Q&A - Traffic Signal Stuck on Red

Q&A ImageI have to ask, what the rule is on running red lights when the signals are broken or not functioning correctly.

I have seen this in many cases in life, but more recently I was leaving the Walmart/Futureshop plaza, and was waiting for the light to turn green to make a left onto the highway. It was around 8:30pm and there was no traffic anywhere. I sat there for at least 5 minutes, (I heard an entire song on the radio start to finish, and then some). Eventually I gave up and just turned anyways. As I drove down the road I periodically checked my mirror to see if the light ever changed. It never did. Something was obviously wrong with the sensor or something.

I realize that running a red light is not legal, but really, if the light never turns green I can not be expected to sit there forever. Should a person turn right and then do a UTurn somewhere? This would actually seem less safe to me in most situations.

Of course if there was a lot of traffic, the turn would not be possible, or safe, but when the streets are dead and the light doesn't change, whats a person supposed to do?

There is nothing in the Motor Vehicle Act that tells you specifically how to deal with a situation like this. Common sense would have to prevail and it sounds like you did the best that you could in the circumstances. Sit there for such a period of time that you know that if the signal had been functioning properly it would have cycled at least once. Being familiar with the intersection would help too. You might even want to actually time it with your watch to be definite.

If you were stopped, you could explain this and hopefully point to the still red signal. I expect that with explanation and their own observations the officer would choose not to write a ticket. As you say, you cannot be expected to wait there until the signal is repaired.

Whether you go straight through or turn right or left is up to you and the traffic conditions. Do what seems to be the safest thing in the circumstances.

This has intrigued me, and there must be some actual defence, perhaps in common law. I will do some digging and come back to post what I find.

In reply to by DriveSmartBC

... could be important, methinks.

Sometimes, lights are sychronized in one direction, such as the major one-way arterials in downtown Vancouver that link to the Cambie, Granville, & Burrard bridges as well as the Georgia viaduct.  Hit the first one on a fresh green and if you're lucky enough to be able to maintain approximately 50 km/hr then you'll make ever successive light on the green also; I've run west from the Viaduct along Dunsmuir all the way to Thurlow early on a Sunday morning no problem, for instance.  Drive faster than the limit and the lights will block you, they won't go green soon enough; dawdle and you'll end up facing an amber pretty soon.  Incidentally, even if there are pedestrian push buttons at the intersections, they're merely placebos, they don't actually do anything.

Sometimes, lights on two-way streets are synchronized; this may be a 'green wave' that promotes a flow of traffic in one direction during the morning rush hour and in the other direction during the evening rush hour; I believe this is used on Austin in Coquitlam, for instance.  But other lights on two-way streets are electronically timed to try and create a 'green window', enabling traffic in both directions to enjoy a green light as much of the time as possible; however, once demand has built up (both from pedestrians pushing buttons and/or vehicles on the magnetic sensors) on the cross-streets, eventually the whole green window shuts down and the waiting peds and vehicles get to go, finally.  Marine Drive in the District of North Vancouver, west of Capilano but east of the City boundary around McKay, is set up like this; that's why there are only pedestrian push buttons on the north/south crosswalks and sensors only on the north/south streets.

Like our site host, I would sure like to know where your intersection is.  It's my guess that the magnetic sensor is broken, and didn't recognize your car was there.  If that's the case, you can put money on it that there are also pedestrian push-buttons at that location; in which case you didn't need to drive through the red light; you just needed to pull your keys out of the ignition (for legal and logical reasons), and hoof it over to the pedestrian button a few metres away from you; this would create a long green light (peds take longer to cross a street than cars, hence the extended time) so that you could casually stroll back to your vehicle and drive away on the green you just triggered along with the walk signal.

By the way, did you report the problem to the local traffic department?

