57

In some cases, when a traffic light has an inductive loop sensor, it is possible to approach a traffic light prepared to make a movement (through or turning), only to find yourself sitting at a red signal for your movement for several traffic light cycles. This can either be due to incompatibility between your vehicle and the inductive loop sensor in the pavement that tells the traffic light that somebody wants that movement (a common problem for bicyclists and motorcyclists), or due to an outright failure of the sensor loop or controller.

Of course, notifying the local authorities (via a non-emergency means) of the issue is recommended, as they can't fix what they don't know is broken, but it may take hours or even days for a technician to show up to address a defective (not just incompatible) sensor or controller, and repairs could take longer yet, depending on the situation. So, in the meantime, what can/should a driver do about their predicament, keeping safety as the first priority?

I ran into this in a car in the USA, by the way, but as mentioned, cycles (manual or motored) are known to have compatibility issues with inductive loops, so answers for two-wheeled vehicles and other countries are welcome as well.

  • 11
    For larger vehicles, reversing and then pulling forward again to trip the sensor a second time sometimes works. For a fully functional sensor this has the benefit of changing the light faster as well. – Roddy of the Frozen Peas Dec 16 '18 at 19:11
  • 15
    So jurisdictions put the sensor back from the intersection, roughly where a second car would sit. If I've identified one of those, I wait in the 2nd car position until someone pulls up behind me, then move up. Hi, home town of Columbus, Ohio! – mkennedy Dec 17 '18 at 0:15
  • 8
    There are very often problems with the inductive loops buried in the road, not just because they are not sensitive to small vehicles/motorbikes etc., they are also highly prone to damage over time due to the vehicles passing over them. In many places the traffic detection loops are being replaced by doppler radars that detect the motion of the vehicle approaching, or by 3D camera systems that can detect the arrival of the vehicle at the lights. – uɐɪ Dec 17 '18 at 8:35
  • 30
    When a detector fails, it is supposed to (and usually does) fail "on", so the intersection always thinks there is a car waiting. Source: I work in the industry. – studog Dec 17 '18 at 15:26
  • 18
    Cyclists always have the option of turning into pedestrians. This is a very useful ability in these circumstances. – TRiG Dec 17 '18 at 16:46
69

Some jurisdictions may have laws that specifically address this situation. For example, in Colorado, CRS 42-4-612 says:

Whenever a driver approaches an intersection and faces a traffic control signal which is inoperative or which remains on steady red or steady yellow during several time cycles, the rules controlling entrance to a through street or highway from a stop street or highway, as provided under section 42-4-703 , shall apply until a police officer assumes control of traffic or until normal operation is resumed.

Which basically means, come to a complete stop and yield to cross traffic, proceeding only when it is clear.

So you may want to try to look up the law in your jurisdiction.

As another alternative, in some places, and in particular in nearly all of the US, it is legal to make a right turn on a red light. So if you're in such a place, and there is no sign forbidding it, and there is a road to your right, you can simply turn right and then find a different route to your destination.

Otherwise, if you have a phone, I would try to call the police. If traffic is backing up at the intersection, or you see other drivers doing unsafe maneuvers to get out, I would say it's justified to use the emergency number (112/911/999/etc). They could send an officer to manually direct traffic, or at least to shut off the signal so that it is equivalent to an all-way stop. That should be much faster than the hours or days that might be needed to make complete repairs.

  • 29
    "in nearly all of the US" - The major exception is New York City, which bans right on red unless a sign permits it. You should see signs warning you of this fact as you drive into the city, but they may be easy to miss depending on your route. It should also be emphasized that the vast majority of states require the driver to come to a complete stop and yield to cross traffic before making any turn on red (but then, doing otherwise is mildly suicidal). – Kevin Dec 17 '18 at 6:38
  • 12
    A dashcam can help you demonstrate the defective signal if it comes to that. – Johns-305 Dec 17 '18 at 13:39
  • 4
    Note that the right-on-red solution doesn't work if you're sitting in a left-turn-only lane left of other lanes that go straight and/or right. – WBT Dec 17 '18 at 20:50
  • 1
    @WBT: In such a case, if traffic permits, I would try to change to the right lane, backing up if necessary. – Nate Eldredge Dec 17 '18 at 21:03
  • 2
    @Johns-305 Even if a driver doesn't have a dashcam installed, after observing the situation they can still take out a camera or smartphone camera to document how the light doesn't change through several cycles. – WBT Dec 17 '18 at 21:27
11

