brushing the law

I was kind of hoping that the California Vehicle Code would be kind of vague on this count:

21453.  (a) A driver facing a steady circular red signal alone shall stop at a marked limit line, but if none, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection or, if none, then before entering the intersection, and shall remain stopped until an indication to proceed is shown, except as provided in subdivision (b).

(b) Except when a sign is in place prohibiting a turn, a driver, after stopping as required by subdivision (a), facing a steady circular red signal, may turn right, or turn left from a one-way street onto a one-way street. A driver making that turn shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrians lawfully within an adjacent crosswalk and to any vehicle that has approached or is approaching so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard to the driver, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to that vehicle until the driver can proceed with reasonable safety.

(c) A driver facing a steady red arrow signal shall not enter the intersection to make the movement indicated by the arrow and, unless entering the intersection to make a movement permitted by another signal, shall stop at a clearly marked limit line, but if none, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection, or if none, then before entering the intersection, and shall remain stopped until an indication permitting movement is shown.

(d) Unless otherwise directed by a pedestrian control signal as provided in Section 21456, a pedestrian facing a steady circular red or red arrow signal shall not enter the roadway.

Except it’s not. What I did broke the law, as it’s written. The fine public safety officer who pulled me over as I ran the light making a left from Charles Young Drive south onto Westwood had every right to write me a ticket. In no way was he outside the law. So I’m not saying that I talked him out of a ticket, because he may just have been a nice guy who wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing stupid things on the road that might get me hurt. But this, more or less, is what I told him:

  1. Yes Officer, I know why you signaled me to pull over. I ran that red arrow.
  2. Yes Officer, I know it’s illegal to roll a red arrow as a motor vehicle. But here’s why I ran that light. I’ve stopped at that intersection before, and I know how the light cycle runs. I also know that the sensors in the pavement don’t recognize the presence of bicycles. Were I unsure as to whether or not the signal would change for me, I would have happily waited. However, knowing that the sensor did not see me and that the protected green arrow would not provide me with a safe and legal means of turning south, I rolled into the intersection and made a left turn when I judged that there was no oncoming traffic.
  3. Yes Officer, you have a point: I could have taken another road out of UCLA’s campus, but it seems strange to me that UCLA would mark both Charles Young Drive (admittedly, only the south – eastbound – side of the road) and Westwood Blvd. with sharrows and yet not make any provisions for the possibility that a bicycle might want to turn left without waiting for a car to arrive or dismounting and walking the bike through a pedestrian intersection. If anything, that seems to be a failure of infrastructure and not a failure on my part.
  4. And thank you, Officer, for listening to my argument. [He still could have ticketed me, and in spite of my irritation at being pulled over, I appreciate the non-ticket the resulted; it seemed remarkably civil]

In the final accounting of things, he let me go with a warning, and I rode back to Koreatown, stopping at every red light and rolling every stop sign I could. There was a mess of things running through my head on the ride, and one other possible defense came to mind. In most situations, when a traffic light is not functioning – usually flashing in the meantime – the intersection is usually treated as a four-way stop-sign until a police officer arrives to control traffic. As the Wikipedia article on “traffic lights” explains:

Traffic light failure in most jurisdictions must be handled by drivers as a priority-to-the-right intersection in both drive-on-the-left Australia and some states of the mainly drive-on-the-right Europe, or an all-way stop elsewhere, pending the arrival of a police officer to direct traffic.

Some jurisdictions, however, have additional right-of-way signs mounted above, below or next to the traffic lights; these take effect when the lights are no longer active. (In Germany and Italy as well as some jurisdictions in the US, traffic lights inactive at nighttime emit an amber-colored flashing signal in directions owing priority while the intersecting street emit a flashing red light, requiring drivers to stop before proceeding.) In the UK and parts of North America, drivers simply treat the junction as being uncontrolled when traffic lights fail, giving way as appropriate, unless a police officer is present. In much of the United States failed traffic signals must be treated as all-way stop interesections. In 1999, concerned that some traffic lights would fail as a result of the Y2K bug, some jurisdictions installed emergency unfoldable stop signs at intersections.

