Four Ways to Avoid Running a Red Light

Last week, August 3 to 9, was National Stop on Red Week, a campaign sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration. The campaign aimed to drive home the message that running a red light is unacceptable by reminding the public about the potential consequences.

At best, these include heavy fines and increased insurance costs. At worst, you could cause injury or death. In 2012, 683 people were killed and 133,000 were injured as a result of red-light crashes. More than half of those killed were people hit by the red light runner, including pedestrians, bicyclists, and occupants of other vehicles.

According to AAA, 93 percent of Americans already do consider it unacceptable to run a red light, but a third admitted that they had run a red light in the 30 days before the survey. A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that running red lights, stop signs, and other traffic control devices is the leading cause of all urban crashes.

So if we already understand the consequences and know it’s not okay, why is red light running still so common?

The reality is that intersections are complicated and dangerous. When faced with a split-second decision, the safest option might not always be clear, especially if you’re not paying full attention to the road. Here are a few steps you can take to be prepared to stop safely at the next red light.

1. Recognize the “Dilemma Zone”

You’re approaching an intersection and the light changes from green to yellow. You’re already too close to stop comfortably, but can you make it across the intersection before the light turns red?

We’ve all been there, and traffic engineers have a name for this phenomenon - it’s called the dilemma zone. It’s a theoretical area about 2.5 to 5.5 seconds away from the stop line, where drivers have a 10 to 90 percent probability of stopping.

When a yellow light is too short, drivers can neither stop safely nor cross the intersection completely before the light turns red. By implementing a longer yellow signal, the dilemma zone can be eliminated.

But we’re only human, and that moment of indecision can’t be completely eliminated. Instead, the dilemma zone can become an “option zone,” where the yellow light is long enough that within that time and distance, either choice is safe and legal.

2. Know Yellow Light Laws

Approaching that yellow light can be even more nerve-racking if you’re not completely sure what it means. Do you have to stop if it’s safe to do so? What if the light turns red while you’re in the intersection?

The answers to these questions vary from state to state. There are three basic types of laws governing what drivers have to do at a yellow light:

  • In Louisiana, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and West Virginia, drivers may not be in the intersection at all while the signal is red. This means that it’s only legal to enter the intersection on yellow if it can be entirely cleared before the light changes to red.
  • In Connecticut, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, Virginia, and Wisconsin, drivers may only enter the intersection on yellow unless it is impossible or unsafe to stop.
  • In the remaining 37 states and Washington, DC, drivers may enter the intersection on a yellow light. Drivers may also legally be in the intersection while the red signal is displayed, as long as they entered while the light was still yellow.

3. Control Your Speed

Speed has a major impact on how efficiently and safely you can travel through stoplights.

Traffic engineers set the length of yellow and all-red signals based on how fast vehicles on the road are expected to travel, and the safe stopping distance they’ll need at that speed. Often, the posted speed limit is used as the assumed approach speed. If you’re driving faster than that speed limit, you’ll need a longer stopping distance, and the yellow light may not be long enough for you to come to a safe stop before the light turns red.

Driving the speed limit can even help you get to your destination faster and more efficiently. Many cities time green lights for vehicles going at or a little below the posted speed limit. As you may have noticed on streets you drive often, if you maintain just the right speed, you can catch a bunch of green lights in a row.

4. Never Drive Drowsy or Distracted

We’ve posted in the past about the danger of driving while using your cell phone, about other driving distractions like tending to child passengers and getting lost in your own thoughts, and about drowsiness, so we’ll keep this reminder brief.

It only takes a few seconds for the light to change from green to yellow, to red, and when we’re not paying full attention, it can be easy for a red light to escape our notice completely.

Don’t risk it. Only drive when you’re alert and rested, and if you absolutely must use your phone, find a safe place to stop.


Intersections are the number one place for crashes to occur, so always be aware of other drivers and road users, even if it’s legally your turn to cross!

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