The meaning of a red traffic light is open to interpretation

Date:June 7, 2007 / year-entry #205
Orig Link:
Comments:    51
Summary:It seems a sure-fire way to get a lot of good comments is to write about traffic lights or crazy driving, so I'm going to combine the two and write about crazy driving at traffic lights. Then my comments will set a new record. My friend The Knitty Professor told me about the time the...

It seems a sure-fire way to get a lot of good comments is to write about traffic lights or crazy driving, so I'm going to combine the two and write about crazy driving at traffic lights. Then my comments will set a new record.

My friend The Knitty Professor told me about the time the sister of one of her friends came to visit from another country. The sister was driving through the streets of Boston with my friend among the passengers, and she drove straight through a red light.

After my friend checked that she was still alive, she pointed out politely that the traffic light they had just driven through was in fact red.

"That's okay," the sister replied. "I'll stop at the next one."

Update: See a comment from the Knitty Professor herself for additional clarification.

Comments (51)
  1. right says:

    Is it allowed to turn right at a red light in boston?

  2. Adrian says:

    Yes, every state in the U.S. allows a right turn on a red light, traffic permitting, AFTER making a complete stop (unless there’s a sign explicitly stating otherwise).

    Massachusetts was the last state to adopt this rule back in the late ’70s, when the federal government threatened to withhold highway funds from states that didn’t allow right-on-red.  (It was an energy conservation measure.)  Massachusetts then marked LOTS of intersections with "No Right on Red" signs.

    Running a red light in Boston is a pretty common thing.  I’d be surprised if any locals who witnessed it even batted an eye.  After all, Boston is the birthplace of "beat the green" left turns.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think if I remember correctly you can’t make a right turn on red in NYC.

  4. Pete says:

    Everyone (well, almost everyone) knows that in Boston, yellow means gun it, red means three or four cars may still go through, and green means stop, because three or four cars are coming.

  5. Hexar says:

    What about left turns on red on one-way streets?  I can never remember if you’re allowed to do it if you’re ON the one-way or if you have to be turning onto one.  Or are both legal?

  6. Anthony Wieser says:

    It gets worse Raymond.  

    I remember back in college talking to some guys from the east coast.  They were discussing green jumping, which is the complement of running reds.

    Some cities on the east coast were apparently notorious for it.  A quick google turned this up about Philadelphia:

  7. Encrypted says:

    From a recent thread on an internal DL Raymond?

    [Coincidence, as you would know if you read the internal pre-blog. This item has been in the queue for over a year. -Raymond]

    In Redmond near MSFT campus:

    Green means go

    Yellow means speed up

    Red means haul arse.

    Stop signs are advisery only.

    It is legal in Washington State for a motorcycle to turn left on a red light at all intersections under certain circumstances.

  8. Nerf says:

    Yes, right turn on red is always illegal in NYC.

  9. Nerf says:

    I was walking along in Shanghai (one of the most advanced cities in China) a few years ago when I heard a lot of cars honking.  After a quick inquiry it seems they were all honking because the car had been silly enough to stop at a red light.

  10. dave says:

    It may be different elsewhere, but here (Ontario, Canada) it’s legal to turn left on a red ONLY if BOTH the street you’re turning from and the street you’re turning onto are one-way.

  11. Jor says:

    Was this friend dutch perhaps? Traffic lights here are optional mostly.

  12. Steve Downey says:

    "How to tell if you’re American"


    "You drive on the right side of the road. You stop at red lights even if nobody’s around. If you’re a pedestrian and cars are stopped at a red light, you will fearlessly cross the street in front of them."


  13. Anthony says:

    A note… Pittsburgh is famous for the "Pittsburgh left". The first car turning left at an intersection without left turn green light is expected to pound the gas and get through before oncoming traffic goes.

    The Pittsburgh Post Gazette and Tribune Review ran several articles last summer on this phenomenon. The problem is mostly our terrible roads (in condition and unforgiving geometries).

