Motorcyclists who have faced the frustration of sitting at “dead red” lights in Colorado have reason to celebrate! The Colorado State Legislature has passed a bill allowing bikers to proceed through malfunctioning lights. The law takes effect on August 2, 2019. However, as with all laws, there are important details that bikers should be aware of in order to take advantage of this new law properly.

I spoke with Bruce Downs, State Coordinator for ABATE of Colorado, about this new law. Bruce has been an advocate and champion for new red light laws in Colorado and he has many insights about this new legislation.

But first, a little background…

Why Are Dead Red Laws Necessary?

If you’re asking that question, you’ve never ridden a motorcycle or bicycle on city streets. Because today’s streets are so “smart,” sensors are now in charge of when traffic lights change. Today, there are two kinds of sensors that alert traffic lights when someone has stopped at an intersection and is waiting for a green light. Unfortunately, they don’t always pick up light-weight vehicles.

How Do Traffic Lights Know to Change?

  • Over-the-Pavement Sensors: These sensors include motion-sensing cameras, lasers and infrared fields. Over-the-pavement sensors are designed to “see” vehicles that reach a certain point in the intersection and they are often very good at picking up small vehicles, like motorcycles, bicycles and scooters.

  • In-Pavement Sensors: These sensors are typically the culprit when it comes to dead red lights for motorcycles and bicycles. In-pavement sensors usually rely on a vehicle’s weight or metal mass to trigger a scale or magnet. You can sometimes tell if an in-pavement sensor has been added to a road because the asphalt has been cut into a circle or square. Beneath that slab of asphalt lies the sensor that is stubbornly ignoring your bike!

Not only is it annoying for bikers to wait at dead red lights, according to Bruce, it can also be dangerous.

“As we pointed out in testimony, if you’re stuck at a left-hand turn lane and you finally go ahead and make the turn, you’ve made an illegal turn. The other option can be even worse. Sometimes, we have to take a right-hand turn, go down that road and make a U-turn where it’s legal, then go back the other way to cross the intersection. This exposes us to much more danger.”

— Bruce Downs, ABATE of Colorado

Bruce says he is aware of many lights that literally never change when a motorcycle is waiting to make a left-hand turn because there’s no oncoming cross traffic.

“A prime example is a light at Highway 83 and Douglas County Line Road,” says Bruce. “There is a light there, and if nobody comes to cross the traffic, it will stay green forever. There are no turn arrows, no crosswalk, nothing.”

New Colorado Law Allows Motorcyclists to Proceed Through Malfunctioning Light

Senate Bill 19-144, titled “Concerning Allowing a Driver of a Motorcycle to Proceed Past a Malfunctioning Traffic Control Signal,” was sponsored by Senator Rachel Zenzinger (D) and states:

“(1)(a)When a driver approaches an intersection and faces a traffic control signal that is inoperative, that remains on steady red or steady yellow during several time cycles, or that does not recognize a motorcycle that is operated by the driver, the provisions controlling entrance to a through street or highway from a stop sign or highway, as provided under section 42-4-703, apply until a police officer assumes control of traffic or until the traffic control signal resumes normal operation.

“(b)If a traffic control signal at a place other than an intersection ceases to operate or malfunctions as specified in subsection (1)(a) of this section, drivers may proceed past the signal only with caution, as if the signal were flashing yellow.”

In plain English, Bruce restates the law like this: “If a light doesn’t recognize a motorcycle, the driver may proceed as though it is a four-way stop or a blinking yellow.”

However, the law does not require that motorcyclists wait a specified period of time before making this decision, as Bruce had hoped.

“We had requested a two-minute timeframe,” explains Bruce. “If the light didn’t change after two minutes, then the biker would have the legal right to proceed with caution. The new law doesn’t require a specific time limit. It’s just up to the biker to say, ‘The light didn’t recognize me.’”

Clearly, this law leaves a lot of room for interpretation by both motorcyclists and law enforcement, which Bruce was trying to avoid.

Interpreting the New Colorado Dead Red Law

This new law allowing bikers to proceed through red lights could be abused by bikers. For example, a biker might ride up to a red light, wait 15 seconds, and make a left-hand turn. If he says, “It didn’t recognize me,” can he be ticketed for violating the law?

Bruce encourages bikers to follow the intention of the law and not to abuse it.

“I live near the intersection at Iliff and Havana and it’s a longer turn signal than I’d like but I know it works,” says Bruce. “I’ve only seen it malfunction twice in 18 years, but I know it works. I’m not going to abuse this new law and run that light just because I have to wait longer than I want.”

On the flip side, as Bruce makes clear, this law will make bikers safer.

“We can stop at a light and, if it does not recognize us, we do have a legal option to treat it as a four-way stop and go on our way,” he says. “This makes us safer because we don’t have to look for right turns on red or make dangerous U-turns. It’s little things like this that prevent frustration which leads to dangerous choices on a motorcycle.”

There are also concerns that law enforcement may not honor or properly enforce this new law.

For example, if a motorcycle pulls up to a light and it doesn’t recognize him, he may proceed through the light. If law enforcement is coming from another direction and doesn’t see the malfunctioning signal, or if he sees a car recognized and believes the light is not malfunctioning, then the biker may get a ticket.

Time will tell how well this law works.

Turning Left Across a Dead Red Intersection

Because I have seen so many bikers hurt and killed when making left-hand turns, I strongly caution you to wait as long as possible before turning left across oncoming traffic when you’re sitting at a dead red light. If you get hit, it will be your fault because you shouldn’t have turned in the first place. (That’s why nearly every state with dead red laws requires motorcyclists to come to a complete stop and proceed only when it’s safe: the onus is on the motorcyclists to assure his or her own safety.)

As a Denver personal injury attorney, I am very curious to hear from bikers who receive tickets for proceeding through malfunctioning signals. I want to know if this new law is properly understood by both bikers and police. Call or text me if you receive a ticket for proceeding through a dead red light after August 2, 2019. (303-388-5304)