If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Dead Red Bill

No, relax: Slick Willie is still alive.

I was alerted to this story from Kansas a couple of days ago. It seems that motorcyclists in Kansas are getting fed up of waiting at red lights, which fail to register the presence of a small vehicle like a bike and stay red for hours on end.

Nicknamed the "Dead Red Bill," Kansas HB 2192 would allow motorcyclists to run red lights if the signal sensor at the intersection failed to recognize that a motorcycle was waiting at the intersection, and the light failed to change from red to green.

"It's a major annoyance," said motorcycle rider Charles Smith. "You can pull up to a turn lane at a traffic light and watch it cycle through a couple times."
How's that going to work, then?

The bill, which was recently passed by the Kansas House, states that "a red signal, which fails to change a green light within a reasonable period of time because …the signal has failed to detect the arrival of a motorcycle …because of its size or weight …shall have the right to proceed subject to the rules."

Ah. "Reasonable." That wonderful word that allows everything, and nothing. What is reasonable to me may be totally unreasonable to you. I know riders who regard car drivers who travel 5 mph below the posted limit as 'unreasonable' and will take any risk to get past them. I know drivers who regard six pints as a 'reasonable' quantity before a drive home from the pub.

Anyone who reads this blog will know that I am all for people making their own decisions and living with the consequences. However, with a system such as road transport, which is both universal and highly complex, and is used by people with a huge variety of competence levels, attention spans and states of mind, it makes sense for there to be some basic rules which everyone sticks to. I don't regard waiting for a red light as a huge infringement on my personal freedom.

Having said that, there doesn't seem to be a problem with this in the UK. I can't remember ever waiting ages for a red light to change because I wasn't heavy enough to trigger the sensor (and I have made an effort in this regard, let me assure you). If I had waited at an empty junction for five minutes with a red light, I think I would be very tempted to sneak through - although with the knowledge that, if anything went wrong, I would be fully responsible for the consequences.

I think it's best left that way, to be honest. Cops turn a blind eye, and if it goes wrong it's down to you. Introducing the idea that people have a 'right' to run a red light if they think it's 'reasonable' to do so is a recipe for chaos, as far as I am concerned.

At least we don't have these ... do we?

(H/t Joe Public, via email)


  1. XX Anyone who reads this blog will know that I am all for people making their own decisions and living with the consequences.XX

    But on the road, you are not. The insurance company is the one that has to "live with the consequences".

    As to the traffic lights. I( presume they were designed by someone who would describe themselves as a "traffic expert", or similar.

    He is so much an "exepert" that he has not taken a whole form of transport into account in his "design"?

  2. Where poor judgement can cause death or serious injury, strict liability is a reasonable rule to adopt.

  3. Not sure what the problem is?

    Where there are more risks, people usually are more careful. Isn't there a town in holland where there are no road traffic signs which proved that very point.

    You are already allowed to turn right on red lights in the US (not sure if its in all states though), and ride without a helmet (not everywhere), so it seems personal responsibility is a bit more valued over there.

    I did a week's ride in New Mexico 2 years ago, and not wearing a helmet is so much nicer.

  4. @FT: "But on the road, you are not." Which is why the next word was 'however' ...

    I agree, I can't believe that a whole class of vehicles has been ignored in the design of these sensors. As I said above, I have never had this problem in the UK. Maybe Kansas just has more than its fair share of impatient riders who like to complain.

    @Brian: I'm not sure I agree. Fine as a general principle, but in practice is it what we want? Since any error of judgement in a motor vehicle could potentially result in death or serious injury, it would follow from your logic that all motoring offences should be strict liability. It would have 61 mph in a 60 limit as an offence for which there was no defence (as is the case now), and passing a red light on an empty road at 4 am after lengthy checks for other traffic similarly. That may be SL or not (I don't know), but I would expect a police officer observing that to use considerable discretion in deciding whather to prosecute. I'm not arguing for everyone to be able to make up their own minds on the day, far fom it, but I would prefer - even in these cases - for the reasonableness test to be applied by a court, or even police officer who witnessed the incident. Currently, you can be prosecuted and fined for moving into a bus lane to let an ambulance or fire engine through (this has happened), all because the bus lane rule is strict liability and no defence, however persuasive, can be allowed. I'm not sure that is reasonable, or indeed useful.

  5. @monoi: There is indeed a town (several in fact) in Holland where this has been tried, and in the UK too. I posted about this last October:


    I can't see why, with all the positive results, it isn't done here. Actually I can, as it relies on people thinking for themselves and not systems thinking for them, and so it is a Bad Thing.

  6. From the video footage of yesterday's efforts by the chap who got bored with waiting for a mass of cyclists, this isn't something they should try in Brazil (google Brazil cyclists attack).

  7. @Furor
    Not altogether true. The insurance company may end up living with some of the financial consequences, if they can't find an exemption clause. Any physical or emotional consequences tend to be borne by people...

    Can't argue that a traffic expert should have known that things have different weights, though! We had a few early pressure-sensor lights around these parts - this is going back almost 30 years, to my pushbiking days - that wouldn't trigger for a cyclist. But even those worked for motorcycles.