  14. buzz says:

    After my friend checked that she was still alive, she pointed out politely that the traffic light they had just driven through was in fact red. (ακολουθεί μνημειώδης ατάκα)

  15. squidbot says:

    I lived in Boston for a year (coming from Washington State) and quickly learned that the adage "In Boston, traffic signals are suggestions" was very true. I also heard the term "Masshole", but I found that drivers from Rhode Island and NY were actually bigger jerks. The Mass drivers were crazy, but not especially rude.

  16. John C. says:

    What about left turns on red on one-way streets?

    Depends on the state. In California, left on red is permitted only from one-way street to one-way street. In Washington, it’s permissible to a one-way street from one-way or two-way streets. (Here in Seattle, there are a number of the latter type of intersections that are explicitly marked with signs like "left on red permitted after stop".)

  17. ::Wendy:: says:

    Glad to contribute to record-setting comment numbers.

    In the UK the traffic lights are generally lower-down,  you can’t see them from as far away.  When the lights go from green to amber you need to start stopping because they don’t stay amber long.

    I moveed to the US,  I saw a light turn from Green to amber,  I started breaking to stop at the line,  a Native driver rear-ended my hire-car.   I’ve since learned that the time the amber light actually warns people a long way away from the light that they are going to have to stop,  not the people near by,  they just keep on going.  

    This subtle shift in use means I’m likely to shoot red lights in the UK,  forgetting how quickly they change…

  18. Krenn says:

    >What about left turns on red on one-way streets?

    Depends on the state. […]

    There are actually five states where it’s legal to turn from a two-way street to a one-way street: Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Michigan.

    In 8 states (plus DC) it’s never legal, and in the rest it’s only legal from a one-way to another one-way.


  19. bellinghamcoder says:

    what about when the one way streets consist of multiple lanes? I go when the light is red, but my wife thinks its illegal.

  20. Christian says:

    Living in Boston, I can attest that right-on-red is allowed.

    There is one place on Washington Street (about a block from the RMV) that is actually a left on red.

    As the old joke goes … straight-ahead on red is not currently legal, but the Mass. Association of Tow Truck and Junk Yard Operators are lobbying hard for it.

    Seriously though, a die hard Bostonian knows where and when signals are, well, optional. The city streets are such a warren of one-ways, crazy intersections and bizarre turns you can be lost for hours just trying to get from Faneuil Hall to the Common if you don’t know the tricks (BTW, this is about a 10 minute walk).

    If you live in the North End (where I do) you also learn when one way, no parking and double parking are either optional or pragmatically mandatory. The cops generally know too. I’ve double parked outside the Rx, gone in, filled a prescription and left while a couple of cops chatted not 10 yards away.

    Of course, if you’re from out of town, and don’t know … which is why many Mass. residents refuse to drive in Boston.

    Come visit, enjoy, but look twice before crossing, even – or especially – on one way streets ;)

  21. Wolf Logan says:

    I keep thinking of parallels between "rules of the road" and "API documentation".

    1) There’s a lot one might be able to get away with, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe.

    2) Everything works better when everyone’s following the same set of rules.

    3) "Asking on forums and blogs" isn’t the same thing as "checking with the authorities". On the other hand, it does give a good feel for what everyone else is doing (re. #2 above).

    4) When an authority stops one from doing something that breaks the rules, one tends to get indignant, especially if one’s gotten away with it many times before.

  22. dave says:

    Back in DEC, there was a story (probably apocryphal) about the time that Dave Cutler was in Seattle, looking for office property in which to establish DECwest. Dave wanted to get as far away from New England (and DEC HQ) as possible.

    Sitting in the rightmost lane at a red light, he suddenly realised he should have been going in the opposite direction on the same road. So when the light turned green, he made a rapid 180 deg. turn across six lanes.

    The cop that pulled him over allegedly opened the conversation with "Let me guess. You’re from Massachussetts."

