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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


When laws defer to common sense

Sometimes, there are “gray’ areas in driving.  Successfully handling certain situations may require accessing common sense rather than a law. Drivers cannot adhere to scripted laws since laws cannot cover every scenario. Sometimes, adherence to laws may even cause conflict.

For example, I have sat on my motorcycle in left turn lanes while facing traffic signals that won’t display a green arrow.   I’ve had other riders express the same thing, wondering what laws apply. It is a fact that some vehicles may not trigger automated traffic signal-change systems.  Motorcycles and very small cars may lack the clout to initiate a signal change, as the signal trigger cannot “see” them.  

Some intersections monitored by metal-detecting sensors beneath the road surface are evidently not calibrated to accommodate small vehicles.  Also, any car or truck might not “register” if it’s mis-positioned in the lane.  Traffic lights at other intersections take their cues from cameras aimed at the waiting traffic and small vehicles can become “invisible” to cameras at night.

To remedy this situation, when there is ample traffic, I will pull ahead some and wait for a full-sized vehicle to stop behind me, alerting the system of our existence.  Otherwise, using common sense, I wait through a couple of light cycles, then check traffic and depart even though the light is red.  

I’ve queried law enforcement officers about this topic.  Most are familiar with the dilemma, and in fact, some have futilely searched for laws relating to it.  The consensus is that most officers would be lenient, as they are aware that motorcycles, small cars and improperly positioned cars may not trigger the sensors. Their advice when encountering the “stuck light” concurs with mine. One should sit thorough at least two light cycles, and then proceed as if at a stop sign — check for traffic and yield to it before departing since any mishap would place you at fault.  I could find no written provision for these encounters in Washington or Idaho laws.

A low-compassion officer could still cite a driver or rider for proceeding through such a red light, but I think that would be rare if the “offender” had waited through at least two signal cycles.  If I were unluckily cited, I would likely prevail in court, but it would have to be because of the Judge’s common sense, not written law.

A group of newly-license drivers recently told me that one of their most-dreaded tasks was driving in downtown traffic.  They claimed to be intimidated by sheer vehicle density and the continuous stimulus encountered there.  It’s another time to rely on common sense.

Besides cars, trucks and motorcycles, downtowns are amply populated with pedestrians, scooters and bicycles.  Additionally, drivers are often hurried and distracted.  Adherence to laws would have drivers assuming right-of-ways at green lights and roadway segments without crosswalks.  But what happens when another driver runs through a red light, a pedestrian jaywalks or a bicyclist emerges unexpectedly from the curb?

In all of those cases, a common-sense driver, while being especially-vigilant, must ignore the law and relinquish the right-of-way in favor of scofflaws.  Sure, it’s strictly illegal to jaywalk in the middle of the block or cross the road on a bicycle against a red light. But an automobile driver bears the ultimate responsibility to avoid conflict.  And a red-light runner might not have the right-of-way, but it’s crucial to give it to them.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at