Solutions sought for traffic-signal sensors failing to detect motorcycles

News Pennsylvania House of Representatives June 05, 2006
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Pennsylvania State House Transportation Committee Chairman Rick Geist (R-Altoona) recently said that traffic-signal sensors failing to detect motorcycles stopped at intersections is a problem in the Altoona area and across the state, and he has pledged to work with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) to solve it.

Geist and members of the House Transportation Committee convened in Altoona last week to tour some local intersections and witness the problem for themselves. They were joined by Charles Umbenhauer of the Pennsylvania Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education (ABATE), and John Ambrosini, PennDOT's Dist. 9-0 traffic engineer.

"The problem is that many of these sensors, which are embedded in the pavement at the intersections, are activated by a certain level of metal mass," Geist noted. "When a 2,500-lb car pulls up to the light, the sensor detects it with no problem and the red light eventually turns green. When some motorcycles pull up to that same traffic signal, they're not equipped with enough metal to activate the sensor. Most motorcycles these days are composed more of aluminum and plastic than of steel.

"Consequently, the motorcyclist waits in vain for the light to turn green. He has to hope a car or truck pulls up behind him and activates the sensor, or else use his own judgment to proceed through the intersection."

As for the latter alternative, Geist noted that the State Vehicle Code includes a provision for malfunctioning traffic signals. The code states that if faced with that situation, motorists can treat the signal like a Stop sign. They can come to a full stop and then proceed cautiously through the intersection.

Local intersections that Geist and the committee examined last week were:

• Frankstown Road and Park Avenue (northbound Park Avenue left turn into Franktown);

• Frankstown Road and Fairway Drive (westbound Frankstown Road left turn onto 1-99);

• Plank Road and Good's Lane (northbound Plank Road left turn onto Good's Lane); and

• Plank Road and Frankstown Road (westbound Frankstown Road left turn onto Plank Road).

At each of those intersections, a road test was conducted by ABATE members using a lighter sportster motorcycle and a heavier full-dressed Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The lighter motorcycle failed to activate the sensors at all four intersections. The heavier motorcycle failed to activate sensors at two of the four intersections.

"When a full-dressed Harley, one of the largest motorcycles out there, fails to trip the sensors, you know there's a problem," Geist said.

The problem, said Umbenhauer, is more about safety than it is about inconvenience.

"We are pleased that we have forged a very good working relationship with Rep. Geist, the House Transportation Committee and PennDOT," he added. "I'm confident we will work together to rectify this situation."

While the problem is frustrating to motorcyclists, what is even more frustrating to them is that the sensors are equipped with sensitivity settings that can be adjusted so that the sensors can detect motorcycles. However, Ambrosini noted that those adjustments often can result in "crosstalk" between sensor loops, where a vehicle in the adjacent lane activates the sensor.

Ambrosini acknowledged that last week's road test illustrated the frustration that many motorcyclists experience when pulling up to red light.

"PennDOT thanks the ABATE organization for conducting this road test of motorcycle detection at various signalized intersections in our area," Ambrosini said. "The department will assist those municipalities in resolving the detection problem that may exist at these locations, with technical and field support. The department is regularly proactive when it comes to traffic signals and related safety concerns."

"This is a serious safety problem, not just here in Altoona, but around the state," Geist said. "The legislature fully intends to work with PennDOT on solving it."

For now, Geist recommends that motorcyclists make sure to position their motorcycles three feet to the right or left of dead center in the sensor loops embedded in the pavement to maximize the possibility of activation. He also suggests reporting malfunctioning traffic signals to local municipal governments.

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