  23. Keep in mind also that just because something is "allowed" (isn’t prohibited) in a certain state doesn’t mean it can’t be prohibited by localities within that state.  So before you charge your way through that red light on the basis of what you believe the state allows, make sure you’ve read up on the local ordinances too.  :)

  24. Eric TF Bat says:

    Seeking to be part of this record comment thread, here’s the news from Australia.  (Remember we drive on the left side of the road, like all properly civilised nations, so if you’re reading this from a contrary tradition, rotate everything through the 4th dimension in your head to follow along).

    The left-turn-on-a-red-light option exists here, but only if there’s a sign saying so.  A lot of people refuse to trust it, perhaps thinking it was put there by sneaky traffic cops as a quick revenue raiser.  I got used to it from living in Sydney, where the traffic lights are older (and therefore stupider) and it’s essential if you don’t want to be stuck for hours.

    Melbourne, our second-largest city (and the one with the best cafes) is odd.  They have tramlines throughout the city, so if you want to turn  right at some controlled intersections, you have to move into the far LEFT lane and wait until the light turns red, then gun it and cross over in front of the rest of your side of the road.  As odd as it seems (and it gets a lot of derisive comment from the rest of the country) it actually works well.  The trams are certainly worth it; they beat buses and even trains all to hell.

    Melbourne is also the place where they say you should always stop at a green light to let the taxis go across.  I thought they were joking until I visited: one weekend, four taxis passed beside me or in front of me through red lights.  Freaky!

  25. Chris says:


    Without these sort of maneuvers, one cannot get anywhere in Houston, TX.

  26. DriverDude says:

    Adam, the LAW is more-or-less consistent across the entire U.S. The law says red light means stop. It’s how the cops interpret the law that makes it interesting.

    I’ve taken driving tests in two states and they were both localized to the region. They don’t ask about out-of-city rules.

    NYC is special because, well, it’s New York City. Among other things, they have a blanket exemption for no-turn-on-red. They, like many other cities, also have a law against jaywalking (walking across the street against a red light, or crossing in the middle) But New Yorkers feel it’s their right to jaywalk and their previous mayor caused a big stink trying to ticket jaywalkers.

    Here in California, turns on red are allowed (unless prohibited by a sign, obviously) But it’s very dangerous for pedistrians because right-turn drivers often only look left to make sure there’s no on-coming traffic – they do not stop, nor do they look to their right to make sure nobody about to cross in front of them. (If the car is facing a red so is the person. The person is therefore trying to cross perpendicular to the car’s original direction.)

    With so many people walking around NYC, it makes sense to ban turn-on-reds.

    California also has different yellow times at different intersections. It’s safer and more efficient to remember the different durations because the locals know (and expect you to know) and drive accordingly.

  27. DriverDude says:

    A friend of mine came back from Italy and told me how his taxi ran a couple of red lights. His driver explained, "Red lights are, how you say, a ‘suggestion’"

    A Frenchman told me it’s safer to speed up before crossing against red, to reduce the time spent in the intersection.

  28. Moz says:

    In Sydney (Oztraya) we definitely have a big difference between the written rules and the driving. As a cyclist I’ve observed that the rules for motorists are: green means go, you have 0.1s to start moving or get honked; orange means speed up or get run over; red counts as orange for at least 3 seconds and after that it’s a give way sign. The numbers on signs are minimum speed requirements and the white lines at intersections mean "drivers head must be behind here". Turning on your hazard lights exempts you from all parking restrictions, lane markings are advisory only and bike lanes are reserved for motorists.

    Cyclists get different rules: red lights always mean "give way"; footpaths are shared paths; shared paths are full speed roads; lights and (compulsory) helmets are optional; and most importantly, whatever happens, it’s your fault. Mainly, cyclists are beneath the law, so you have to do something dramatic to get the attention of the powers that be. Getting killed does it (see above: it’s your fault), but the flip side is that you really have to go out of your way to be ticketed – just being no helmet, no lights on the footpath at night is not enough, you also have to cut off the cops then swear at them (my housemate managed that one). Unless you’re black, in which case DWB rules apply.

  29. LGM says:

    Guess I am the one to tell the lame traffic light joke:

    Guy was driving pass through every red light at high speed.

