Buried deep with the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Laws is a peculiar provision governing the use of flashing lights on motor vehicles. The law states that, except as otherwise outlined, only white lights may be used outside of vehicles. Those exceptions, as you may have guessed, cover emergency vehicles. Blue lights, for instance, may be used only by volunteer firefighters and, in combination with red and white lights, by other emergency responders on their vehicles.
“That’s great, Ben,” you may be thinking, “but why should we care about flashing blue lights?” Well, since 2008, when the MTA and DOT launched Select Bus Service, the city’s half-hearted attempt at a bus rapid transit network, the MTA SBS vehicles have been adorned with flashing blue lights to distinguish these vehicles from local buses. Today, the MTA issued an order rescinding the use of such lights and a statement:
Reacting to specific concerns, MTA New York City Transit has agreed to turn off the flashing blue lights that have served to alert riders to the arrival of Select Bus Service buses (SBS) since the speedier service was introduced. This measure is being taken to eliminate the possibility of confusing the vehicles with volunteer emergency vehicles, which are entitled by law to use the blue lights. We are currently in the process of developing an alternate means of identifying SBS buses.
The statement and its timing are both interesting. The MTA doesn’t make a nod toward the Vehicle and Traffic Law provision which it has ostensibly been violating, and it’s unclear if anyone in enforcement actually cared. A 2010 Pete Donohue piece on the questionable legality of the flashing blue lights featured a NYPD Highway Unit captain who had no idea the blue light law was even on the books.
Yet, this dispute arises from somewhere, and for that somewhere, we turn our eyes to Staten Island. Staten Island has never been much for road re-allocation, and some politicians raised a stink when the MTA added SBS lanes to Hylan Boulevard. State Sen. Andrew Lanza and City Councilman Vincent Ignizio issued a call this fall for the MTA to change the lights. The two were concerned that drivers would become “desensitized” to flashing lights.
Another SI rep added a gem: “These were highly distracting, partially blinding and made drivers unreasonably nervous when they saw flashing blue lights in their rearview mirrors,” Assembly member Joe Borelli said. I’m not sure how many times people have confused the sky blue SBS lights with a volunteer fire fighter’s car or a police vehicle, but I digress.
This whole dust-up seems to be the perfect storm of careful planning and needling politicians looking to make a point. The MTA will have to pay to retrofit its Select Bus Service vehicles with other flashing lights, and a group of Staten Island politicians can claim political victory over that meddlesome new bus service. And to think, all of this could have been avoided if the MTA had simply consulted with lawyers familiar with state law in the first place.