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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Red-Light Purgatory**

*Chicago Tribune
March 4, 2011
as "Purgatory and the dead red light"

*Somerset, PA Daily American
March 5, 2011
as "Purgatory and the dead red light"

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

When one reads about “Dead Red” laws, the image conjured up is of some draconian McCarthy-esque measure from the 1950’s. Actually, it has nothing to do with politics.

Every motorcyclist and bicyclist is familiar with the frustration of pulling up to and intersection and watching the lights go through 2 or 3 cycles without getting the green. This problem has been the subject of increasingly vociferous lobbying from riders.

Some intersections don’t have automatically sequenced lights. They’re triggered by sensors buried in the roadway. These sensors don’t rely on weight, but mass. As a large metal object, like a car or truck, rolls up, the steel creates a “bubble” in the ambient magnetic field. This bubble is detected by the sensors which then trigger the lights. The Navy uses this method, called "Magnetic Anomaly Detection," to locate submerged submarines. These devices have to be calibrated, but the vehicle used is usually the 10-ton truck the road crews work out of. In terms of magnetic mass, that’s a far cry from even the largest motorcycle. Consequently, the rider sits at the intersection…and sits…and sits…and sits…well, you get the idea.

Some states have laws that permit the rider to run the red light after a reasonable amount of time, provided the traffic is clear. I know that Missouri has such a law, and the Kansas House has passed and sent to the Senate a similar bill. The Georgia legislature is about to consider such a law.  Pennsylvania, however, does not.

Last fall, I came afoul of that lack in Somerset.

My morning route towards US 219 takes me North on North Kimberly to either Fairview or Catherine Streets, where I drop down the hill to North Pleasant. I do this to avoid the traffic light delay at Stoystown Road (PA 281). One morning, I unaccountably took the wrong fork. I ended up at the dreaded intersection, caught in the “dead red” zone. I sat for three full cycles, not getting the green light. Finally after a careful look for traffic (and the Ninja-like Somerset PD), I zipped across the intersection against the light. Later that day, curious whether I had broken the law, I called the Boro to complain about the light’s failure to work.

The nice lady at the Public Works department took my complaint and promised to look into it, but as far as the law was concerned, “You’re going to have to talk to the Boro Police.”

So, I called the Police Department, not without some trepidation. I was, after all, about to admit to the commission of a crime. I was connected to a bright young officer who told me that Somerset had no laws on the books to permit running a dead red light. Puzzled, I asked him what I should have done. “I know you can’t make a U-turn from there, and I believe there’s also a “No Turn on Red” sign as well.” The officer agreed that it was a pretty pickle. “You could have waited until another car came up behind you and triggered the light.”

“But it was six o’clock in the morning! Nobody comes down that street that early.”

“Yeah, I see your point, but you know, I don’t make the laws, I just enforce ‘em.”

(In the off chance the PD read this, officially I’m takin’ the Fifth.)

Afterwards, I called the Boro Council office, but they told me that since it was a state highway, the Commonwealth would have to change their law before the Boro could do anything. She then remarked, “Why didn’t you just go down Catherine or Fairview?”

Her logic was unassailable. If you don’t want to get caught at a red light, go around.

That was almost 6 months ago, and things remain pretty much as they were. No laws have been introduced or changed, and riders on both motorized and non-motorized conveyances remain subject to the unpredictable vagaries of technology, not that many of us ride in knee-deep snow. I thought about calling the PW folks and volunteering my bike to be their test platform, but I’m sure they would decline for liability reasons.

Still, there is that issue of safety. To venture into an intersection on two wheels against the light is really taking your life in your hands. Maybe it’s better to spend an hour or two waiting for either the light to change, or some helpful motorist to volunteer their magnetic mass. The lights, after all, are there for a reason.

And I guess I’m better off Red than dead.

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