    Far as I can see, though, if you're going to have a lighted junction where a red light may or may not be treated as red, you might as well have an unlighted junction. Much less confusing all round.

  8. @Richard: emergency service drivers are specially trained to safely drive around vehicles in the way if necessary. If a driver genuinely believes he had to drive into the bus lane to enable the safe unimpeded passage of an ambulance or fire engine then he could attempt to convince a court of that in order to receive a conditional or absolute discharge for the offence.
    The problem with bus lanes is when the traffic orders regulating them are drafted too broadly: instead of a blanket ban, a peak hours prohition is often more sensible. Sometimes drivers don't read road signs and fume when they see another driver pootling along perfectly legally in the bus lane.
    As an afterthought, perhaps you could contact your MP suggesting that traffic orders for bus lanes are amended to include an exemption to assist emergency vehicles - but wouldn't every J Bonnington Jagworth claim to have seen blue lights in his rear mirror when his human right to overtake is infringed by traffic conditions.

  9. Brian: the case I was thinking about is from Manchester, reported here. It turns out that the council withdrew the fine after the intervention of the local press (I didn't know that when I wrote the comment), but before that sensible retreat they were relying on the strict liability nature of the offence to prosecute him. And a keen desire for his cash, obviously.

    I agree that some people will abuse things like bus lanes, which is why I am suggesting that discretion on the part of the justice system is better than 'guilty no matter what'. Discretion allows for both cases to be justly dealt with.

  10. Richard: for local authority Penalty Charge Notices there is usually a policy which allows informal and formal challenges to the PCN. This was successful in this case. I agree it was largely thanks to the paper's intervention and the opportunity to remind road-users of the Highway Code).
    Strict liability means that intention or mens rea to commit the offence does not need to be proved and so the increased chance of conviction acts as a deterrent.

  11. I understand the meaning of strict liability. Perhaps the Manchester case was a poor example, but I would maintain that my points above regarding SL and discretion are still valid for the kind of offence we are discussing.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. I'm not sure what system they use in Kansas, but most places I've been use what is called an inductive loop system. It works by by detecting a change of inductance. It is basically a electromagnet and picks up on the metal of your car, bike, bicycle, what have you and closes a circuit that triggers the light to change. If your in your car triggering the system is no problem. It consist of a wire that has been placed in a grove cut in the road at the intersection. The car is large enough to cover at least part of the loop and cause the light to change. On a bike or bicycle, you have to position your bike directly over the wire or it will not trigger the signal. So when you pull up to a traffic signal, especially a left turn lane, look for the rectangle cut into the road. You can spot it because it has a cut leading away from it in most instances. position your bike on the right or left side of the rectangle directly over the cut in the pavement and the light will cycle. I have done this in several different states here in the US and have yet had a signal fail to trigger. I think instead of passing a law encouraging bikers to run lights, they should instead educate riders on the proper way to trigger these systems.

  14. Gymi, thanks for that. The system I have seen all over the UK is the same. Thinking back (a long way) I can remember an older rider telling me, when I was still in my teens, that if I ever sat at a red light for longer than seemed right, just to push the bike back and then move forward to a slightly different position, which would then trigger the sensor. I can't remember ever having to do it, but the idea stuck. We have one of these on our exit barrier at work. A car and a golf buggy will trigger it, but a bicycle will not - I'm guessing not enough mass of metal to do the job. I haven't tried it with a motorcycle, but I will.

  15. You have set me off to posting Richard, I have included a video with a bicyclist triggering the system to show how easy it is. Try magnets mounted under bike or golf buggy for the barrier at work, they should do the trick. Yet another great post on your part Richard.

  16. The golf buggies work fine (metal chassis), but a bicycle won't. I can see some experimentation going on today ...

  17. Richard, sorry if you thought I was teasching you to suck eggs; it wasn't intended. The strict liability reduces the standard of proof required. However the policy of informal and formal appeals means that the decision to prosecute or uphold the PCN is a policy one and not a quasi-judicial one requiring examination of the law and facts. Thus in the Manchester case the Council were able to waive the PCN as the opportunity to educate the wider public was available. Otherwise, natural justice would demand witness statements, expert reports etc to properly assess the reasonableness of the driver's actions. Which might, despite his best intentions, have prevented the emergency vehicle using the otherwise clear bus lane.
    The inductive loop system is indeed the most common, but others including the old air-filled rubber tube, low power laser or passive infra-red are used as well. Of course if the signal is timer-operated nothing works.
    An adaption of this this magnetic loop fitted to low-flying aeroplanes to detonate magnetic mines should work.

  18. @Gymi, let's not twist the words here. I would be extremely surprised that it is a " a law encouraging bikers to run lights". My understanding is to give the possibility to bikers when stuck at a light to do something about it. Maybe you are right in your assertion that just placing the bike on the appropriate part of the road would suffice (which begs the question as to why whoever is responsible for these loops, did not place appropriate and visible markers already ?! Interesting that you put the onus on how to use it on the user who paid for it through taxes, not the installer who spent your money), but maybe it is not and instead of considering all US bikers as morons who will go through red lights given half a chance, I think you should give them some benefit of the doubt and not reduce people's behaviour to the lowest denominator. Last time I checked, a driver in a car will fare a lot better than a rider on his bike when the 2 collide. A pretty good deterrent that, for most people (and if not, just goes to show that Darwin was definitely right).

