Bipartisan bill to add bicycles to state’s ‘dead red’ law moving through legislature

If you see this little dude, line your wheels up with the two white lines and the signal should detect your bike

If you see this little dude, line your wheels up with the two white lines and the signal should detect your bike

So you’re biking along, the only person on the road, and you reach a traffic signal. You wait at the light, but it doesn’t seem to know you’re there. The signal detector system is tuned for heavy cars, but not your bicycle. You get skipped.

Transportation departments in the state are supposed to make sure their traffic signals can detect bicycles, but there are a ton of signals on Washington streets. You have found one of many that are not properly adjusted or designed to detect your bike. So what do you do?

Obviously, you wait until a safe moment and run the light. You have no other choice. Thanks to a 2014 law, someone on a motorcycle can already do this legally. But an oversight left bicycles out of the law, and SSB 5438 would fix that.

The bill has wide, bipartisan support. It was co-sponsored by Senate Transportation Chair Curtis King (you may remember him from this unfortunate news story earlier this year) and passed the Republican-controlled Senate 45–3 in early March. It is now making its way through the House, where the Transportation Committee recently passed it. Now it just needs a full House vote before going to the Governor’s desk.

It’s great to see leaders from both parties embracing cycling and moving this bill. There’s nothing inherently Democrat or Republican about bikes. They are simple-yet-powerful tools for self-sufficient, fun and healthy transportation and recreation. Bike tourism is a way to expand tourism and economic activity in rural communities off the beaten path and major highways. And safe streets are important to communities of all political backgrounds.

Older bike detection markings look like little Ts. Put your wheel on the mark to trigger the light.

Older bike detection markings look like little Ts. Put your wheel on the mark to trigger the light.

Though a very cursory reading of the “dead red” bill does lend itself to incendiary headlines (BIKES ALLOWED TO RUN RED LIGHTS!!!), the bill would not allow people on bikes to run red lights with impunity. It’s not an Idaho stop law. People would be required to wait a signal cycle before proceeding.

In busy urban areas, the law will rarely come up (except maybe late at night). After all, it’s somewhat rare in Seattle for a whole signal cycle to go by without a car tripping the sensor or someone on foot pushing the walk button. But in less busy cities and towns or rural areas, it will give people on bikes the legal leeway to pass through “dead red” signals without worrying about getting a ticket so long as they are careful.

In Seattle, you can report signals that fail to detect bikes, and the city will fix them. Call 206-684-ROAD or use the city’s Find It Fix It app.

The bill is one of Washington Bikes’ 2015 legislative priorities. Their top priority, however, remains safe streets and walk/bike funding in the transportation package moving through the legislature at the moment. Here’s the cheat sheet they handed out to citizen lobbyists on Transportation Advocacy Day earlier this month (in case you run into a legislator):


About Tom Fucoloro

Founder and Editor of Seattle Bike Blog.
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15 Responses to Bipartisan bill to add bicycles to state’s ‘dead red’ law moving through legislature

  1. William C says:

    What a nice surprise; one-and-a-half cheers for Curtis King!

  2. Richard says:

    Good news! I think it might be slightly overstating things to characterize this as “embracing cycling”, but it’s a nice step :)

    • Josh says:

      I believe you’re right. It’s getting bipartisan support because many smaller towns see the requirement to detect bicycles as an unfunded mandate — the Legislature said cities and counties had to stop ignoring legal vehicles at signals, but didn’t provide any additional funding for upgrading the signal equipment or painting the required markings.

      This bill takes some pressure off scofflaw towns that have so far ignored the requirement to tune and mark signal detectors, because their inaction no longer forces people on bikes to become scofflaws, it will be legal to pass through defective signals.

  3. daihard says:

    Great news. I’m also happy to see bipartisan support on this. Goes to show that lawmakers see this as a safety issue across the board.

  4. Gary says:

    Great news!

    Maybe next year they can get the Idaho stop law passed. (rolling stop at stop signs for bicycles… at your own risk)

    • Law Abider says:

      And why not apply the Idaho stop to all road users, including cars? We’d save a lot of imported gas and emissions!

