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Blue Dog Diaries: The waiting game

By Terry Roorda

As I was riding through town last week I came upon a sight that has become fairly commonplace in these parts. In the left turn lane of an intersection controlled by the accursed traffic sensors sat a motorcycle with a corpse astride it in an advanced state of decomposition. Cobwebs stretched from the handlebar to the skeletal remains and the eye sockets of the helmeted skull were still directed up at the traffic signal—their hollow lifeless gaze fixed for eternity on the red light.

Yes, yet another law-abiding biker had expired—of thirst or exposure or possibly old age—while waiting for his right-of-way. The luckless rider’s sins had been twofold: 1) He was riding a motorcycle, and 2) He neglected to tow a car behind him to trip the light.

The ongoing proliferation of traffic sensing devices that will grant the green light only to vehicles configured to grab their attention has created a whole set of operating variables and enigmas for the biker. These devices are notorious for ignoring us, and while automobiles approach these intersections carefree and buoyed by the certain knowledge that their wait will be short and their turn assured, bikers experience only dread and uncertainty, and every encounter with a traffic signal becomes a Maalox moment.

The thought processes of the typical rider in these situations go something like this: Damn, a red light. I hope it’s not one of those triggered deals… I hate those things. Maybe a car will trigger it… (checks rearview mirror) Damn, nobody behind me. Should I wait until a car comes along? Nah… that could take forever. Maybe I’ll just wait until traffic clears and run the sucker. If I get stopped by a cop I’ll explain my pickle and hope he’s understanding. But what if it’s not one of those triggered deals? What if it’s just a long red light? Will a cop be sympathetic then? Crap… I guess I’ll just wait out a couple of signal cycles while I sit there like a dope and then just run the bastard. Or I could just whip a yooey and turn right again and… nah, that’s stupid. I hate these things.

One common approach to dealing with the frustration of an infinite red light is to try various heroic means to trip the sensor. The many riders who believe that these devices are sensitive to weight will try maneuvers like high-speed stoppies or jumping up and down on their stationary machines to fool the sensors.

Sadly, these efforts are doomed to failure from the outset because the sensors are not the least bit impressed by weight or even metallic mass. The most common type of traffic sensor is called an “inductive loop detector” (ILD) and it is as oblivious to these factors as it is to the phases of the moon. It is sensitive only to metallic arrays or configurations so unless it’s been finely adjusted to detect a motorcycle, there’s not a damn thing you can do to announce your presence short of welding a bed frame to your chassis.

That being the case, it only seems natural that there must be some special legal protocol that a biker can follow when confronted by an interminable red light. Operating under that perfectly reasonable assumption, I contacted the California State Highway Patrol to find out what that protocol might be. The officer I was referred to informed me that no such protocol existed, and that the State had no formal enforcement policy with regards to a biker who runs a red light rather than wait there like a dope until death. When I asked her for her official recommendation on how to proceed under that not-uncommon circumstance, her response was actually one of the aforementioned “thought processes of the typical rider.” Can you guess which one?

Yes, friends, according to the CHP, the recommended procedure for dealing with a perpetual red light is the “Understanding Cop” doctrine wherein you run the light and pray like hell that the cop who stops you isn’t having problems at home and will cut you some slack. Of course, legally, you’re still required to sit at the red light and rot, but this enlightened Understanding Cop doctrine at least gives you the absolute and inalienable right to toady and grovel and beg for a break when you run it.

There’s one other sticky problem here, though, and that’s the fact that even if the cop is sympathetic to your traffic dilemma, he has nonetheless lawfully stopped you and can therefore subject you to all manner of unrelated inspections and intrusions—and he may not be quite so understanding about an expired license or beer on your breath.

Stubborn traffic sensors have been a long-standing gripe among motorcyclists, but over the last decade a number of states—10 in all, by my count—have addressed the dilemma… sort of. Under these various statutes, the cops can still stop and cite you for running the light (with all of the aforementioned ancillary perils that attend any traffic stop), but the laws in these states now provide for an affirmative defense for the offender—meaning that if you can prove the detector was faulty or insensitive, you can beat the ticket. That means a court appearance, and it means you better hope they didn’t fix the device in the meantime or you’re still essentially screwed.

That’s the trend, it seems, and as of two months ago the State of Washington is also considering a similar revision of their laws. Unfortunately, the burden of proving the sensor defective will still be on the operator. Thanks for nothing.

It’s all right here in the diaries…

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