I’m pretty sure the answer to this question has a lot to do with individual personalities and our aversion to risk. For some of us, breaking rules makes us break out in hives but for others, it’s a thrill.
So, when you’re sitting at an intersection and the red light doesn’t change, and doesn’t change, and…doesn’t…change, how long do you wait before you technically break a law?
These 12 people are confessing, and as I predicted, their answers are all over the board.
12. Make sure you tripped the light…
This is not an answer to your question but it reminded me of something that more drivers need to be aware of. I wish driver’s manuals touched on the importance of pulling all the way up to the stop line. Most people don’t know that there are sensors in the pavement just before the stop line that trigger the lights to change.
These sensors work the same way as the ones at drive throughs. They sense the weight of your car. When a car pulls up to the speaker, the employee gets a beep in their headset so they always know when to take your order. I used to work at a drive thru and some really light vehicles would not trigger the beep. It was usually a small motorcycle (the bigger ones were not a problem). After a while, they’d pull ahead to the window rather annoyed that no one was taking there order.
I’d have to apologize and explain that their vehicle was to light to set off the sensor. Lol. At an intersection, if there are no cars on the stop line across the road and no pedestrians pushing the walk button, the traffic lights will not change. You will sit there forever and probably run the light eventually. You’ll notice this at night when there is little traffic.
During the day, you’ll rarely notice because there is constantly another car or a pedestrian triggering the lights to change. I’ve been stuck behind someone who stopped short of the stop line a few times. It can get a little frustrating. Spread the word 😆
11. Only a first time driver.
This happened to me decades ago. I was seventeen. I’d had my full license for a year, and had driven on a learners permit with an adult in the car for almost a year before.
I had an after school job about 10 miles from home (we lived in the suburbs of DC.) There was no direct bus service from home or my school, to work, so I drove myself.
For months, there was no traffic light at a particular intersection where I had to make a left turn from a heavily traveled secondary road onto a four lane divided highway. The intersection was just below the crest of a hill to the left, making it difficult to see oncoming traffic. At night, it was easier, because you could see the sweep of someone’s headlights coming, once they rounded a curve on the other side of the hill and before you could see their car.
The county decided to put in a traffic light at that intersection. For almost three weeks, the light was not turned on. Then, it was turned on, but set to flashing red on the smaller road, and flashing yellow on the highway. This meant it was still treated as a stop sign for the smaller road.
A friend lived near my job and would often came home from work with me on Friday afternoon. I would drive her back to her house, usually after dinner. On a particular Friday in October, the light was still on flash when we left for my house, but when I took her home that evening the light had apparently been turned on. It was solid red for the feeder road, and green for the highway when we arrived at the intersection.
Luckily no one came up behind us. We waited 10 minutes (we timed it) before I made the decision to treat the light as a stop sign.
After waiting for a clear space on the right, and making sure there were no cars or lights visible from the left, I made my left turn onto the highway and proceeded east.
Immediately after doing so, a car zoomed passed in the west-bound lanes at a very high rate of speed. My friend remarked that she wished a cop was around because ‘that guy’ was clearly speeding.
About two miles down the road, east-bound, I was pulled over and given a ticket by a cop in an unmarked car. The ticket was for running a red light.
Because I was under eighteen, I couldn’t just pay the ticket, I had to go to court, and a parent had to go with me. I had told my dad what happened. He said, only I could explain it to the judge.
I went prepared. The judge first asked the policeman to detail why he gave me a ticket. He said as he was driving west on the highway, a car popped out, ran a red light and turned left in front of him,
When called, I admitted I had run a red light, but asked if I could explain why.
In short, I said this – “I had driven that route at least five days a week for the past year and a half. The light in question was newly installed. It been set on flash for weeks, but only that evening when I came to it, it was solid red. I had waited for more than ten minutes, then decided to treat is as a stop sign.
The judge had a chalkboard in the courtroom. I asked if I could diagram the intersection. I drew a curving highway, pointed out the crest of the hill, and explained that if the officer had been traveling at the speed limit at the time I made my turn, he could not have seen me pull out of the intersection without me seeing his headlights coming from the left first.
The judge addressed my dad who said I’d never been in trouble, and to the best of his knowledge that I was a conscientious driver.
The judge dismissed my ticket. He told me if I ever came to a light like that again, I should wait all night rather than run the red light.
The judge also said, in open court, that he personally knew that intersection and if what I described was true, the officer (who was present) should pay more attention to his own driving.
The next time I met that particular cop, he was driving a marked car. For at least a year after the red light incident, he made it a practice to pull me over every few weeks or so, just “to check my license.”
10. Just read the manual.
I think (not 100% certain) that every US state has a driving manual that states what to do for an inoperative light.
