Legally Speaking: When Good Lights Go Bad

Q: I have a few regular training routes here in town. One route in particular is a great ride, except for one little problem: There's a traffic light that just won't change for me.

I try to observe the traffic laws, but waiting around until a car comes along to trip the signal just isn't working for me. What can I do to get through this intersection without becoming one of those cyclists everybody loves to hate?


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A: Triggering traffic signals has often been a difficult job for cyclists. Although the loop sensors embedded in the roadway are designed to detect metal above the sensors, they are sometimes only capable of detecting large masses of metal—something, say, the size of a motor vehicle.

So when you ride up on your sub-twenty pound bike—which might even be made of carbon fiber, instead of metal—the loop sensor doesn't even know you're there. So what can you do, short of waiting for a car to come along and trip the signal for you?

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Fortunately, every state allows you to treat a light that won't change as a defective light, and if a light is defective, you're allowed to treat it as a stop sign. But first, before you decide the light is defective, try triggering the loop sensor by angling your bike down closer to the embedded sensors.

If that doesn't trigger the signal, the light is defective, and you're free to proceed, as long as you're not violating the right of way of any oncoming traffic.

More: 10 Things I Learned From Being Hit by a Car

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Author of Bicycling and the Law, Bob Mionske represented the United States in cycling at the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games. Email your cycling-related legal question to

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