Can you proceed through a red light not turning green?

Can you proceed through a red light not turning green?

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Maybe. You probably have encountered a location where you were stuck on a light for several minutes.  You even saw traffic on every side of the intersection move along a few times while you’ve been in the same spot. More often, this dilemma occurs with people riding their bikes or motorcycles. Apparently, the size of the bike isn’t large enough to trigger the sensors.  Many states are aware of these occurrences and explicitly permit motorists to proceed through a red light not turning green . [1] California does have a similar statute however there is one problem.

According to CVC 21800(d)(1),

“The driver of any vehicle approaching an intersection which has official traffic control signals that are inoperative shall stop at the intersection, and may proceed with caution when it is safe to do so.”

Legislators tend to draft laws with so much jargon but for some reason they don’t state the definition for the most critical terms. Here, “inoperative” is the operative word.  Prior to 2009, the law stated the provision of 21800 (d)(1) allowing you to go through the intersection only applied to “traffic control signals that were inoperative because of  battery failure.”[2]  Once again, what legislators considered a “battery failure” is left for speculation. The fact that “battery failure” was removed from the law strongly suggests an inoperative traffic signal can be expansive in its meaning.

When I ask police officers how they define “inoperative”, many of them aren’t aware this provision exists. Other officers say the lights have to be flashing red on all sides while other cops say the light has to be dead. Officers would much prefer you to make a right turn onto the adjacent road and a make a u-turn if possible. The consensus, nonetheless, is they will pull you over if they see you going through a red light. It’s understandable from the officer’s perspective why they would initiate a traffic stop. They probably didn’t see you stuck at the light and the light was red when you drove.  Moreover if you decide to tell the officer why you went through the light, please realize you just admitted to a pertinent fact that the state needs to prove in their case against you.  You do have the right to remain silent and you are not required to tell the officer your reason even if s/he asks for an explanation.

If you must go through the signal, make sure you’ll be doing so under the allowances of the law.  You need to “proceed with caution when it is safe to do so.”  Whatever this explanation translates into the real world depends on many factors.  If nobody is around and you’re not darting across the road, it shouldn’t be much of a problem since safety wouldn’t be jeopardized. If there is a constant flow of traffic or you rush through the light, then you likely won’t receive the leeway. Another thing you can do is record the event. I recommend having a passenger tape the progress. If you use your phone’s video camera, you can be cited for another traffic violation which I discussed in an earlier blog post.  You can also record other traffic at the intersection and catch any other vehicles experiencing the same predicament. You should also report the light to the appropriate transit authority. That specific signal can have a history and you might not be the only one who’s been wedged at that stop.

Nobody wants to be in a compromising position, but the law does recognize extenuating circumstances.  You may be cited by the police for going through the intersection but it doesn’t mean you’ll be found guilty in the court of law.

If you’re seeking legal advice, feel free to contact me here at the Law Offices of Mark A. Gallagher: (800) 797-8406 or email:

[1] See Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department Title 27, Subtitle 4, Chapter 52, Subchapter 2, Section 206 (exceptions for motorcycles) ; see Wisconsin Legislature: Chapter 346, Subchapter VI, Section 346.37(c) (exceptions for motorcycles).

[2] Amended in 2009 CAL SB 734.

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