    His passenger asked, "why on earth did you do that?"

    Guy replied, "It’s OK. My brother does that all the time."

    Suddenly he pressed hard on the brakes at a crossroad green light.

    Passenger asked, "why on earth did you do that?"

    Guy said,"Are you crazy? My brother could be driving ’round here!"

  30. Mike Dunn says:

    A growing trend that I’ve noticed here in LA is that people run red lights when making left turns. If a car is sitting in the intersection waiting for an opening to turn left, and the light turns red, that car can turn obviously. But the N cars behind him (where 1<=N<=4 and depends on a few factors) also think it’s OK to proceed on through, ignoring the red light and delaying the cross traffic which now has a green.

  31. lister says:

    The 1-3 cars turning left on reds is also a growing problem here in Toronto. Same with driving straight through on reds. Ugh. I remember 15-20 years ago when that was shocking to see (when it rarely happened.)

    After numerous trips to the US north east, I thought the New Yorkers and Massholes were bad… Not anymore after a recent trip to Taiwan where traffic rules are mere suggestions. You name it, everything is fair game. The only two traffic rules that I saw followed consistently is the diamond lane (buses, taxi’s and high occupancy cars only) and when there is a physical split in traffic between the cars and scooters.

    Oh and don’t get me started on the whacko scooter drivers. Sheesh! Besides not following any other rules, they’re absolutely fearless of cars (odd that when car meets scooter always results in the car winning), I’ve seen up to four people on a scooter. Usually one parent and three kids. No helmets, no protection. Bunch of crazies over there.

  32. JamesW says:


    I see your Taiwan, and raise you India. The traffic rules here aren’t even suggestions. They seem to be treated as an authoritative list of what not to do.

    Officially you drive on the left in India, however if there is more space in the middle, or to the right then you are obliged to make use of it. Indian traffic joke: In US they drive on the right side. In UK they drive on the left side. In India to drive is suicide.

    Stopping at red lights is for the weak willed. Here in Pune they turn them off at night. No one would pay them any attention so it would be wasting electricity to keep them going. The accident rate goes up of course. The newspaper asked the police why not keep them running? The answer was that it ‘would lead to confusion’.

    Helmets are compulsory, but at least half the riders don’t bother. The police don’t enforce the rule anyway. I wear one myself and was talking to a colleague about it. He thinks the mandatory wearing rule is a conspiracy between helmet manufacturers and the government. He also thought it pointless to wear one for a short journey. I pointed out that you could still have an accident, even on a short trip to the shops. The reply: ‘There’s nothing you can do about that’. Karma or Kismet I guess.

    Of course the horn is the most important component on any Indian vehicle. The Indian novice may find it hard to interpret what message is being sent. I will leave you with a list that provides some insight:

    o I’m alive and well

    o Get out of my way

    o I am driving too fast. It’s up to you to avoid imminent collision.

    o The traffic lights will turn green in two minutes

    o Get out of my way

    o Don’t even think about changing lanes

    o I’m going to change lane

    o Don’t even think about cutting me up

    o I’m going to cut you up

    o Get out of my way

    o Don’t even think about jumping off the bus in front of me

    o Cute girl

    o Don’t even think about crossing the road now

    o Get out of my way

  33. Adam says:

    Another UK driver here – one without the benefit of having driven in the US or Australia.

    You guys are *weird*. Over here, red means "stop". That’s it. No exceptions. Nice and easy. (Unless you’re a bus. Then red doesn’t mean red for at least a few seconds.)

    But you certainly don’t need to learn different laws for each *city*!! Seriously, WTF? I mean, I can understand the US having different laws in different states, given that the states are pretty much sovereign, well, states. But different traffic laws in different cities! Why? What benefit can that possibly bring to anyone? (Other than increased fines for the city coffers, obviously)

    Just out of curiosity – does the US driving test have any questions about things that are legal and not legal in different cities in the state you live in? Or for cities in a neighbouring state if you live near a state border? If not, how do the examiners test your knowledge of the driving laws sufficiently to be able to tell if you’re going to be able to follow them in places that you’re likely to drive?

