Law lets bikes run red lights (kind of)

If you ride a motorcycle or bicycle, you probably know the frustration of getting stuck at a red light that just won’t change – because the sensors under the street can’t detect your two-wheeler. A new state law would allow two-wheel vehicles to run through those lights under certain situations.

From Danny Rathbun, Capital News Service

If you ride a motorcycle or bicycle, you probably know the frustration of getting stuck at a red light that just won’t change – because the sensors under the street can’t detect your two-wheeler.

Two-wheel vehicles will be allowed to run those red lights, under certain situations, under a bill signed into law Thursday by Gov. Bob McDonnell.

House Bill 1981 will let motorcyclists, moped riders and bicyclists pass through red lights, as long as there is no oncoming traffic, after waiting 120 seconds or two cycles of the light. The law will take effect July 1.

Champe Burnley, president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, said riders of two-wheel vehicles often end up trapped at red lights, with no safe, legal option about what to do, because motorcycles and bikes aren’t heavy enough or don’t have enough metal to trip the sensor.

“Most of the traffic signals today have a wire in the road – so it’s an induction loop. And frequently there’s just not enough metallic mass for the induction loop to pick up a cycle that goes over there,” Burnley said.

“If you’re on a bike and you get to a stoplight – and I stop for stoplights religiously – it puts me into a difficult position. Because if the light doesn’t change, I’ve either got to wait for a car to come up behind me to trip the stoplight, or I’ve got to break the law – and I don’t like to do that.”

Delegate Thomas “Tag” Greason, who sponsored HB 1981, said the legislation will make things much safer for riders.

“The bill is designed to increase the safety for those riders who ride motorcycles, mopeds or bicycles,” Greason said. “When they approach and are stranded at an intersection, and the weight of their vehicle is not great enough to trigger the light, and so they’re stranded at a red light, and they really don’t have any legal options available to them under today’s code.”

Greason, a Republican from Potomac Falls, said some people raised questions about who would be at fault if a motorcycle runs a red light and causes an accident. But those questions have been addressed in the bill, he said.

“Imagine that the red light is a stop sign: If the motorcyclist pulls out into oncoming traffic and causes an accident, he would have the same liability if he was at a red light or if he was at a stop sign,” Greason said.

Under his measure, motorcycles and bicycles must come to a complete stop at a red light and wait for 120 seconds or two cycles of the light.

“Then they proceed with caution, as if they were at a stop sign, and they must maintain all the liability, and give way to oncoming traffic, from either direction,” Greason said. “So there is no transfer of liability.”

Delegate Bill Janis, R-Glen Allen, introduced a similar measure – HB 1991. His proposal was folded into Greason’s bill.

HB 1981 passed the House on a 75-24 vote in January. The Senate then unanimously approved the bill – with an amendment emphasizing that bicyclists and motorcyclists who proceed through a red light must yield to oncoming traffic. The House then voted 87-11 in favor of the amended bill.

Photo by Robert S. Donovan

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  1. I thought bicycle riders could decide at any time if they were a vehicle or a pedestrian in Virginia. Is that not right? If you can decide to be a pedestrian when the light is red and cross like a pedestrian would, then this would seem to me to only apply to mopeds and motorcycles.

    Maybe I need to read the laws again, since I’ve been biking under that assumption for years now after reading the laws when I moved here.

  2. When was the last time you saw a bicycle stop at a red light?

  3. 120 seconds? Ha! I’ve never seen a biker even come to a complete stop at a light!

  4. I’m totally happy for a 120 second rule….but I really wish some cyclists would actually stop at the light in the first place! As a driver, I don’t want to be going on green to then hit someone barreling through a red light on a bike (I’m looking at you, dude at the Meadow/Floyd light the other evening who zoomed through without even looking to see my bright yellow visible car had the green). It’s been a close call several times, and it worries me sick. :( The recklessness I’ve witnessed from some bikers is just astounding.

    I just want everybody to be saaaaaaafe! Stop signs, don’t care. But lights….yikes.

  5. Jeff on said:

    Thank you Gov. McDonnell!

