NMA E-Newsletter #233: Back to the Basics on Red-Light Violations

With all of the news lately about how shortened yellow lights lead to more red-light running violations, we thought it would be helpful to take a look at what actually constitutes a red-light running violation. Turns out it’s a little more complicated than you may have thought.

For red-light violations (typically included in the broader category of “failure to obey traffic control device” violations), most states use what’s known as the “touchdown rule.” This means that if your vehicle breaks the plane of the intersection before the light turns red, you have not committed a violation, even if the light turns red while you’re still in the intersection. As an example, here’s how Oregon’s law reads:

A driver facing the light shall stop at a clearly marked stop line, but if none, shall stop before entering the marked crosswalk on the near side of the intersection, or if there is no marked crosswalk, then before entering the intersection. If a driver cannot stop in safety, the driver may drive cautiously through the intersection.

Pretty straightforward, but not every state does it this way. For example, Louisiana’s law says something quite different:

Vehicular traffic facing a steady yellow signal alone is thereby warned that the related green signal is being terminated or that a red signal will be exhibited immediately thereafter and such vehicular traffic shall not enter or be crossing the intersection when the red signal is exhibited.

This means that even if you enter the intersection on yellow, if you’re still in the intersection when the light turns red, you may have committed a violation. Again, pretty straightforward.

In some states, however, the law is not so clear. Wisconsin’s law reads:

When shown with or following the green, traffic facing a yellow signal shall stop before entering the intersection unless so close to it that a stop may not be made in safety.

This is a little more ambiguous than the prior two. In order to enforce this kind of law, the evidence would have to clearly show that your vehicle could have stopped safely but didn’t—for example if you blatantly sped up to make the light.

This all raises a good question: where does the intersection begin in the first place? The intersection is defined by the extension of the curb lines along each side of the cross streets, which form an imaginary box. The crosswalk and a painted stop bar are typically behind this point (closer to approaching traffic).

If you think the intersection begins at the stop bar or the cross walk, you’re likely to cross that line on a yellow light innocently (and mistakenly) believing you made it into the intersection on time. If the yellow light turns red during the fractions of a second it takes to cross between the stop line and the intersection boundary, a citation can be issued. At a red-light camera intersection, this ticket is automatic.

Another consideration is where do you actually have to stop. Local rules may vary but the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), Section 4D.04, provides a good starting (or stopping) point:

Steady red signal indications shall have the following meanings: Vehicular traffic facing a steady circular red signal indication alone shall stop at a clearly marked stop line, but if there is no stop line, traffic shall stop before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection; or if there is no crosswalk, then before entering the intersection, and shall remain stopped until a signal indication to proceed is shown . . .

If you receive a violation for running a red light (photo-enforced or otherwise), take some time to read the statute you’re accused of violating.  Also review any “evidence,” such as photos and video footage in the case of photo ticket.  You may be surprised at what you find and you may be able to use it to win a dismissal.

To look up the red-light running law in your state, search your state’s motor vehicle code looking for the category “Failure to Obey Traffic Control Device” or something similar.

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