My point is, in a situation where the signals in the pavement refuse to recognize a bicycle – often the case – then I think it’s reasonable (if not entirely legal) to treat the light as a non-functioning unit. After all, the sensors controlling the timing of the light seem to be key to guaranteeing the proper functioning of the light; however, when those sensors do not recognize – because of their structural (infrastructural?) limitations – a motor vehicle (like Gary, I did get the stern reminder that a ticket on a bicycle still counted as a moving violation) like myself, it stands to reason that the light is not functioning properly. Ergo, I am within my rights as a moving vehicle to treat the signal as a non-functioning one and proceed through the intersection with caution. As I did.

There’s a lot more to write about intersections of power and knowledge and the way in which the law functions in Los Angeles, but that’s enough for now. Is there anyone with more of a law background to tell me if I’m actually standing on any sort of firm legal footing? Not so much for tonight as for the future. I’m sure that many cyclists have been pulled over for running a red light that refused to acknowledge their presence (the light at Wilton and 4th comes to mind), and I wonder if it might be possible to craft some sort of legal challenge to that ticketing.

UPDATE: In the comments, BikinginLA brought up another good post that Gary wrote last year.  I don’t have the time to go back through it too carefully right now, so I’ll cop out and quote the introduction:

I’ll admit there are times when I don’t necessarily follow the law to it’s letter. If there is a stop sign, and thanks to a wider range of visibility and hearing on a bike, I can tell no one is around, I’ll roll through without coming to a full stop to conserve momentum. This is common amongst otherwise law abiding cyclists, just like ignoring posted speed limits in low traffic is common among otherwise law abiding motorists. Also if there is a traffic light at 3:00 am, and no one is around, I’ll go through because 9 times out of 10, that traffic light isn’t going to detect a bicycle. LAist did an article recently debating the legality of this in light of California Vehicle Code 21800 (d) (1) for inoperative traffic signals, in response to a post by fellow blogger Alex Thompson.

All that being said, when it comes to cycling with flowing car traffic, I follow the law, ride predictably and use hand signals to communicate intentions to drivers. Unfortunately there are quite a few cyclists out there that don’t do any of this, either because they are unaware of obligations for cycling or don’t care. Usually these same cyclists are slow enough I pass them and never see them again.

Thanks to BikinginLA for pointing that out. And while we’re on the topic of the law, Brayj Against the Machine has an idea about how bicyclists might be able to sue the MTA for a systematic bias in favor of automobiles.

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5 responses to “brushing the law

  1. Gary (http://garyridesbikes.blogspot.com) had written something awhile back, indicating, as I recall, that the law requires that roadway sensors at traffic lights must be calibrated to recognize all traffic, including bicycles. And that the law allows you to proceed through a non-functional light after waiting a reasonable amount of time.

    If he sees this, maybe he can cite the relevant sections of vehicle code; if not, I’ll try to dig through his archives later and see if I can find the post. But right now, it looks like I’ve got just enough time to get a good ride in before the rain.

  2. I think a great art project would be to “voluntarily” paint bike lanes across los angeles that would finally do what city planners have failed to so far, create a fully connected city wide bike lane system. Thoughts? Volunteers?

  3. @bikinginla – thanks! Update is posted with a link to Gary’s article.

    @alex – it’s certainly a good idea, but then there’re the debates about whether more bike lanes is the best route to go in terms of establishing a bike-friendly system. I think, in the end, it should happen, but I wonder if there needs to be a question of priority. But thanks for the comment – it’s certainly worth thinking about, though I think I’d be just as happy with city-wide sharrows.

  4. Pingback: Rules of the Road « Rearview Rider

  5. That is a great post of Gary’s, but this is the one I had in mind: http://garyridesbikes.blogspot.com/2008_09_01_archive.html

    In it, he links to a post by Zach Behrens on LAist about whether it’s legal to run an inoperable light: http://laist.com/2008/07/16/can_you_run_a_red.php

    There is an argument to be made there. Chances are, you wouldn’t win, but still.

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