Why some states block off roads to cyclists, but not motorcyclists

Written by Jänni Knisely, CNN

This story was originally published by Quartz

Intersections are notoriously dangerous places, which is why more than 80% of traffic-related deaths involve pedestrians or cyclists. According to the annual “Walking and Biking in the United States” report from the CDC, 76% of pedestrians struck by vehicles are not wearing a seatbelt.

Many of the nation’s arterial streets are blocked off by stop signs and traffic lights that don’t work 24/7 — a characteristic known as “motorcycle detection.” Before anyone goes walking at night, walking on the street at midday, or simply biking, that is a very dangerous situation for pedestrians and cyclists.

It’s because the nature of most motorcyclists is not that different from other vehicles: drivers see and respond to them in much the same way they see and respond to other cars and pedestrians.

There are a variety of national systems designed to differentiate that distinction. But for various reasons, the laws on motorcyclists detection vary widely by state, meaning that motorcyclists who live in one state can generally expect motorcyclists to walk on the street at any hour in another. The exception is Hawaii, where the lack of an interoperable system allows motorcyclists to ride on the street at any time.

The paradox

That disparity on motorcycling detection boils down to the state of Hawaii. In that state, motorcyclists are not required to stop at stop signs or other traffic lights. There are nine different exceptions to the normal rules of the road, including pedestrians and bicyclists.

For non-motorcyclists who live in places where motorcyclists must stop, a different law is in effect: The law in Hawaii is that motorists must “lawfully restrain” an unauthorized motorcyclist by stopping their car or truck and putting both hands on the steering wheel and at least one foot on the brake. However, as in so many other aspects of Hawaii, this law differs for “residents” versus those living in the Islands.

And therein lies the paradox: why can “residents” lawfully “handcuff” motorcyclists by stopping the car, but not if a motorcyclist is breaking the law?

The answer is the way that Hawaii’s motorcyclist detection is designed. Rather than implementing national, consistent laws that apply to all states, Hawaii has a more regional system based on the city of Honolulu, with both non-motorcyclists and motorcyclists protected by different standards.

This means that the Honolulu system defines “residents” as those who are close enough to the city center that a motorcyclist would use streets to make their trip. But the bill of particulars for one driving permit effectively defines residents as those who use much of the island of Oahu to get to the city, down to the coast or up to the mountains.

That means that residents get no benefit in the Honolulu system from being near a signal to signal, and none from being near a signal that is already working. There are ways around it — as some states have found to their chagrin — but these issues are mainly local and therefore difficult to solve.

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