The standard circumstance is to treat it like a stop sign and go when it’s safe to do so.
But there are things to consider in determining whether a light is actually inoperative.
Watch the lights to confirm any change in cycles, including changes in cross traffic lights. Wait several minutes. Some lights can have a 5 minute delay. It’s maddening, but I’ve seen it happen.
Make sure the light is not red because of a nearby railroad. This happens a lot in my city, and a train can make the red light last for a minute or so even after the train has passed.
Do not call 911 unless you’re reporting an accident. 911 dispatchers need to address emergencies, not traffic regulation. You can call a non-emergency law enforcement line. In the US, 411 is the number to dial for information services. It’s automated, so just ask for the police department of the city you think you’re in. Again. Do not dial 911.
If you get pulled over and ticketed for running a red light, do not pay the fine. Instead, go to the hearing and explain what happened. Most judges will drop it.
I knew somone who ran a red light because it was at an intersection where several people were loitering. The area was notorious for waiting for cars to stop at a red light, and people would go so far as to break a window in order to rob the driver. My friend slowed to make sure there wasn’t any side traffic, then she ran the light. She did call 911 to report the gang at that intersection, and that was an acceptable use of 911 services.
Be patient. Be diligent. Be cautious. Be safe.
9. I would never wait ten minutes. Lol!
Over 35 years ago this happened to me. And I got a ticket, tried to fight it and lost.
Myself and 3 friends where headed home on Main Street at about 12:30 am. As we approached the last light on the south end of town it was red so we stopped and waited, and waited and waited. With no other traffic in sight the light stayed red for us for over ten minutes. We even tried stupid things like backing up a few car lengths and pulling forward again. When that did not work one of my friends got out the passenger side door and started jumping up and down in the other lane like it had a pressure sensor. Obviously that did not work. So after being stuck at the red light for over 15 minutes and had not seen one other car I decided to drive through. I was not even half way through the intersection when the police lights came on. Sitting part way down the block in the dark was a cop just waiting for someone to go through. As he lectured us on being safe and the entire time he had us detained we kept referencing that the light still have not changed. All he said was it did not matter.
When I went to court to contest I explained the entire situation to the judge he said he was aware of the broken light and had spoken with the police officer, who was not in the court room, and informed me that I could have turned right and made a U-turn and turn right again. I agreed that was an option but I explained I was in the left lane and that would have required me to make a right hand turn from the left-hand lane. He said it was safer than going through the light. I said there was no traffic for miles and the police officer had been waiting for someone to go through the broken light.
At that point I realized nothing I said or did was going to change the out come. So I said I have nothing else to say and was fined double the ticket for …. As the judge put it “wasting the courts time”
8. I’m off to read my rule book.
How about when it is actually legal to do so?
Back in NH, just about all of the traffic signals are ”on command” – they have a default configuration where they yield a green light to one set of traffic, and only change when they detect a vehicle waiting at the light.
They detect vehicles via inductive loops placed into the road, and they are usually placed right before and up to the “stop lines” at the intersections. (Which screws up people that like to pull past the lines, because they may not be detected and will be waiting a long time for that light to change. But I digress.)
Anyway, these loops are often tuned for automobile traffic and are sometimes not sensitive enough to detect a motorcycle waiting at the light. Or they might not be placed correctly due to construction error, repainting of lines that move them sightly, obstruction in the lane (like a manhole cover), etc.
NH has (or had last time I checked) a law/regulation that allowed a motorcycle to “run” the light if it does not change within a “reasonable” amount of time. If there was no other traffic present, the light would usually change within 10 seconds.
Had to do it a few times in the past. Never got ticketed, nor would I have expected to.
7. If you want to get technical about it.
The average traffic light in America cycles every 120 seconds. Some 10 or 20 seconds longer, many much shorter.
Personally I will wait 4 minutes. If the light hasn’t cycled by then it’s malfunctioning. Treat it as a 4 way Stop sign and proceed with caution. Especially if drivers going the other way are starting to go as well. A little caution and courtesy and people can work it out until a Cop comes and pulls out the “Pickle” and resets the light.
No Cop would write a ticket for that that I ever knew and my department had 2000 sworn Cops. I also am Certified in 3 States and know of nobody who would (that said there is no accounting for the dicks of the world…know what I mean?). So never say never. Highly unlikely. Especially if traffic has backed up a bit and it’s obvious what’s going on isn’t just you being impatient. If you wanna be super safe look at your car clock and actually time out 4 minutes. Then you can say I pulled up to this light which was already red and sat here from 2:04 to 2:08 and nothing happened.