As of 2016, there were 18 states which allow "running a red light" under some circumstances. On this web page from bikebandit.com we see 16 states, plus two more, Oregon and Kentucky, added later:

Original 16 states documented

  • In Washington State we only have to wait one cycle! I've been waiting too long! Woohoo! (Also, in Washington State we can turn right on red against a red arrow if we come to a full stop! What excellent traffic laws we have!) – davidbak Dec 19 '18 at 22:44
  • 1
    Rule of thumb: posting a screenshot of text is much less optimal than posting the text itself. – Roddy of the Frozen Peas Dec 19 '18 at 23:21
  • 3
    @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas, You're free to edit the post and type the text into a table. The source page didn't have text, only a graphic. I did grab the image and get it into imgur, so if the page goes away, we'll still see it. – Dale Dec 20 '18 at 0:59
  • 1
    @Dale - And how does that help people using assistive technologies (eg screen readers) or those of us browsing from corporate networks which block imgur? – Roddy of the Frozen Peas Dec 20 '18 at 1:06
8

The first option, if safe to do so, is to roll or drive back a bit and pull up again.
For a two wheeler going a diagonally can help at times.
Sometimes waiting for a car to pull up behind you may help, as they might have what is needed to trigger the lights.

But if this does not work, waiting till the lights are turned off at the end of the day seems the only 'legal' way in most areas. * See note at bottom of the answer.
(This is a bit of a joke, nobody will wait for hours, even when sure the system goes to 'sleep'.)

Mostly the traffic laws are rather local, state in the USA, country or province in Europe, sometimes even city in some areas.
But most seem based on the same basic rule, do not drive through red.

On the other hand, it is known to be a problem and the accepted solution in most areas is to wait a few cycles and then move forward with the next cycle's green on the lane besides you. Be very careful and only do it when it seems safe.
Wait for a break in the traffic you need to cross or wait till the people in that stream of traffic recognize the problem and allow space for you to pass through.

And do consider cameras which may be hidden to catch driving through red.

Of course, you should inform the local authorities who are in charge, so they can repair or change the signalling in that crossing.

As someone riding bicycles and tricycles I am too familiar with traffic lights not reacting.

  • Note, not all traffic lights go into 'sleep mode' when not needed, many go on 24/7. Others 'sleep' only at night, switching to just warning lights or a system of yellow/amber for one road and blinking red (stop sign) for the other.
    Some sets of traffic light are programmed to become active when there is a given amount of traffic and go in active when there is no traffic for a given time.
6

A solution frequently used here in British Columbia is to get out of the car and press the pedestrian crossing button, which forces the lights to switch faster than they would otherwise. Some drivers even carry a telescopic stick in their car to make it possible to press the button without leaving their vehicle. This is most commonly used where it otherwise takes a very long time to get a green, but it should work at an intersection where the car sensor is broken for some reason.

The above solution obviously only works at intersections which have pedestrian crossings, so it wouldn't be of much use on rural highways.

  • 2
    Why would pressing the pedestrian button make the light for the cars go green? Can you explain why that works in British Columbia? – Ferrybig Dec 18 '18 at 9:23
  • 5
    @Ferrybig Pressing the button sends a separate signal to the control switch that there is a pedestrian waiting to cross the street. In cities where pedestrian traffic flow is important, this can be an effective way to shorten a light signal. The catch is that most cities have pedestrians cross at the same time as parallel traffic and some constant cycle lights don't have buttons at all for that reason (i.e. the light cycles every 30 seconds, regardless of traffic) – Machavity Dec 18 '18 at 13:33
  • 2
    @Machavity at least in Vancouver, most traffic lights outside the city center have very long cycles for crossings over major roads, unless a button is pressed. – JonathanReez Dec 18 '18 at 17:48
  • 1
    For those who are not aware, in BC pedestrians have right of way over vehicles at crosswalks, which in practice means most intersections. Vehicles are legally obligated to stop and allow the pedestrian to cross. (This also makes it easy to tell the out-of-province drivers without looking at their license plates.) – mickeyf Dec 19 '18 at 22:10
  • @mickeyf Is indicating the pedestrian right-of-way not the main purpose of a crosswalk everywhere? – Matthew Read Dec 19 '18 at 23:36
5

