Home Buses Flashing blue lights no longer an SBS hallmark

Flashing blue lights no longer an SBS hallmark

by Benjamin Kabak

Due to a state law, the MTA has turned off the flashing blue lights on its SBS vehicles. (Photo by flickr user Stephen Rees)

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.

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Spiderpig January 18, 2013 - 2:24 pm

An even worse part of the law is that it doesn’t allow flashing blue lights to be rear facing on emergency vehicles, so police cars can only have them facing forward unlike other states which want to help you identify their emergency vehicles with blue lights, a color not included on normal cars.

Dave A. January 20, 2013 - 9:09 pm

That is incorrect.

NY State law allows flashing blue lights on the rear of emergency vehicles, and 360 degrees on volunteer firefighters vehicles. Blue lights on the front of anything other than a volunteer firefighters vehicle is illegal in NY State.

That is why you see the blue LED signs on the rear of NYPD vehicles, and flashing blue lights on the rear of FDNY trucks.

Aaron Priven January 18, 2013 - 2:44 pm

We had a similar situation in California, where we wanted to put multicolored headsigns on the front of AC Transit (Oakland) buses, and the California Highway Patrol decided it would be a good idea to give us tickets. Ultimately we got a law passed allowing us to use all colors except red.

BrooklynBus January 18, 2013 - 3:04 pm

How could white lights be the only allowed color on non-emergency vehicles?. Don’t some cars use yellow for directional signal?. And what about the red lights in the rear?

Benjamin Kabak January 18, 2013 - 3:09 pm

Those are other lights required by law which don’t fall under the provision concerning colored and flashing lights. If you really want to read the entire thing, knock your socks off. I oversimplified it for the sake of clarity here.

Someone January 18, 2013 - 3:51 pm

Don’t some cars use yellow for directional signal?

That’s allowed.

And what about the red lights in the rear?

The red light in the rear is also allowed.

Patrick January 18, 2013 - 3:27 pm

Aw, i’ll miss those blue lights (and probably a Uptown M15 too.)

BTW, what are the lights on Non-SBS buses for? Is it for visibility during poor weather or emergencies?

pete January 20, 2013 - 4:07 pm

The 2 lights on the sides of the destination sign are yellow. There is a silent alarm the driver has. If he hits the switch, the yellow lights turn on, all outside destination signs say “call 911”. Also the radio is silenced and a automated message sent over the radio channel. Cops are supposed to pull over and storm the bus if they see a bus with that on the outside. http://blog.wtfconcept.com/wp-.....tf-bus.jpg

Patrick January 20, 2013 - 11:16 pm

Ok, so in layman’s term, it’s for emergencies. I was wondering because a couple of years ago there was this major rainstorm that reduced visibility to near-zero & nearly every bus I saw had flashing amber lights.

Also someone please explain why the 2011-13 Non-SBS Artics have blue lights. I’m starting to think Nova Bus installed these lights without being aware of our law.

Someone January 21, 2013 - 9:50 am

This was so regular buses could make runs on SBS routes, were a SBS bus to go out of service.

Though, I think Nova Bus definitely wasn’t aware of our law, and maybe MTA wasn’t aware, either.

Patrick January 21, 2013 - 11:43 am

MTA & Nova Bus messed up on this one. Staten Island politicians are so anal about the smallest things. I don’t see how a flashing white light can be seen in broad daylight, in light-blitz Manhattan, or anywhere else. Blue was efficient in recognition from a distance, day & night.

“Hey next dime-a-dozen Chairman, Brooklyn is overdue for it’s B44+SBS or B46+SBS. Queens is overdue for one too”

Someone January 21, 2013 - 7:05 pm

“Hey next dime-a-dozen Chairman, Brooklyn is overdue for it’s B44+SBS or B46+SBS. Queens is overdue for one too”

B46 +SBS.

“Hey next dime-a-dozen Chairman, the three LaGuardia SBS bus routes don’t go across the entire borough. We need about 5 more SBS routes in each borough…”

Patrick January 21, 2013 - 8:03 pm

No, +SelectBusService was supposed to be implemented on the B44, TWO YEARS AGO!! The B46 is a suggestion, considering the fact it has/had the highest ridership in the US

Someone January 22, 2013 - 12:55 pm

The B44 SBS was supposed to be implemented in 2011.
The B46 SBS is planned for Phase II of SBS.

John January 18, 2013 - 3:47 pm

You would think, before introducing a whole new fleet of these buses on several SBS routes, the MTA and anyone else involved would have checked to see if these flashing bright blue lights would be violating any motor vehicle laws. That’s almost common sense to me. I wonder why, now, all of a sudden, it’s an issue that they’re paying attention to.