BTW…if you want to know what a “Pickle” is I will tell you. At every intersection with an Electric Control device (a light instead of a sign) you will find on a pole a metal box the size of a College mini fridge. It is called a “Traffic Box”. Cops are given a Traffic Box key to open it. Inside is a remote control on a cord that looks like the cord from the old phone you used to have in your kitchen. This remote is called a “Pickle”. It has buttons that allow you to control the Traffic Light manually. Cops use it to over ride the cycle and clear out traffic when there is a jam. You let the problem road run and run for 5 minutes or more then every once and awhile let the secondary road run a bit to clear out the few people waiting to cross the intersection. It is a very effective way to clear out a big traffic jam at an intersection.
6. Someone’s full of opinions.
Many many many years ago I went for a “ride along” with a policemen. (I write scripts) Anyway I was not to “Interfere in anyway.” At about 3am in the morning we came up behind a car stopped at a red light that never changed. We could see miles in both directions. Finally the car went through the light and the policeman turned on his lights. I became very vocal at that point. I remember saying something about “What, is it against the law to show a modicum of intelligence?” along with a continuing tirade of other opinions. The officer reminded me of my commitment and I shut my mouth.
After he came back to the car I was totally silent. After a while he made a comment to the effect that wasn’t I going to ask if he gave the motorist a ticket. Sarcasm being one of my strong points I said, “So, did you reinforce their opinion that all cops are idiots?” He didn’t answer. After a long silence I apologized for the crass comment and did ask if he gave the motorist a ticket. He did not.
He might not have stopped if I had not been in the car, then again he may have given the ticket if I had not been in the car.
5. They’re still cowboys in Texas.
The answer is probably different from one state to the next. In Texas, it’s written into the state traffic code that if a traffic signal is not working, it is legal to proceed with caution when it’s safe to do so.
The tricky part is this: many traffic signals are triggered by some type of traffic sensing device. In some places it’s a camera-like device mounted overhead, but in most places, it’s a wire loop embedded in the pavement that senses chances in the magnetic field they generate. These can be really problematic for motorcycle riders, especially if they’ve done some street maintenance that involves adding a layer of asphalt without replacing the magnetic loop. The loop will still work fine for cars and trucks, but once it’s too deep in the asphalt, it won’t register the presence of a motorcycle, particularly a more modern one with an aluminum frame instead of a steel frame. There just isn’t enough ferrous metal in a motorcycle to trigger a magnetic loop that’s embedded too deep in the pavement. In the state of Texas, state law requires triggered traffic signals to be able to detect and respond to the presence of a motorcycle, but I have encountered many signals that will not. You could be stuck there for a very long time before a car or truck comes along behind you to trigger it. So technically, the signal is not working as required by Texas state law. However, the cops may well be completely unaware that it’s not functioning properly because it still works just like it’s supposed to for cars and trucks. So they could easily ticket you if you run one on a motorcycle because they may not believe you when you tell them the light is not working properly.
I have, on more than one occasion called city hall where I live to complain about tripped lights that do not detect my motorcycle. Their standard response is “those magnetic loops are not designed to detect a motorcycle,” which is a load of crap because the office where I work is a gated complex where there is a magnetic loop in the pavement controlling the exit gate, and it’s never had a problem with my motorcycle. After arguing with them that they are wrong, I finally quote, chapter and verse from the state traffic code that these lights MUST be able to detect a motorcycle. When I threaten legal action based on state law, they finally do something…..but instead of repairing the magnetic loop so that it functions properly, their answer has always been to change the light so that it’s timed instead of being triggered by traffic.
4. So you’re just supposed to sit there forever?
In my state (New Jersey) the basic philosophy in most precincts is that running a red light is running a red light. If a cop sees you running a light for any reason, you will be ticketed. If your excuse is that the light was broken, they don’t want to hear it. This actually happened to my office manager some years ago. She fought the ticket, and lost. Had she taken time to document that the light was nonfunctional (with a video, for example, or a series of time-stamped still photos) she might have had a shot. But I doubt it.
You have to keep in mind that the vast majority of traffic citations have nothing at all to do with traffic safety; they are revenue generators — an easy way to raise cash without raising taxes. Cops have quotas (oh, yes they do), and roughly 90% of the tickets they write are complete BS. Be especially careful of motorcycle cops — that’s coveted duty, and if they don’t write a minimum of 20 tickets (an entire book) per shift, they get busted back to patrol cars. Nobody writes BS tickets like motorcycle cops. Cynical, but true.
Should you encounter a frozen red light situation, common sense says if 5 or 10 minutes elapse and the light is still red, treat it like a 4-way stop sign and proceed with caution. But if you’re in the Garden State, make really sure there are no cops around — and no stoplight cameras on the poles — before you run the light.
An alternative strategy is to make a right turn — which is always legal, unless you’re in New York City, or there is a sign prohibiting right turns on red — and basically go around the block.
