A change in the law governing bicycles recently was in the news. In January, the Massachusetts legislature adopted a regime of traffic-ticketing to enforce existing laws that require bicyclists to, for example, stop at red traffic lights.
The Legislature was wise to insist that bicyclists err on the side of safety and caution. Someone on the road has to, and it probably won’t be automobile drivers, chatting on cell phones and shuffling through the songs on i-pods.
So here’s a question: what is a bicyclist lawfully required to do when the light never turns green? It’s a frequent problem. Modern traffic lights (i.e. the ones used everywhere except the city of Boston) are triggered by sensors that detect automobiles. Roll over the sensor in a Chevy, and the light turns green. Roll over the sensor on a Raleigh bicycle and … the light stays red. It never turns green. Ever. Roll back and forth on it. Jump up and down. Nothing.
The question is sort of academic; the obvious answer is that you treat the traffic signal an ornament with little relevance to a bicyclist … but still you do so at your own risk — risk of physical injury and risk of legal jeopardy. Injury because the lights are most frequently used at the most dangerous intersections. There is a chance that the ornament will be you. Jeopardy because who is to say the law enforcement officer will agree with your choice. And it takes some significant waiting and experimenting to be sure the sensor really doesn’t work; that’s not a small inconvenience with traffic lights every few blocks.
I wish I had the answer. It’s unfortunate, but perhaps the only safe thing to do is to drive.