Thinking that there might be something more in common law that I was unaware of, I asked Paul Hergott of Hergott Law for some help. This is what he passed along:

Interesting issue….when the “letter of the law” requires you to obey something that is malfunctioning…

I’m not really qualified to answer your question, because I’ve had very little exposure to criminal or quasi-criminal (traffic) prosecutions / defences.  I’ll give it my best thinking, though….

Section 129 of the MVAct doesn’t distinguish between properly functioning or not properly functioning red light in requiring a driver to stop until the signal instructs the driver to proceed.

Section 125.1 provides direction in circumstances where “traffic control signals that are inoperative”….i.e. you treat it like a four way stop.  I wonder whether the court would interpret a malfunctioning red light as being “inoperative”.  Here is where “the law” which the world seems to believe is something you can read in a book, becomes horribly uncertain.  How would a judge interpret that word “inoperative”?  Who knows!

Unless s. 125.1 is interpreted to save the driver, I think the driver is technically in breach of section 129 regardless of how certain the driver might be that the light must be malfunctioning.

I think that I would want to discourage drivers from self-diagnosing what might be a malfunctioning traffic light, and from even “carefully considered disobedience”.  A malfunctioning red light is still a red light, and however unfair it might seem that you’re sitting there at a red light FOREVER while cross traffic continues to face green….that cross traffic does, still, face green.  However long the red light is exhibited, it doesn’t make it any more safe to proceed against it.

If at an intersection near Regina Saskatchewan, where you can see traffic coming for miles…. you can 100% confidently proceed there being no safety concern even if the red light is proper!  In other intersections, though, proceeding through a red light that is clearly malfunctioning can be very dangerous because fair or unfair, cross traffic is facing a green.

Perhaps we should respect malfunctioning traffic lights regardless of how certain we might be that they are malfunctioning?....turn right on that red light, and go around the block to get back on track sort of thing.

... no offence to Paul Hergott, who I'm sure is endeavouring to offer his best free advice as a professional; but ...

Section 125.1 was actually created when the authorities suddenly had it brought to their attention about twenty or more years ago that although everyone had been taught, advised, recommended, or whatever that the 'right thing to do' was to treat a non-functional traffic light as a 4-Way Stop, there were a couple of problems with this.  Namely, that there's no such thing - under law - in BC as a 4-Way Stop anyway (there still isn't, incidentally) and also that, this being the case, the result was that the situation had become an Uncontrolled Intersection, per Section 173.1 ... in other words, right of way should be given to the vehicle(s) on the right.  Read the wording of Section 125.1 and you'll see what it's based on.  Section 125.2 was cleverly created to cover the possibility that some ignorant driver might not actually have stopped, but still have entered the intersection, and therefore should still be given the right of way regardless.

Keeping in mind that despite the failure of the lawmakers to actually specifically address the issues of 4-Way Stops and defective Traffic Lights (the latter could include both defective sensors and also defective traffic heads, i.e. no functioning bulb in the light) it all seems to work OK most of the time between all of us road users, I think the key is in Section 169 - this basically states that once you've become stationary, you can't move unless it's safe, and if you do so and a collision results then it's your fault.

As for this idea ... Perhaps we should respect malfunctioning traffic lights regardless of how certain we might be that they are malfunctioning?....turn right on that red light, and go around the block to get back on track sort of thing.

... it's all well and good, but if you're in the wrong position on the roadway to turn right, then there's another law that will prevent it; if there's a solid line to your right (in a multi-lane situation) then there's a different law to prevent it; and if there are vehicles stuck behind you that prevent you from reversing so that you can do things properly with your right turn on the red, then you're still stuck.  And if you're thinking of pulling out your mobile phone to call the cops (who have the authority to take over traffic control) well hey, there's another law against that, too.

So what are you going to do?  Well, you see that pedestrian push button over on the corner that also activates the light ...



I have seen this many times, one lone driver, waiting for a green light that will never come because he went over the stop line and is sitting on the crosswalk, not over the sensor in the road so the electronic system doesn't know that a car is there waiting.