Red means stop, except for bikers in Kansas
Elly Blue is on a monthlong Dinner & Bikes tour around the western U.S., along with Portland bike filmmaker Joe Biel and traveling vegan chef Joshua Ploeg. This is one of her thrice-weekly dispatches from the road about bicycle culture and economy. Read them all here.
Topeka, Kan.: “It’s OK to just go here,” said Meredith Fry as we pedaled up to a red light near Washburn University. She slowed down, looked both ways, and rode right through the red signal.
I put my foot down and looked around nervously before following her. We had just passed three police officers on bicycles — the last thing I needed was a traffic court date in Topeka next month.
And to tell the truth, I was a little shocked. Sure, I’ve seen plenty of people run red lights, but I was unprepared for such behavior from this mild-mannered biology student who happens to be the spitting image of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz (or at least, what I imagined she looked like when my parents read me the book when I was 4 years old).
But running that red light wasn’t such an un-Dorothy-like thing to do, according to Fry: “We have a ‘dead red’ law now.”
Thanks to a new traffic law, she said, as of July 1, if your bicycle doesn’t trigger a red light to change to green, you can use your judgment and go ahead through it.
I realized if it was true, this was huge news for cyclists. States around the country have been trying to pass laws allowing people on bicycles to yield at red lights and stop signs rather than adhering to stricter rules intended for heavier, faster cars. Nobody since Idaho in the early ’80s has managed it. (Another name for dead red laws is “Idaho stop” laws.) For whatever reason, bicycles are still too controversial, and advocates don’t have the clout and money to reshape the rules of the road to make sense for bikes.
But here in the Midwest, bicycles aren’t the only two-wheeled vehicles with a legislative agenda.
While in Topeka, I got to talking with local bike advocate Rebecca Martin. She’s a member of the Kaw Valley Bicycle Club, a group of roadies — recreational bike riders — who are shifting gears to become more of an advocacy organization. The club helped pass the law (one of its members happens to be a lobbyist) which includes a rule requiring drivers to give at least three feet of leeway when passing a cyclist.
But Kansas’s new dead red law, Marin said, was actually spearheaded by motorcycle advocates. The state’s motorcycle police officers came out in support of the law.
I was floored. Could Kansas have just passed an Idaho stop law, and done so totally under the radar? When Meredith Fry rolled safely and cautiously through that red light, was it really a legal maneuver?
The answer is a big maybe. It’s all in the legal language: The Kansas dead red law allows motorcycles and bicycles to continue through a red light if it doesn’t change in a “reasonable” amount of time — a vague measurement at best. For Fry, reasonable meant no time at all: She encountered this light every day and knew that there was no way for a biker to trigger it. Whether or not a police officer or a judge would agree is another question.
But until it’s worked out in court or the legislature, it seems that Kansas’s newest bike advocates have achieved what seasoned organizations in Oregon, Utah, and elsewhere have failed to do time and again: pass a functional Idaho stop law, at least as far as traffic lights are concerned, and do it entirely without raising a fuss.
As for the Kaw Valley Bicycle Club, Martin wrote to me later that they’ve kept busy riding during the summer, but as soon as winter hits the Midwest they’ll be having another planning meeting. “We need to turn our attention to publicizing the new laws and identifying other goals to work towards,” she wrote. “I’m excited about the future.”
So am I.
Get Grist in your inbox