Motorcyclists could run some red lights under Missouri bill

Friday, March 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:37 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 9, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — With no opposition, the Missouri Senate gave approval this week to a measure that would allow motorcyclists to run red lights if they spend an "unreasonable" amount of time waiting for the signal to change. 

Proponents say many motorcycles are not large enough to activate the sensors connected to left-turn arrows, which can create long backups for cars. Both Sen. William Stouffer, R-Napton, and Rep. Cynthia Davis, R-O'Fallon, introduced similar legislation, but the Senate Transportation Committee, which Stouffer leads, passed his bill by consent last month. The House of Representatives held a hearing on Davis' bill, but it didn't get out of committee before the General Assembly left Thursday for its spring recess.

Stouffer's bill would provide an "affirmative defense" if a motorcyclist is pulled over by a police officer for running a red light after waiting for a green signal that does not appear because the bike is not large enough to be read by the light's sensors. Even small cars have enough metal to trip a sensor, Stouffer said, adding that some motorcycles and bicycles are not big enough to be read.

Davis said she fully supports Stouffer's bill and called the legislation a "safety matter," adding that motorcycles stuck at red lights disrupt the flow of traffic behind them.

"Red lights are supposed to promote safety," she said. "But by our very laws, we have created a dangerous situation where cars could back up forever if the motorcycle in front can't trip the switch."

Supporters of the measure said it would neither cause nor excuse accidents because it does not cover cases in which an accident is caused or a police officer determines the motorcyclist made an unsafe entry into the intersection. Rep. Gary Dusenberg, R-Blue Springs, said police officers wouldn't pull motorcyclists over for running red lights and motorcyclists wouldn't abuse the law.

"Every law is abused or ignored to some extent, but motorcyclists are very safety-conscious," he said. "I was a state trooper for 27 years, and I can tell you that police officers will use common sense and sound judgment when it comes to ticketing motorcyclists who enter the intersection on a red light."

At a hearing on Davis' bill last week, O'Fallon motorcyclist Tony Shepard said it was unreasonable to think motorcyclists would willingly put themselves at risk when entering an intersection against a red light. He said the average rider has patience and would only enter an intersection when it is completely clear and safe to do so.

"Crashing sucks, and none of us like to crash," Shepard said. "We're not trying to put ourselves in harm's way, nor do we think that this law would encourage that."

Although the bill had no opposition in the Senate, passing out of committee and on the floor by consent, some representatives said they have reservations with the bill. Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Arnold, said Stouffer's legislation would create a double standard not seen in other traffic laws.

"There is no other law on the book where people can violate traffic laws because certain devices don't work," Roorda said. "There are problems here for certain that will need to be addressed if this bill is to get all the way through."

Roorda also said he was worried that the word "unreasonable" is ripe for abuse because it is a subjective term.  However, both Davis and Stouffer said the Missouri State Highway Patrol asked them not to include guidelines specifying when it would be permissible to run a red light. 

Davis said vagueness in the bill should not be a concern, as it would be clear to a police officer stopping a motorcyclist on suspicion of running a red light whether he or she waited for multiple traffic light cycles. She said the legislation was common sense, adding that it addresses a situation that mostly occurs late at night when roads are nearly empty.

"You won't be able to say you waited an 'unreasonable' amount of time if you just pulled up and then ran the light," she said. "If it's, theoretically, 4 a.m. and you're sitting there for hours waiting for a turn signal that won't ever come, does it really cause a problem if you go through the light because of the physical disadvantages of the motorcycle?"

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