You know the feeling? You think you are doing everything right. You ride on the correct side of the road—not the sidewalks. You are three feet from the white line. You DON’T blow through stop signs. And you don’t blow through red lights. But… it seems no good deed goes unpunished.
We’ve all been there. It was a great stretch. You hear, “great pull,” from your buddies. Time to down shift and coast to the white line—it’s a red light. The momentary pause is welcome. You wait for the light to change. It does, but only for the other side. Cars turn left in front of your group as everyone waits. Then cross traffic starts up again. The light NEVER turned green.
The problem was the intersection relied on a sensor—basically a magnet buried under the asphalt. It’s a great invention for cars. Instead of waiting impatiently for the light to turn green when there isn’t a car in sight, the sensor recognizes that the car is waiting and that no other traffic is coming, or that it's time to change now that a car has pulled up to the light. It is simple really. The large metal car pulls at the magnet under the pavement, triggering the sensor.
You see our dilemma as cyclists? Our bikes aren’t large enough to set off the sensor. The carbon fiber models don’t have any metal. Even some motorcycles have problems with sensor activated lights.
So what are we supposed to do? Luckily, the Illinois state legislature has considered our plight—although it seemed to be more driven by the efforts of motorcyclists. There is a provision in the law just for such scenarios. If a bicycle is waiting at a red light—for not less that 2 minutes—because the light is broken, or the weight of the bicycle hasn’t triggered the sensor, the cyclist may treat the light as they would a stop sign.
The statute section, or cite, is 625 ILCS 5/11-306(c)3.5 and it states in relevant part
…after stopping as required…the driver of a motorcycle or bicycle, facing a steady red signal which fails to change to a green signal within a reasonable period of time not less than 120 seconds because of a signal malfunction or because the signal has failed to detect the arrival of the motorcycle or bicycle due to the vehicle's size or weight, shall have the right to proceed, after yielding the right of way to oncoming traffic facing a green signal, subject to the rules applicable after making a stop at a stop sign…
It is important to note that this section applies only to municipalities with LESS than 2,000,000 people. So this won’t float in downtown Chicago. Of course Chicago has become super cyclist friendly and has specific bike traffic control devices. This law was meant for those weekend rides out in the small towns, early in the morning when no one is up or out on the road.
Yes, the statute says you treat the light like a stop sign. That does not, however, mean that the cross traffic will do the same. It is better to think of it as a yield sign. You may proceed through the intersection, so long as no other cars are coming. Remember, most people don’t know about this exception to the law… so please be careful.