Faulty traffic signals may lead to new law for motorcyclists

OLYMPIA — Riding a motorcycle around on a warm Northwest day is a relaxing pastime, unless you get stuck at a traffic light that just won't turn green.

Traffic sensors are designed to help facilitate the flow of traffic by triggering a green light when a vehicle is detected at an intersection. Senate Bill 5141 would allow a motorcyclist to proceed through an intersection after waiting one full cycle — and "exercising due care" — if the sensors on a traffic signal fail to detect a motorcycle.

The bill passed in the Senate on Feb. 10 with a 46-2 vote and moved to the House Transportation Committee for a hearing on Feb. 24.

Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, owns a motorcycle and said the lack of detection by some traffic lights can be a hazard for all drivers on the road.

“It becomes quite dangerous because you have cars piling up behind you, they start honking at you, then they start going around you,” Hargrove said during the debate on the Senate floor.

However, the Washington Department of Transportation, which manages about 1,000 traffic lights in Washington, reports it has received so few complaints about traffic-light sensors that agency officials don't see a problem.

From 2010 to 2013, WSDOT received just 14 calls to report traffic lights that didn’t detect motorcycles or bicycles.

Transportation engineer Ted Bailey said when the agency gets a call like that, a worker is sent out to check the sensor and the light, and then fix anything that's faulty.

"If we had a larger number [of calls]" then the agency would take a closer look at the system as a whole, Bailey said.

WSDOT data also show only four instances of maintenance performed on traffic signals associated with motorcycle- and bicycle-detection issues.

Ken Barnes, White Center, who has been riding motorcycles for 40 years, said he encounters this problem frequently but has never called to report a bad sensor. He said he wants to see the sensors improved instead of putting motorists at risk by letting people disregard a traffic light.

"What's to stop a car from going through a red light if they see a motorcycle doing it?" Barnes said.

This and other safety concerns came up at the public hearing in the House Transportation Committee on Feb. 24.

Capt. Rob Huss of the Washington State Patrol said that if a motorcyclist goes through a red light and is pulled over, that initial roadside conversation gives police officers the ability to understand the problem.

“We have a responsibility to follow up,” Huss added, referring to officers contacting the correct public works department to determine if there is a faulty detection device. Huss testified against the bill.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, is listed as a sponsor for the bill, but voted against it on the Senate floor. He agreed that traffic lights should be improved before the Legislature decides to change any traffic laws.

Most traffic control signal sensors use a magnetic field detection system, Bailey said. Because motorcycles are composed of less metal than cars, they are less likely to trigger the sensors.

To improve the likelihood that his motorcycle will be detected, Barnes put a special magnet on his bike.

But, he said, it still doesn't solve the problem entirely. Barnes said he typically has to wait for another car to pull up behind him to trigger the sensor.

Several decades ago he was pulled over for making an illegal left turn and tried to plead his case in court. He said the discussion with the judge didn't go well and he ended up paying the ticket, which cost about $35.

In Seattle, the infraction of running a red light carries a $124 fine, whether someone is caught by law enforcement or by a red-light camera.

Rebecca Gourley is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Service.

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