Traffic laws vary from place to place.

IANAL but in that situation on a cycle I used to feel justified in handling it as per a defective light, with double-extra caution knowing that the cross-traffic sees a green and won't be assuming a four-way stop.

On a bicycle though an easy, obvious, other solution is to get off the bike and walk, pushing the bike -- i.e. do what a pedestrian does to cross the road -- and then remount.

Assuming the problem is an inductive loop, that may be another solution for a car driver -- i.e. pedestrians never trigger the loop, instead they may have a 'pedestrian crossing' button to push to trigger the light change for a pedestrian crossing. Perhaps you could exit your vehicle briefly (whether that's technically legal, IDK) to push that button.

  • 8
    Neither are traffic lights, are they? Anyway I was suggesting that if you can't trigger the induction loop, neither can a pedestrian, so do what a pedestrian might do. – ChrisW Dec 17 '18 at 7:08
  • 5
    @O.R.Mapper The traffic light and pedestrian crossing light usually both turn green in the same direction at the same time. For example if you're northbound and stop at a red light, then the east/west lights are green for traffic and pedestrians (traffic that's turning must watch for pedestrians crossing and give way to them). Activating the northbound pedestrian crossing may cause the northbound traffic light to change too (or even if not, the east/west traffic may be stopped for the pedestrian crossing). – ChrisW Dec 17 '18 at 9:57
  • 2
    Outside the US there seem to be fewer 'fixed' combinations, giving often giving pedestrians and sometimes cyclists their own green cycle. – Willeke Dec 17 '18 at 14:42
  • 2
    @HenningMakholm, they will have a button or a fixed cycle. But the pedestrian lights are not always coupled with the cars going in the same direction. Sometimes all pedestrians can cross at the same time, all around the cross roads. Other times only one lane can be crossed per cycle. (Quite common in the UK.) And here (the Netherlands) the way the pedestrian lights work can be different from one set of traffic lights to the next. – Willeke Dec 17 '18 at 18:33
  • 2
    Intersections (or "crossings") in America tend to be more standard, rectilinear. The only "stop all traffic so that all pedestrians can go anywhere" that I've seen are semi-experimental and only on busiest major downtown intersections where there's a lot of foot-traffic. – ChrisW Dec 17 '18 at 18:37
3

If it is safe and permitted¹ to do so, make a U-turn and take a different route to your destination. Inform the local authorities so they can urgently repair the light.

In the USA and Canada, you may be able to turn right, then make a U-Turn (again where it is safe and legal to do so) thus approaching the intersection from a direction where the traffic lights hopefully are working.

Unless you are sure there are specific laws that allow driving through a red light when the light is broken, and you are willing to risk fighting in court to prove that this was indeed the case should you be ticketed through an enforcement camera (or take your loss and pay the unfair fine), you don't really want to drive through a red light with a car.


¹Mark comments that a U-turn in the middle of the street is illegal in most jurisdictions in the US; I'm used to Europe where I'm not aware of such rules, but if true, that makes it much harder to do anything that is both legal and practical.