  34. Jonathan O'Connor says:

    A friend of mine says the following:

    Green means you can drive.

    Orange means you can still drive.

    Red means you have to drive like hell.

  35. Sean says:

    I’m from England, but have some friends in DC.  A few months ago, they were turning left at a crossroads, and waited for the green light to do so.  A young lady going straight on jumped the lights and slammed into the side of them.  Problem was no-one around stopped, and even though it was 2 peoples word against one, because there was no way to determine what color the lights were, and both parties said the light was green for them….

    The insurance company for some reason decided against my friends, and they are now paranoid about waiting a few seconds after their light turns green.

    If that ever happens to me I’m going to physically stop any cars behind me from leaving, until I find a witness to back me up!

  36. Mid-town says:

    The law in NYS is right turn on red except where prohibited by posted signs.

    NYC extends this to prohibit all turns on red (left or right) unless permitted by posted signs.

    This helps to protect pedestrians and attempts to keep intersections from being blocked by the turning traffic trying to squeeze into the thru traffic.

    If you have ever driven or walked in pedestrian / car crush of mid-town Manhattan, you’ll immediately see why this was a good idea.

    Looks like congestion pricing is coming to the bridges and tunnels in NYC sooner rather than later.

  37. Leo says:

    In Russia right-on-red not allowed, but it is common to have specific "green right arrow" traffic light (lighted with red light), which enables you to turn right *without* stop, but after all pedestrians and crossing traffic.

  38. AndyB says:

    Adam.. we do have such situations. the higwaty code does not apply in Liverpool, why? Because if you stop at a red light for more than a minute, you’ll have your hubcaps nicked :-)

  39. Adam says:

    OK, I’ll bite.

    *Why* is NYC special enough to get its own traffic laws? "Because it’s NYC" means nothing to me.

    I just cannot imagine an equivalent situation in this country. "Ah, no, the highway code does not apply in Newcastle. They have their own rules there. Why? Because they’re special – they’re *Newcastle*!"

    That wouldn’t even work for London. OK, London has the congestion charge, but that doesn’t change the rules of the road. And it has more red and double-red lines (no stopping) than anywhere else in the UK, but the laws are still consistent; if you see a double-red anywhere, you’re not allowed to stop.

  40. John Hensley says:

    New York has more than twice the population density of London.

    This thread give me just one more reason why I need never visit NYC or the rest of the northeast. I’ll stick to parts of the country where people can at least get the basics of driving right.

    I hear it’s also quite common in NYC to cross the street without looking and then swear at any driver with the audacity to be on the road at that moment.

    It’s as if the people there want to die.

  41. Stephen Jones says:

    There is the story of the British guy in Italy who gave a lift to a policeman. When they came to a zebra crossing he stopped to let people cross the road. The policeman looked at him. "Are you crazy?" he said. "The city would come to a standstill if everybody stopped at zebra crossings?"

    As for India, it drives on the left only in theory. In practise it is quite impossible to tell what side of the road you should be on.

  42. Cody says:

    [*Why* is NYC special enough to get its own traffic laws? "Because it’s NYC" means nothing to me.]

    NYC has a higher population than 4/5ths of the US states.  Therefore, it is treated mostly like a sovereign state.  For example, the Mayor of NYC is more well known than the Governor of NY state.

  43. Jon says:

    I heard a joke like this once except the last line read something like this…

    "That’s okay," the sister replied. "I’ll stop *twice* at the next one."

  44. Igor says:

    Yawn… reckless driving, I heard of it… Boring…

  45. Ross says:

    Moving from New Zealand to New Hampshire has been a bit of an experience in driving. I NZ, speed cameras control the speed pretty well. I believe the threshold is now 4 km/h. Here, with no cameras, the speed limit is a joke. The main highway through Nashua has a limit of 55 m/h. Anyone doing 65 gets passed frequently on both sides. It just seems kind of silly. I admit that 65 seems safe for that road so why not make it 65 and enforce it rather than make it artificially low and the cops turn a blind eye most of the time? I think the current situation makes people think that a speeding ticket is a random "bad luck" event.