Benjamin Kabak January 18, 2013 - 3:54 pm

It’s an issue the MTA is now paying attention to because of the stink raised by the SI representatives I named in the article. Why they care so much when Bronx and Manhattan officials didn’t is up for conjecture.

SEAN January 18, 2013 - 4:52 pm

Somebody in SI was pissed off at the MTA & wanted to stick it to them by invoking this little known statute. Well that’s what it semes like to me, but I’ll defer to you Ben having a law degree.

Someone January 18, 2013 - 7:35 pm

I wonder why SI, out of all boroughs, wanted to have this rule enforced, especially considering it’s NYC’s smallest borough. (Naturally, the borough with the larger population would file a lot more complaints about SBS.)

Alex C January 19, 2013 - 11:36 pm

Because the yucky bus carrying plebeians taking up a lane is annoying to them and they dislike it.

Someone January 18, 2013 - 3:53 pm

Naturally, you’d think that the MTA would choose a more noticeable color for their vehicles. The SBS buses are supposed to have their own bus lane anyways, and the blue lights alert the motorists in front of the buses, that the motorist has to move out of the way.

Berk32 January 18, 2013 - 5:15 pm

So some random politicians think a ‘victory’ is forcing the MTA to spend $ to fix a problem that wasn’t really a problem anyone cared about… great….

John-2 January 18, 2013 - 6:16 pm

Have the route sign flash or go through some distinct blinking pattern that is visible from a distance and can be tied to SBS routes. Crisis solved. Angry SI politicians foiled.

Duke January 18, 2013 - 6:20 pm

I would rather turn them to solid on than off, but perhaps they aren’t programmed for that.

But really now. The blue are far less intense than those of an emergency vehicle. Also, from a driver’s perspective, you’re guaranteed to be moving faster than the bus is, so you will see the bus from behind first. It won’t show up behind you before you see it like a cop car can. Besides, if it’s in the bus lane…
If any motorist has ever been confused by those lights, they would have to have been grossly oblivious to their surroundings and they shouldn’t be driving.

Mika January 19, 2013 - 12:47 am

I’m trying to think of what other colors they could even really use for SBS besides blue. Obviously, red and yellow are both right out, being used for signals as well as police/emergency lights. Green seems a bad idea considering it could be confused for a traffic signal by some idiot and then the MTA would have a whole ‘nother wave of politicians riding its proverbial ass. Obvious sarcastic suggestions include pink and purple. I do recall seeing some of the older “boxy” articulated buses that weren’t marked for SBS being used on the Bx12 SBS one summer, and they used orange lights for the flashing SBS signals. Maybe they could just switch to that.

Someone January 19, 2013 - 8:29 am

Green, orange, red… those are all good ideas.

Alex C January 19, 2013 - 11:40 pm

Green is also one of those emergency colors, sadly. It’s for volunteer ambulances (though here in NYC, I’ve never seen one). At this point, just use violet or something. Can’t use white since…well then it just looks like regular lights.

Someone January 20, 2013 - 8:45 am

Well, I actually did see a SBS bus with amber lights once (it was on one of the older, squarish 2-door articulated buses). Maybe the rest of the SBS buses could switch to that color instead. Violet and magenta aren’t good choices, because they both burn out too easily.

Alex C January 20, 2013 - 1:32 pm

Amber could work, but there are two issues: it looks like hazard lights blinking, and whatever other purpose the top-mounted amber lights have has to be considered. What *is* the purpose of those? Only time I’ve seen them blink is on an out-of-service bus passing through.

Someone January 20, 2013 - 6:04 pm

The MTA could install them on the newer buses, but it would take a lot of money, maybe even more money than it takes to implement SBS in the first place.

Also, it could be a hazard if SBS buses are blocked by non-emergency vehicles that aren’t turning.

Clarke January 19, 2013 - 2:06 pm

When the SBS comes, it is an emergency. “Get out of the way, locals coming through!”

Alex C January 19, 2013 - 11:46 pm

Use violet or magenta. Still clear enough colors and they’re distinct enough where the people who got their drivers licenses in cereal boxes shouldn’t get confused.

Dave A. January 20, 2013 - 9:01 pm

I have been writing about and fighting the blue lights on the buses for a while. When I wrote the MTA a couple of years ago, a customer service manager responded with, “MTA New York City Transit consulted with the NYPD before we instituted the use of blue lights on Select Buses. The NYPD cleared us to use the lights.”

As was evident in the Pete Donohue article about the lights, the MTA and at least one member of the NYPD was ignorant on the law. As people are often told when pulled over or ticketed for violations, ignorance of the law is no excuse.

