The Drive: What to do if traffic light is stuck on red

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 27, 2014 - 5:42 PM

Last month, I shared an experience in which I encountered a motorist who was in the far right lane of a one-way street and wanted to make a left turn across two traffic lanes. The column generated ­several comments and observations. It also spawned a number of turn-related questions that landed in the Drive’s mailbag, so let’s keep the discussion rolling.

Steve Eckman wants to know what to do if a car pulls into a left turn lane at a signalized intersection but fails to trigger the in-pavement sensor and the light stays red.

That’s a tough spot, because legally a driver can’t make a turn against a red arrow. Making a right turn from the left lane isn’t allowed either. Going through the intersection is unlawful, too. According to state statutes and Lt. Eric Roeske of the State Patrol, the driver must stay stopped at the red light.

Roeske says that cases in which traffic lights don’t eventually change are rare. But if a light does not turn green after an unreasonable amount of time and a motorist takes an illegal course of action, the driver can be cited.

“The driver may have an affirmative defense that the signal was malfunctioning; however it’s going to depend on a number of factors,” Roeske said. “All they can do is explain the situation after being stopped, and it will be up to the officer to determine what enforcement action, if any, may be taken.”

The law is slightly different for motorcyclists and bicyclists. They have a defense if all of the following apply: The cyclist has come to a complete stop, the signal has stayed red for an unreasonable amount of time, the signal is apparently malfunctioning or a sensor is not detecting the presence of a bicycle or motorcycle, and there is no motor vehicle or pedestrian approaching on the street or highway to be crossed, or they are far enough away from the intersection to not create a hazard.

Turning etiquette

Steve Druley and Wayne Vallevand don’t like motorists who swing wide when turning left onto a street with two lanes heading in the same direction and don’t enter the lane closest to the centerline, another frequent transgression of the law.

John Kieffer, a classroom and behind-the-wheel instructor at Safeway Driving School says “drivers are supposed to turn into the first available travel lane (right for a vehicle turning right, left for a vehicle turning left). Many drivers do go to the wrong lane, but they are in violation of the law.”

Brian from Inver Grove Heights asked if a motorist making a right turn at an intersection with a small island that separates the turn lane from the general traffic lanes — such as at Kellogg Blvd. turning south onto the Wabasha Street Bridge in downtown St. Paul — needs to yield to a motorist making a left turn and wants to immediately proceed into the lane farthest from the centerline. Yes, Kieffer said.

“The driver turning right here has a yield sign, and must yield to any vehicle in the lane they are turning into,” he said. “This would include drivers making a left turn into the incorrect lane. This helps protect drivers who turn incorrectly from their own actions.”

Drivers who stop at intersections and don’t make a right turn to allow another driver to turn into the incorrect lane are not guilty of impeding traffic, Kieffer said.

“This would be a situation where caution was applied, and not likely to be considered any violation on the part of the driver turning right.”

 

ONLINE: Follow news about ­traffic at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.

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