      But seriously, there’s no legitimate reason to allow cyclists to blow through stop signs. The only illegitimate reason I’ve heard is that it saves 2.5 seconds of time and a slight bit of effort to get back up to speed.

      Plus, currently, you can pretty much blow through stop signs, at your own risk, with little or no consequences. Why change it?

      • jay says:

        And why not a 55mph highway speed limit? We’d save lots of imported gas and emissions.

        But seriously, there is no legitimate reason for beg buttons. The only illegitimate reason I’ve heard is that it saves motorists a few seconds.

        Plus, currently, you can pretty much blow through stop signs and with your air bags and crumple zones face little risk to yourself, but plenty of risk to people not in metal boxes. If you do hit someone you’ll see little or no criminal consequences (but civil suits are another matter, something you might keep in mind)

        Actually, an “Idaho stop” could save motorists a bit time too, when I get to a four way stop first, and come to full stop, if a car is close enough that when accelerating from a full stop, I’d still be in the intersection when they ran the stop sign, then I wait until they stop (if they stop) before I start, but if I had ridden thru initially I’d be gone by the time they got there and they could roll through the stop without conflict. People in cars often do stop when I do that, my pet hypothesis is that since people like you think cyclists always run stop signs, the fact that I stopped may indicate a police presence they don’t see, so they’d best stop themselves.
        And if a car is behind me they have to stop when I do, well, usually, once in a while someone will just squeeze pass in an unsafe manner.
        Also, at red lights, if a person on a bicycle is in the right lane, but intends to continue straight ahead, a motorist who wants to turn right (typically without coming to a stop) can be stuck behind them until the light changes (or squeeze past like above).

        I know, I know, “don’t feed the trolls” but I couldn’t resist

  5. EK says:

    This is great news. And it doesn’t just affect/help people who live in rural areas. I live in Seattle and experience this frequently at a light in the Northgate area on my commute to work in the morning.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Have you reported it to the city yet? They really do respond to those work orders.

    • Josh says:

      Also not uncommon to sit at a left-turn-only lane for a cycle or two of an intersection without getting a car to trip the light, and pedestrian buttons don’t help with the left-turn-only trap.

      I’ve had that happen on 12th Ave S, reported it and the signal was tuned within a few days. (But the intersection still lacks modern signal markings, just worn-out “T” markings that many people don’t recognize. It’s been more than a decade since the bike-on-a-line symbol was added to MUTCD, surely Seattle could start routinely replacing the nonstandard “T” with the MUTCD Fig. 9C-7 bike-on-a-line during routine repainting? Maybe add the standard R10-22 “To request green wait on [SYMBOL]” signs in a few high traffic locations to educate people what the marking means?)

  6. Augsburg says:

    I have had very good experiences using the city’s markings at traffic lights for bicycists, but also a bad one. In the design of the new traffic light in my neighborhood (Admiral/SW 47th) the city recently refused to locate the detector in the pavement at a location that could be accessed on a bicycle. Instead they put the detector on a section of road so steep no cyclist would ever stop there. With the city’s design, cyclists will have to dismount and drag their bicycle up a steep sidewalk to push the button.

    I guess I am glad our lawmakers are trying to clarify the law, but it will be a bit of a hollow victory – as I don’t think any cyclist has received a ticket for proceeding against that red light when there is no traffic in sight!

    • daihard says:

      I’m still glad a law will back up our often-inevitable choice. I just hope that it will be published widely so people behind the wheel don’t think “cyclists are breaking yet another law.” ;)

      • asdf2 says:

        Well, by definition, in the situation that the law applies to, nobody will see it anyway. If there’s cars behind you, they will trip the sensor for you. If there’s cars on the cross street, it’s not safe to go anyway.

        I suppose you could be spotted by a person on the sidewalk.

      • daihard says:

        I’ve had a light that won’t detect a car behind me. I guess the car stayed too far behind, but I’d estimate we were still no more than 10 feet apart. The particular intersection is at N 80th and Wallingford Ave N.

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