The confusion of concern was less about if the bus was an emergency vehicle, it more that if NY City residents traveled outside of NY City, and a volunteer fire fighter or police officer with blue lights was behind them, the NY City resident may not think anything of it and not pull over. That would put the driver and emergency responder in danger. That is what the desensitizing Senator Lanza and Councilman Ignizio were referencing.

Lastly, the V&T Code in question is not peculiar, nor hidden within the V & T law. Every state has laws regulating the use of colored and flashing lights on vehicles.

Dave A. January 20, 2013 - 9:04 pm

There is a missing word in the third paragraph, line one. There should be a “was” between it and more.

Clarke January 21, 2013 - 5:02 pm

Yes, they would see flashing lights on a fire truck or ambulance and hear a siren and think, “By golly, that must be a Select Bus Service.” What a load of bull.

Dave A. January 21, 2013 - 5:42 pm

All fire trucks and ambulances (paid or volunteer) in NY State have red or red & white lights, along with the allowance of blue in the rear. 95% of fire departments in NY State are volunteer.

Volunteer firefighters do not currently use sirens in conjunction with the forward facing blue lights on their own vehicles. So currently, a vehicle with flashing blue lights on the front does not have sirens to warn other drivers that they need to pass.

So, drivers from NY City COULD have a vehicle with blue lights (and no siren) behind them in NY State; PA; NJ; CT; AK; IA; IL; IN; or SD and think, “By golly, I think i can continue driving in front of the vehicle with the flashing blue light… it must be just like those buses in NY City that mean nothing.” I have been a firefighter for 20 years… and am often stuck behind people that do not pull over to allow me to pass. They may be unaware of what the light means and continue on their way (like SBS desensitization), they could know it is a courtesy light and decide not to be courteous, or they may not even see the light if they are not using their mirrors properly by looking in the rearview as often as they should.

And again, the most important aspect is it is illegal for MTA to use the lights under current legislation. Even the NY State Police had to lobby the legislative branches in order to add blue lights to the rear of the vehicles. The attorney general opined in 2003 “that under the present legislative scheme, the affixation of blue lights to any motor vehicle other than a vehicle owned or operated by a volunteer firefighter is prohibited and, therefore, one or more blue lights may not be affixed to State Police patrol vehicles.” Source: http://www.ag.ny.gov/sites/def.....2%20pw.pdf Why should the MTA be exempt if even the NY State Police were not exempt?

Chris January 21, 2013 - 7:33 pm

As a driver, I can say I have confused the blinking blue lights of the bus for an emergency vehicle, but only for a second, before I realized it was a bus. I quickly got used to it, and it hasn’t been a problem since. The benefit of being able to identify a SB approaching a bus stop far outweighs the slight-to-zero distraction I had as a driver. Nevertheless, it is a law, so…

Kevin Geraghty January 21, 2013 - 11:48 pm

I never heard such politacal B.S. in my life. WHO in their right state of mind cant tell the diffrence betweenan emergency apperatice an a transit bus Give me a break please!

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines January 22, 2013 - 8:59 am

[…] All SBS Blue Lights Switched Off After Vincent Ignizio Mistook a Bus for a Police Car (TransNat, SAS) […]

Mark January 22, 2013 - 10:50 pm

You are missing a very important detail:

The blue lights used on the Staten Island version of SBS were different from the other routes. They were MUCH brighter and strobed with each flash.

If you saw one in your mirror at night it actually WAS easy to think it was an emergency vehicle, since you usually see the lights before the actual police car anyway.

If the MTA had used the same intensity lights that they’d been using, this would not have been a problem.

Jordan January 24, 2013 - 12:54 pm

This is insane. As someone who takes the SBS 10+ times a week, there’s absolutely no way you can confuse it with an emergency vehicle. Now you have people running after local and express buses alike causing much more of an every day safety hazard than was claimed by these irresponsible government hacks.

So in the name of bad legislation and stupid hypothetical confusion, the riders lose…As usual.

Hank January 28, 2013 - 4:42 pm

As an SBS customer, this is annoying. I look for the lights to plan my commute (do I walk to the Lex line or not?).

When can we give Staten Island back to New Jersey?

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[…] two Staten Island politicians more concerned with space for cars rather than the letter of the law raised a stink over SBS’ flashing lights, I figured turning off the blue indicators would have an impact on the service, and a recent […]

Jeff L March 18, 2013 - 5:22 pm

Another reason to look forward to MTA Bus Times. Then again, what are the chances of it coming out on time.

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Ben September 16, 2013 - 1:57 pm

MTA and NYPD ignorance is astounding.

Linda September 21, 2013 - 4:50 am

You would think that the MTA would choose a more noticeable color for their vehicles. The SBS buses are supposed to have their own bus lane anyways, and the blue lights alert the motorists in front of the buses, that the motorist has to move out of the way. (Agree?)

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