    The right turn on red seems to work pretty well. You’re supposed to treat it as a stop sign but nobody really stops, including cops. That sort of applies to stop signs too. We don’t have left turn on red in NZ (although it was tested for a while in Takapuna years ago) but many (most?) intersections have a "free left turn" which is a separate lane that avoids the lights amounting to much the same thing.



  46. Wally says:

    Perth in Western Australia does something reasonably sensible with red light turns: there’s a side-channel if it’s permitted to turn left (remember, "wrong" side of the road) on red. The side channel begins at least a couple of car-lengths before the lights.

    It’s thus reasonably obvious that the side channel is exempt from the red light and that you can go (with the always assumed "if it’s safe").

    The only really insane thing I see here is the "hazard lights mean I can U-turn across traffic on a busy road to get into a parking space" rule. Of course, indication on turns is apparently a waste of energy and should be avoided at all costs, but that’s true of everywhere, right?

  47. michaele says:

    Just to clarify a few facts:

    1.  She went STRAIGHT THROUGH the intersection.  This was not a matter of a right turn on red.

    2.  It was one of those screwy Boston intersections where five streets meet from different angles all at once.

    3.  This was not a matter of her trying to make it through a light that had just turned red.  It had been red for a LONG TIME, and she just didn’t notice.

    4.  In fact, she was going fast enough that she didn’t have the time to look down the four other streets to see who had the green and whether there was any traffic coming.  This is what was terrifying about it.  She just barreled through at full speed as if there could be no cross-traffic.

    5.  She is a Turkish and a Swiss citizen.

    6.  These days, she recognizes that this was a very reckless thing to have done.

  48. Norman Diamond says:

    Speaking of "interpreting" a red traffic light, I once read a story.

    Someone contested a traffic ticket for running a red light.  He taught the judge some physics and astronomy, including the red shift.  He explained why objects approaching each other experience the opposite of a red shift, and that was why the light appeared green to him.  The judge was about to accept this, annul the ticket, and convict the guy on his confession of speeding.  Unfortunately, according to the story, the guy changed his mind and pleaded guilty to running the red light.

  49. And Yet Another Bad Joke says:

    I’m a little late to the party, but want to help the record attempt:

    Few people are aware that U.S. stop signs that are outlined by a thick white border are actually not enforced.

  50. TravisL says:

    Lest you fellow suburban Washingtonians think that the free left on red is worthless to you, here’s a reminder that there’s a one-way road that you have probably waited needlessly to turn left on: freeway on-ramps. The Tacoma News Tribune says:

    <blockquote>“This is one of the most underused and best kept secrets in traffic laws out there,” Washington State Patrol trooper William Ashcraft said in an e-mailed reply. “Yes, it is legal to turn left on a red light onto a one-way street from a two-way or one-way street, as long as there are no restrictive signs prohibiting the turn.”<BR>


    Unlike downtown Seattle, there are not many places in Tacoma to take advantage of this. The most common place would be on most on-ramps to the freeway, Ashcraft said. The State Patrol considers onramps to be one-way lanes, unless the exit ramp is right next to the onramp.</blockquote>

    [Here’s the text of the applicable law. -Raymond]
  51. Filip says:

    [q]Someone contested a traffic ticket for running a red light.  He taught the judge some physics and astronomy, including the red shift.  He explained why objects approaching each other experience the opposite of a red shift, and that was why the light appeared green to him.  The judge was about to accept this, annul the ticket, and convict the guy on his confession of speeding.  Unfortunately, according to the story, the guy changed his mind and pleaded guilty to running the red light.[/q]

    I heard a similar story … a man was driving on red light and a policeman stopped him right after the intersection. Knowing some physics he explained exactly the same theory and the officer accepted it and shredded the ticket. However the policeman also had a degree in physics so he actually knew how to calculate the speed needed to experience the red shift and gave the person a ticket for excessive speed.

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