  6. Marc on said:

    The main reason so many bicyclists blow through red lights is not so much that they are evil reckless scum, and more just to do with the basic physics of bicycle riding. Stopping at a red light or stop sign requires a lot of extra muscle power. You lose all your momentum, have to take your foot off the pedal (which could require even more work for more advanced cyclists who have clipped their feet into the pedals), and then you have to start from a dead stop. Plus, a bicyclist has a lot more visibility all around him, much more like a pedestrian, meaning that if the coast is clear then there’s nothing even inherently unsafe about blowing a red light. (Technically that could be said of drivers as well, except visibility is always more restricted for drivers and they are going so much faster than cyclists.)

    I’m not excusing reckless behavior, just saying that a bicyclist blowing a red light can be exactly like a pedestrian jaywalking. Everyone on earth jaywalks, not because they are anarchists, but because if you never ever jaywalked life as a pedestrian would be friggin’ annoying.

    An elegant solution that I’ve heard is what is known as the “Idaho stop” law, since this has been on the books in that state for many years. That law basically says that bicyclists can treat stop signs as a yield sign (can roll through at slow speed without stopping) and can treat traffic signals as a stop sign. It recognizes the reality that bicycles are not the same thing as automobiles and it is silly for the law to pretend they are exactly the same. And, of course, the law emphasizes that it is still the cyclist’s responsibility to verify if the coast is clear, so a bicyclist who Idaho Stops through a red light and gets in an accident would still just as liable as he would be under current law.

  7. I try to always stop at stoplights when I’m out on my bike unless there are absolutely no cars in sight in any direction. I hate seeing bikers just cruise through red lights, because it builds animosity among motorists towards us cyclists. Of course, there will always be drivers who will hate cyclists whether we stop at stoplights or not.

  8. Elizabeth on said:

    Marc, if people on bikes aren’t stopping because stopping is difficult, then they absolutely are reckless scum. It seems to me that people on bikes often want all of the right-of-way of cars, with all of the lack-of-rules of pedestrians, all rolled up in one. And if somebody is trying to be a speed bicyclist with clips and all on city streets (in the Fan, Carytown, etc.) I think that’s tremendously stupid.

  9. Dude from the Meadow/Floyd light on said:

    I love it!!

  10. Mike on said:

    I stop at stop lights. I stop at stop signs. I even stop at some intersections where I have the right of way…just because. Doesn’t bother me to have to start up’s more of a workout! That being said, I did stop at a stop sign, got waived through by another guy at the stop sign (cross street) started back up, only to have an off-duty police officer zoom around the guy that waived me through and run right into me. Seems he was late for a softball tournament. What a guy!

  11. Katie on said:

    This motorist vs. cyclist feud is ridiculous. The road is meant to be shared.

    I understand that unless you ride a bike on a regular basis, seeing one on the road may make you uncomfortable. That might upset you, but try to understand that most cyclists care about safety at least as much as you do and probably more since they will be the ones that get hurt if an accident occurs. Also remember that as a cyclist, you likely have a better grasp of traffic and road conditions because you can see and hear things that a motorist can not. (As Marc explained in a previous comment) I do admit that there are some reckless cyclists (and there are plenty of reckless motorists), but they are not the majority.

    Motorists tend to feel that since they are the biggest thing on the road, everyone else should bow down to them. I feel that since they are the biggest thing on the road, they are more of a nuisance than pedestrians and cyclists.

    Although riding a bike or walking may not be reasonable for everyone or for every situation, try it sometime and see how you feel about how motorists treat you. If you can’t do that, at least respect that fact that instead of burning fuel and taking up space, cyclists are traveling in a way that benefits their health and the environment.

  12. Just to weigh in here…. I am a cyclist. I’ve been around RVA and VCU long enough to not be fussed by sharing a road either when I’m on a bike or in a car. I give riders as wide a berth as a I can whenever possible, and I keep an eye out for them at points where there are stop-signs or lights. The simple fact remains that if I have the green in my car and a cyclist zooms through their red light anyway as a good clip, that’s reckless. Because my car was there, heading towards them. Simple point: they should have seen.

    Yes, stopping on a bike is a pain. But getting hit by a car that has the right-of way is going to be a way, way bigger pain.

    I fully appreciate the cyclist POV because I’m the one on the bike quite a bit. Not trying to be clippy here!

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