Letting motorcycles drive through red raises safety debate

  • Jeff Woolard of Elgin, president of the Elgin Area Organization of Harley Owners, said he supports the law allowing motorcycles and bicycles to proceed through a red light after stopping. He has concerns about the potential for abuse because there is no specific length of time to stop before proceeding.

      Jeff Woolard of Elgin, president of the Elgin Area Organization of Harley Owners, said he supports the law allowing motorcycles and bicycles to proceed through a red light after stopping. He has concerns about the potential for abuse because there is no specific length of time to stop before proceeding. Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Jeff Woolard, president of the Elgin Area Organization of Harley Owners, sits among a selection of bikes at the Woodstock Harley-Davidson dealer. Woolard says being on a motorcycle and waiting for a red light to change has been a periodic problem for him.

      Jeff Woolard, president of the Elgin Area Organization of Harley Owners, sits among a selection of bikes at the Woodstock Harley-Davidson dealer. Woolard says being on a motorcycle and waiting for a red light to change has been a periodic problem for him. Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Jeff Woolard of Elgin, the president of the Elgin Area Organization of Harley Owners, supports the law allowing motorcycles to proceed through red lights after stopping, but is concerned about the potential for abuse.

      Jeff Woolard of Elgin, the president of the Elgin Area Organization of Harley Owners, supports the law allowing motorcycles to proceed through red lights after stopping, but is concerned about the potential for abuse. Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Jeff Woolard of Elgin, here near the intersection of routes 47 and 14 in Woodstock, is the president of the Elgin Area Organization of Harley Owners.

      Jeff Woolard of Elgin, here near the intersection of routes 47 and 14 in Woodstock, is the president of the Elgin Area Organization of Harley Owners. Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/7/2012 4:58 AM

Illinois' new law allowing motorcyclists to drive through red lights after stopping is drawing some questions because of its vagueness.

Motorcyclists now may proceed after stopping at a red light if a traffic signal fails to turn green within a "reasonable period of time." Bicycles also fall under the law.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Proponents pushed for the law by saying motorcycles and bicycles aren't heavy enough to activate road sensors that make a red light turn green when there is little traffic at certain intersections, regardless of a city's size.

A few opposing state lawmakers have raised safety concerns.

It's the lack of specificity on how long a motorcycle or bicycle must be stopped before going through a red light that has some suburban law-enforcement officials and others predicting aspects of the law will need to be addressed before too long.

Jeff Woolard, president of the Elgin Area Organization of Harley Owners, said being on a motorcycle and waiting for a red light to change has been a periodic problem for him.

"If I don't take off, and there is a car waiting behind me, they also sit in the intersection waiting for the light to trip," Woolard said. "It creates a safety problem."

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Woolard said he supports the law but is concerned about the potential for abuse because there is no specific length of time a motorcycle or bicycle must be stopped before proceeding.

Sharing Woolard's concern, Naperville police Sgt. Gregg Bell said the vague phrase "reasonable period of time" may prove to be one of the law's flaws that may wind up needing review.

"The potential does exist to become confusing, not only for officers, but motorists as well," Bell said. "Motorists on the roadway must be self-conscious of what is going on around them as they go about their business, but more importantly, motorcyclists need to be extra careful when deciding to do this."

Fox Lake Police Chief Michael Behan said his department would treat the law similar to a right turn on red. That means motorists must come to a complete stop, check both ways and make sure it's safe before proceeding.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"And, if an officer doesn't see the complete stop, or our red-light camera doesn't see it, then we will issue a ticket," Behan said. "But, there's another issue with the red-light camera. An officer will have to sit down and go through each video to make sure the stop was made. It will have to be looked at in each case."

Both the House and Senate last November overrode an amendatory veto by Gov. Pat Quinn to create the law, effective since Jan. 1. Chicago is exempted from the law.

Democratic state Sen. Gary Forby of Benton, who took the lead in pushing for the law, said during discussion in Springfield last year he'd expect motorcycle drivers and bicyclists to proceed as they would at a yield sign or unmarked intersection.

Forby said motorcycle and bicycle riders without the ability to activate road sensors deserve the right to proceed in lightly trafficked areas. Forby touts the law as one of his legislative accomplishments in 2011.

"So you're going ... to make a guy riding a motorcycle, you're going to (penalize) him," Forby said when the matter was debated. "Cause he's got a license, he buys a license, he's paid taxes on it. What the heck? What's the difference between a car and a motorcycle? They ought to have the same rights as a car, a truck, a pickup truck. All I'm asking is the same."

Forby, a motorcycle enthusiast, didn't return messages seeking additional comment. During the legislative session, he said he agreed to exclude Chicago from the law to "make 'em happy" and gain the needed votes.

Republican state Sen. John Millner of Carol Stream, a former Elmhurst police chief, backed the law. He said it's unlikely officers were writing tickets to motorcyclists who went through red lights and explained the sensors weren't tripped.

But Democratic state Sen. Susan Garrett, one of the few legislators to vote against the law, said it'll make the roads more dangerous particularly if a motorcycle takes off at the same red light where a car is waiting for the signal to become green.

"It's giving a certain group of drivers a convenience that sets a new standard for how we use red lights," Garrett said in a recent interview.

Garrett said she also has concerns about who's liable if the law leads to a crash.

Bell, an avid motorcycle rider, said he believes fault would rest squarely on the shoulders of a biker for not yielding the right of way.

"I do see the possibility of some confusion existing," Bell said. "I know I was confused when I saw this law passed."

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