3. Every situation is different.
Are the lights red in both directions? They are supposed to blink, but if not, I’d wait a couple minutes and then treat it as a four way stop.
But if only my side lights stay red, it requires more thought. The traffic affects my choices.
If possible, turn right on red, then find a u turn or turnaround location to get back to the intersection and continue.
But often, you won’t be in the right lane of a multi lane road. Turning right from the left lane, especially a left turning lane, could be a traffic law violation too. As well as being dangerous if traffic is present.
When traffic is present, even the right turn can be a problem. If there are vehicles waiting behind you, the situation also gets complicated.
You could try calling the local police, and get advice or wait for assistance.
But that will take time, and would waste police time if you could safely pass through the intersection during a break in traffic.
I would usually wait through about three normal light cycles, about three minutes. I might go a little earlier if there is no visible traffic, especially late at night, and more especially in big city where unruly pedestrians might take advantage of a stopped vehicle.
Motorcycles don’t always trigger the road sensors, so they can run into this situation more often. But very large vehicles like buses and trucks have another problem.
Doing a u turn or finding a location to turn around is often impossible. On a highway, the next intersection could be miles away. Turning right from the left lane could risk hitting other stopped vehicles in that direction, and the intersection layout may make it hard to do the turn without crossing the oncoming lane, and its traffic Island.
I’ve run into this problem at a highway intersection where there is a light after the ramp. Traffic backs up because you are waiting, and you know you can’t safely do anything other than turn left as planned or go straight. Your vehicle will hit something if you turn right, crossing the median if nothing else.
The only safe thing to do is wait until there is no traffic, and proceed carefully through.
2. You’ve gotta stand up for yourself.
This actually happened to me on a Thanksgiving morning some twenty years ago. I waited and waited and waited at a red light at an exit from my neighborhood. The main street was virtually deserted. After waiting several times more than what I knew the cycle of the light to be, I once again looked for traffic in both directions, saw zero cars in motion and pulled out making a left-hand turn…
And immediately got pulled over.
I explained to the officer how I had waited an unreasonably long time at the light, that I come out at that light every day and know how long the cycle is, that it was Thanksgiving morning and I was in no hurry to get anywhere, that I had used every safety precaution before making the turn, etc. He wrote me a ticket.
So I went to court. When they finally called my name, the officer and I stood facing the judge. The judge asked me what happened and I said exactly what I told the officer. The judge turns to the officer and said, “Is that what he told you?” The officer said it was. Then the judge asked him why he had given me a ticket at all and dismissed it.
I had to take the ticket to the administrative counter. The clerk there looked at the dismissed ticket and said, “The judge must be in a good mood today.” I replied, “Or maybe it was a ticket that should have never been issued in the first place.”
I knew I was right, but that in no way means anyone ever agrees with me. I was really surprised at how it turned out, considering the purpose of the police force of this small town was to generate revenue to pay for the police force to generate revenue to pay for the police force…
Eventually the small town was unincorporated and the police force was disbanded, but I’m still here and still feel vindicated.
1. It’s almost like he was waiting for someone.
In Indiana they recently passed a law called the stale light law where if you sit through one full cycle of the light and it doesn’t change, you can them proceed with caution. When I was about 22–23 I was on my way home from work on my crotch rocket. I’ll admit I took the long extra time way home and went for a ride at night. I only had my permit which you’re not supposed to ride at night, your also not supposed to have a passenger and you’re supposed to be wearing a helmet.
It was about 11:30pm and I my defense I did get off work late that day. I pulled up to a turn lane and say there in the past for about 4–5 minutes before someone pulled up behind me and the light turned. This time however I was tired and ready to go home and shower as it was a hot day and muggy night and I’m not a small guy so I was sweaty and stinky. I sat there for about 45 seconds to a minute then I went.
Sure enough there was a sheriff sitting in the church parking lot. He immediately hit the light and siren on me. I was only 2 streets away from home and still had my work shirt on. He asked me where I was going and I told him. He said well you ran the red light. I acknowledged that fact and told him I’ve sat numerous times at the light waiting. He told me with a permit I couldn’t be riding at night. I told him I just off work. He told me I had my helmet but it wouldn’t do me any good strapped to the side of my bike(he’s right).
Mid conversation he got a call and told me I was lucky he did and if he hadn’t my bike was going to be impounded. He told me to get home, in not so nice of terms. He put his car in reverse, hit the lights and sirens and burned out. I was lucky. The next day I went and got my endorsement.
I’m probably somewhere in the middle, myself, but there’s nothing worse than being stuck at that light behind someone who is less of a risk-taker than you are!
What’s your answer? Lay it on us in the comments!