Is It Always Illegal to Run a Red Light?

By: Attorney Christine A. Gimber – Weld Riley, S.C.

It is likely that most motorcyclists have encountered the phenomenon of stopping at a red light only to be left sitting, waiting for the light to turn green.  The light seems not to realize the cyclist is present and continues to stay red.  Worse, a line of cars begins piling up behind the rider, honking their frustration at being held up behind a motorcycle that can’t make the light change.

The weight of a vehicle doesn’t matter when it comes to tripping a red light.  So bouncing up and down on the seat of your cycle won’t make any difference (though it might be amusing to other motorists).  Rather, a vehicle actuated light senses metal and most motorcycles don’t contain enough metal for the light to detect. 

So can the cyclist run the light?  Yes – at least in Wisconsin.  If a motorcyclist (or even a bicyclist) finds themselves stuck at a red light that refuses to change – for at least 45 seconds – they can run the red light – if they can do so safely.  That is, there can’t be any cross traffic or any traffic turning from another direction that would make proceeding unsafe. Likewise, there can’t be anybody in the cross walk.  Also, you have to reasonably believe that the light is “vehicle actuated” – tripped by the presence of a vehicle. Don’t use the exception in the law as an excuse to run red lights.  You will be ticketed!

In addition, if there is a car behind you, impatiently waiting to go, waive them around you because that will trip the light to change green.  The law states that you can’t run a red light if there are other cars available that can trip the light. 

Finally, some law enforcement professionals aren’t aware of this law.  For this reason, it’s a good idea to be aware of the statute that permits running a red light on a motorcycle – write down or just remember section 346.37 of the Wisconsin Statutes.  If you are questioned by law enforcement for running a red light, cite the law that lets a motorcyclist do so in these limited circumstances. 

Ride safe and keep the shiny side up!