  • I'm having some trouble imagining a scenario like this where it would actually be "safe and permitted" to make a U-turn. You can't enter the intersection against a red light to make a U-turn, and I don't think it's generally legal to make a U-turn elsewhere than an intersection. – Nate Eldredge Dec 17 '18 at 21:06
  • 1
    @NateEldredge Drive straight back / make a three point turn... that's allowed on most roads / streets. – gerrit Dec 17 '18 at 21:20
  • @gerrit, a U-turn in the middle of the street is illegal in most jurisdictions in the US, but it's only enforced if you crash or otherwise attract the attention of a police officer. – Mark Dec 17 '18 at 22:04
  • 1
    @Mark Interesting. I've done such three point turns many times during driving lessons and occasionally in reality. – gerrit Dec 17 '18 at 23:05
  • 1
    @Mark Do you have a citation for "most jurisdictions"? In WA state, it requires you only to be done in a safe manner and visible from both directions to at least 500 ft (so you can't do it near an obscured corner, for example). – TemporalWolf Dec 18 '18 at 19:07
1

Change your route

A top mistake that causes dangerous maneuvers is when a driver absolutely refuses to change his route to adapt to conditions. “Oh my God, I must make this corner/ramp or I will DIE". No you won't. But you darn well could die or kill from that hare-brained maneuver you are about to attempt.

So recognize, in that situation, that your "need" to make that particular movement is not written in stone.

I'm afraid that "lets the air out” of my answer, not much more to say. Except It is legal to drive your car in reverse anywhere it can be done safely, except a freeway.

That's my go-to maneuver in that situation: back the car up enough of a distance so I can change lanes un-awkwardly to a working lane from which I can craft a workable route.

I used to do this very slick maneuver, I learned from a dear old friend, where I would make the first lane change while backing up, and the second lane change forward. But I no longer do that because half the time, when I start the backing maneuver, it steps on the sensor and immediately flips the light my way. Now I am ready for that.

A cop watching you do this is going to err on the side of the safest course; the sure way to get a ticket is do a less safe thing when a more safe option is available to you. And the cop doesn't give a damn about what your intended route is, so "but I need that turn" will not persuade.

  • You're sitting in the left-turn lane at a light. There's a line of cars behind you, and you've been looking at a red left-pointing arrow for several cycles of the lights for the busy through-traffic lanes to your right. What change in route do you recommend? – Mark Dec 18 '18 at 20:50
  • @mark "line of cars behind you" was not a condition discussed by the OP. And in my experience it's an uncommon condition. The sensor missing one car happens. The sensor missing five cars is unlikely, not least because when the first car escapes everyone moves up, and if the sensor was looking at a car it couldn't see, now it's looking at one it can see. Regardless even if there was a line, herd mentality applies: you do what the last guy did, probably in the same opening. – Harper Dec 18 '18 at 21:18
-1

In the USA, the easiest way to get a signal light to change is to flash your high beams multiple times, similar to a cop car with their siren lights on. All signal lights are designed to change for emergency vehicles. There have been a few times where my vehicle was not recognized being in the lane and thus I would simply flash my high and low beams multiple times until the signal light started to change. I probably wouldn't do this if there is a cop near by as I don't want to chance having the officer pull me over but it does work!

Now mind you, this is for a working signal light. In the case where the signal light is not working (steady red or yellow or all signal lights flashing red or yellow) then follow the law in your area.

  • Do you have a source to indicate this works? – Mark Mayo Dec 19 '18 at 0:53
  • 1
    This is an urban myth. The lights do not have a sensor for detecting your headlights. The lights work on a combination of a fixed time cycle and radar/loop detection and, if you had just sat there being a good citizen and obeying the signals, they would have given you your turn. When they change after you flash your lights makes you feel that you have some form of control rather than being at the mercy of the machine! – uɐɪ Dec 19 '18 at 11:41
  • 1
    "All signal lights are designed to change for emergency vehicles." - maybe, but wouldn't that rather happen by means of some electronic signal (the same way as it works for buses in some countries) rather than through a half-hearted attempt at image recognition? – O. R. Mapper Dec 19 '18 at 17:27
  • _ uɐɪ _ Once upon a time, some traffic lights were equipped, but no more. – K7AAY Dec 19 '18 at 23:27
  • youtube.com/watch?v=_1cgE2GaFko ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ – MrWonderful Dec 20 '18 at 0:40

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.