymous said...

Your actions seem perfectly reasonable to me. I've heard of motorcyclists having that same problem. There was a movement a few years back in my area to change the law so that if they stopped and the intersection was clear it would be okay to run the red light. I'm not sure which way it went. However until today I'd never thought of cyclist having this problem too.

Good Luck!

The Donut Guy said...

I'm with anon, if I come up on a red light and there is no traffic in sight, I run the bad boy.

And I don't feel guilty about it either:-)

Dan said...

My problem is that when I'm waiting for the light and the traffic is heavy (no breaks), the car behind me is being gracious and giving me room. Since I'm basically blocking the sensor, neither of us gets through. I've tried moving up past the white line and inviting the car to pull up, but they don't usually understand.

mytzpyk said...

Yes Dan. That one happens to me a lot. I always make a point of stopping beyond the sensor hoping that will encourage any cars coming along to stop ON the sensor.

I have at least once encountered a driver that became very annoyed when I signaled them to approach so they'd be on the sensor.

They switched lanes and turned instead.

Anonymous said...

The Citizenship pilar of Character counts! would challenge your decision to run a red light. ...clip a lot of self indulgent logic... Therefore, we need to improve bicycling with really good bicycle lanes or we need to remove the in-road sensors and make all lights timed.

mytzpyk said...

"...clip a lot of self indulgent logic..." - heh, heh. I think I used up this topic's allotment of self indulgent logic and I've still got a part 3 to write.

Eric A. said...

One of the neat things about those metal sensors is this.
Even my little blue econo-box of a car doesn't always set the sensors to make the lights change. After waiting for 4 to 5 mins for it ,
I end up driving my car through intersections and red lights.
Mine you , this is only at the odd hours of the morning. Not in heavy traffic when I am surrounded by SUV's and family sized cars.
and on a side note. In america, bicycles will NEVER recieve equal treatment on the roads

Anonymous said...

Many traffic codes have a provision saying that when driving, if a traffic signal if malfunctioning and won't change to green, it is legal to wait until it is safe to pass through the intersection, and then do so. One could argue that if a signal fails to get triggered by your bike, it is malfunctioning.