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If you ride, chances are you’ve been stuck at a light that didn’t detect your bike; but what are you supposed to do? So far, 16 states have come up with a solution – let riders run them. Learn more about these “dead red” laws, and when and where you can run red lights legally!

We’ve all been at a light that just won’t change…but what do you do? If your state has a “dead red” law, you can run it legally.

Everything electronic breaks eventually, and traffic lights are no exception. When the stop lights are out, drivers know what to do a just treat the intersection as a four-way stop, and continue along on your way. No problem.

But what about when the intersection works fine for everyone, except for you? Motorcyclists know this feeling well; you’re coming home late at night or heading out on an early morning commute, with nobody else around, and you get to that traffic light that just flat-out refuses to change.

You have a few options, but none are very safe. If you’re like most riders, you eventually just give up, look around for approaching cars or police, and then carefully ride through the red light. Perfectly reasonable maneuver, right? Absolutely. But is it legal? In most states, unfortunately, it’s not, and you can definitely be ticketed for it.

The most reasonable solution is to grant an exception to riders in this situation, by allowing them to safely proceed through the light when the red light won’t change for them. These so called “dead red” laws have gained traction in the last few years, and currently 16 states have some form of them on their books.

But while this is good news for riders, the wording in many of the laws is still subject to interpretation, and not much of the car-driving community is crazy about motorcyclists getting a “pass” to run red lights. Here we talk about why “dead red” laws are necessary, what they mean to you as a rider, and the controversy that still surrounds them!

Why Are Dead Red Laws Necessary?

If you’re a rider, you’ve almost certainly been at a light that refuses to change at some point – but did you know why that happened?

Here’s what’s going on. First of all, there are two categories of traffic lights; timed, and demand-actuated. Timed lights cycle at fixed intervals, so no problem there.

The problem is with demand-actuated signals; signals that detect the presence of vehicles, and cycle based on the amount of vehicles trying to get through the light. Normally, these work very efficiently; when you’re in your car or pickup, you’ve probably never had a problem getting the light to turn green. That’s because the sensors that activate the light are calibrated specifically to detect cars and trucks.

There are two categories of sensors used in intersections: in-pavement, and over-the-roadway. In-pavement systems are based on sensors embedded in the asphalt or concrete, while over-roadway systems consist of an array of systems such as motion-sensing video cameras, lasers, and even infrared.

Over-roadway systems are higher-tech, and tend to detect the presence of motorcycles just fine; weight-sensing pressurized air systems can even detect the presence of bicyclists, so motorcycles are no problem for them. The problem lies with the electromagnetic “inductive detector loop,” which is, unfortunately for us riders, the most common type of sensor by far!

You may have noticed them before, but you might not have known what they were. These are what inductive sensor loops look like, and they work great for cars; not so much for motorcycles.

Why Inductive Sensor Loops Suck

Inductive detector loops consist of large loops of wire embedded into the ground at intersections, with a current passing through them at all times. When a large metal object is placed near the wire, it alters the current going through the loop, which the controller interprets as a vehicle and cycles the light. (This is the same underlying technology used in metal detectors.)

Here you can see how an inductive sensor loop is installed, as a transportation worker makes the cuts necessary to embed it into the ground.

Problem for us is, they’re calibrated to detect a certain amount of metal – the amount found in passenger vehicles. In most cases, there is either not enough metal in a motorcycle to trip the sensor, or it is too far from the ground, and that’s how you find yourself sitting there wondering why the light has been red for two-and-a-half-minutes.

There are a few clever workarounds people have come up with; a big rare earth magnet stuck to the bottom of your frame can throw off the current enough to cycle the light, but doing this is a hit and miss. If you can’t stomach running the light, you can make a right turn then a U-turn instead, but even this might be an illegal maneuver depending where you are.

At the end of the day, you’re still at the mercy of the light – and any cop that might see you trying to run it.

Dead Red Redemption

Luckily, a handful of states have realized that not only is this a problem for riders, but a safety hazard for traffic in general. After all, forcing riders to cut across multiple lanes of traffic to change direction after waiting three minutes for a green isn’t anyone’s idea of a solution. This is where the “dead red” laws come in very handy.

Basically, these laws allow a motorcyclist who has not been detected by a sensor to run the light legally, when done so safely. The laws vary; some states want you to wait one cycle of the light, others want you to wait three minutes, and others just say to do it “when safe.” Regardless, the law is on your side if you’re in one of the 16 states named below, so if you are, know the law and share it with your friends, and use it to your advantage!

UPDATE: Since this article was originally published, two more states have added “Dead Red” laws:

  • Oregon (as of January 2016): Allowed to “proceed with caution” after one full cycle of signal light
  • Kentucky (as of July 2015): Can cross after 2 minutes  or 2 full cycles of signal light
Here are all the states that currently allow you to run a frozen red light, and the legal criteria you must follow in order to do so.

The Benefits

These laws are great for us riders, because it puts us in charge of our own safety, which is always the best way to ride. You don’t have to sit there and wait for a car to come up behind you and rescue you from the stubborn red anymore. Even better, you don’t have to figure out elaborate maneuvers turning across multiple lanes of traffic just to get where you’re going a situations that endanger your safety even more than it already is!

But the biggest benefit of all is that it protects you from unnecessary prosecution. Running a frozen red is reasonable, and even necessary, but this actually makes it legal. No more “hoping the cop will understand.” No more choosing from the lesser of two evils (do you run the light, or make an illegal u-turn?) And no more being punished for riding a motorcycle because of malfunctioning city equipment. Dead red laws just make sense.

The Controversy

Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. Members of the car-driving community have been the most vocally opposed, as many misinterpret the laws as being a “free pass” to run red lights; but even many riders find it to be unnecessarily risky. Another problem is the lack of uniformity in the laws; they vary widely, and 34 states don’t allow the practice at all. In addition, many people don’t even know these laws exist – uninformed motorists, and even many police, still think riders running reds legally are just being outlaws!

Nevertheless, the laws are a help to motorcyclists, and they seem to be spreading across the country as more states legislatures propose them. So what do you think a should running a “dead red” on a motorcycle be legal in your state? If it already is, do you have any problems with it? Let us know in the comments below!

Intersections are the most dangerous areas on the road for motorcyclists. Letting riders run a red when its stuck is a great solution to this common problem – as long as it’s done safely!

What do you think – should it be legal for riders to run stuck red lights in your state?

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