Forever Red: What to do at stop lights that don’t change

Every motorcyclist knows them: those traffic lights that remain red until a car or truck triggers a green phase. They have sensors embedded in the road surface – you can usually see them as circles or octagons covered in tar. The idea is that it’s pointless to turn a light green unless there is actually someone on the road to take advantage of that green.

Well, my sense is that those sensors are relatively old – I’d say from the 80s and maybe 90s. I guess at the time, they seemed a good idea. Nowadays, though, two-wheeled traffic is increasing and these sensors cause real problems.

Cyclists do mostly fine, since they can step off and push the pedestrian buttons on the side of the road. That solution is not perfect, of course, since it requires one to get off the road onto the sidewalk. Also, this doesn’t work where pedestrian traffic doesn’t go the way of road traffic. For instance, if the cyclist wants to turn left, instead of waiting for a green on the left arrow, (s)he may have to cross the intersection in two tries.

For motorcyclists, the problem is much bigger. First, we cannot simply leave the bike on the road while we push a button, nor can we ride the bike onto the sidewalk. Second, walking the bike across the pedestrian walkway is just not feasible.

Most of the time, the solution is to wait for a car to go the same way and trigger the sensor. If traffic is sufficiently dense, that might work just fine, and I frequently thank the motorists that make my crossing possible. Sometimes, though, the sensor covers only the first few feet of the intersection, and even if there is a motorist behind me, the sensor won’t know.

The problem gets really bad (and horribly annoying) when traffic is light, like on a Sunday morning, but even on a midday lunch break. I have been standing at traffic lights for 10 minutes before someone showed up to release me from my pain.

So, what am I supposed to do? The traffic light is clearly not working (for me), so I would have to treat it as a defective light, I presume. The problem is that for the rest of the motorized world, the light works perfectly fine. Usually, when a light isn’t working, it starts blinking. That alerts everyone to the danger of crossing, and makes the light act as an all-way stop.

But in this case, the light is red for me and green for the traffic I am crossing. Depending on traffic conditions, any decision can be dangerous.

I discovered that the traffic light at Lamont and Grand here in Pacific Beach is car-triggered. I stood there for about 5 minutes until I decided I wouldn’t wait any longer. I didn’t cross – Grand is pretty much Pacific Beach Freeway, so any attempt at crossing is seriously risky. But I turned to the right, which seemed the only safe manoeuvre.

But, in general, what is a rider supposed to do under the circumstances? I’ll find out for you, writing the City of San Diego and the DMV right now!

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