    Lastly, as I said before, you already can turn right at red lights in most of the USA (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_turn_on_red). So really, maybe it is a case of looking at it with different eyes, not UK/European ones where you are not allowed to think for yourself.

    Incidentally, there is such a light not 300 metres from where I live, and my Buell does not set it off everytime (not to mention the bicycle). Funnily enough, the next traffic lights seems to have some sort of cameras instead, and that works a treat as it switches the light even before you get there.

  19. @monoi - I believe that Gymi is American.

    Anyone else tried this trick? Approaching a temporary traffic light at red (e.g. at roadworks) with no oncoming traffic, try flashing your headlight/s as you approach. Some have a photocell which can detect this, and the lights turn green as you arrive, as if by magic. This works in daytime as well as after dark.

  20. Brian - no offence taken, and sorry if my reply sounded abrupt which was also unintentional. Your comment was spamtrapped for a while, but is now free to roam the endless savannah and graze to its heart's content.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. monoi,

    I think you took the point of my comment the wrong way. I was not implying that everyone that is not aware of the presence of induction loops is a blithering idiot. I am remiss in my omission that inductive loops are not present at every intersection one finds him or herself at. Most traffic signals are operated by a timer and change on a preprogrammed time. Yet there are others such as the one you described that are operated by computer and use traffic cameras to assign which lanes of traffic should proceed at what time. My opinion is education over a law that could have the potential to cause more accidents. I live in the Detroit metro area and am witness to some of the most insane actions on the part of motorist in this region that I could write a book about it. I worked for fifteen years in the maintenance of traffic control devices and have installed and have done maintenance on the very traffic control devices we are discussing here. As far as placing signage to show the proper way for motorcycles to use the inductive system, at least in my area of operation all such devices and signs are determined by a traffic committee. As far as I know, they have must have determined the extra signage unnecessary. If they get enough complaints, they will investigate and take action that they see fit. I have to admit my ignorance in the percentage of riders who are aware of inductive loops. I wrongly assumed that most were aware of them, but in the last couple of days I have found that this indeed is not the case. In the end, I am for education over knee jerk reactions.

  23. A small sign attached to the traffic light post (same place as the repeater lights in France etc), saying "Riders - straddle the loop" with a small diagram. Within a week, everyone would know. Cost minimal. Customer satisfaction assured. But bring in a committee to decide, and it's sunk.

    Hey, I tried it on the XT yesterday. Nearly got the sack, but found it works for bikes.

  24. @ Gymi, maybe you being American and me being French makes us misunderstand each other (my oldest friend lives in Chicago)! I do agree with you that education is indeed preferable to knee jerk reactions (although I would have thought that getting a bill passed must take some time and effort, and if there were simpler solutions they would have been explored? I am not a great expert on Kansas, so I cannot tell).

    My point was that you imply that more accidents can be caused by this law, when I think the reverse can be equally, if not more, true. More responsibility for the potential consequences of one's behaviour, in my view, engenders a more responsible behaviour. And hence fewer accidents. If someone is incapable of crossing a road, whilst being on red, safely, then really, that person should not be riding at all.

    Again, one is allowed to turn right at red lights in the US, it is not that much different from what seems to be allowed now.

    As for insane actions, believe me, I do not need to go to the US to witness some regularly! We are equally as good. :)

    @ Richard, indeed.

  25. monoi @ True, our cultures have a long history of misunderstanding each other. I have a sister in Chicago, the best big city in the U.S. in my opinion, you are never lacking in finding something fun to do there. My guess the bill is driven mainly from a monetary point of view.

    The powers that be probably decided it would be way cheaper to allow riders to go through red lights than it would to devote the manpower to putting up proper signage and producing public service announcements to educate riders how to trip the inductive loop or traffic camera. I am not an authority on Kansas as well, The only time I have spent there was crossing through to go to Colorado. I agree with you that if some one can decide when to turn right on red they can make the same decision on when to safely traverse an intersection through a red light when it is safe to do so. My concern is those lights where the field of view is very limited that intersect a road that is traveled at a high rate of speed. Three such intersections come to mind in my town and the traffic signals are there for this reason.

    There are quite a few intersections that you cannot turn right on red at because of visibility concerns. I hope that they would use this same approach with the new law, that really being the crux of my problem with this law.

    Working for the government for the better part of twenty five years, I know first hand that common sense does not always prevail in matters such as this. I think we just want the same thing, a law that works best for those who are most affected by it. :)


    I agree, a small sign would go a long way to educating riders how to trip the light. I have yet to find one that doesn't, but I am sure they are out there waiting to trip us up.


Comment is free, according to C P Scott, so go for it. Word verification is turned off for the time being. Play nicely.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...