When Does a Red Traffic Signal Become a Stop Sign?

Written by Gregory Monte.

Have you ever experienced the frustration of pulling up to one of those traffic lights that has a sensor to detect the presence of vehicles and the light just refuses to change? 

If you are like most drivers, at first you just sit there patiently because you have no clue that it isn’t functioning correctly.  But after a couple of minutes, the tension starts to build because you realize something is wrong but you are not sure exactly what to do about it.  You probably start wondering if it is illegal to go through it. 

At some point the frustration gets to such a level that you decide to take a chance, but in the back of your mind you are hoping that there are not cops lying in wait ready to issue a ticket.  Even when you are through that intersection and no one pulls you over, you might still be worried that the law will get you in the end.  After all, it is possible that there was some automatic red light ticket system in place and the citation will arrive in your mailbox next week.

This type of situation is especially an issue for motorcycles, because the weight of those vehicles is usually not enough to trigger the automated sensor. 

Well, apparently enough citizens of Pennsylvania experienced this type of situation and complained and the legislature amended the law to provide some kind of relief.  In 2016 language was added to Title 75, Section 3112(c) to allow drivers to treat a broken signal just like a stop sign (bold indicates the changes made):

“Inoperable or malfunctioning signal.–If a traffic-control signal is out of operation or is not functioning properly, including, but not limited to, a signal that uses inductive loop sensors or other automated technology to detect the presence of vehicles that fails to detect a vehicle, vehicular traffic facing a … Red or completely unlighted signal shall stop in the same manner as at a stop sign, and the right to proceed shall be subject to the rules applicable after making a stop at a stop sign …”

Now the only question is: How long do you have to wait before you are permitted to proceed through the red light?

From what I have read, no one really wants to give any specific answer to this question – probably for liability reasons.  Obviously you can’t just blow through the red light within the first minute or so because at that point you don’t know if the signal is working properly or not.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation doesn’t give much in this regard except to indicate that you would treat it like a four-way stop sign intersection.  Chapter 2 of the PA Driver’s Manual states:

NON-FUNCTIONING TRAFFIC LIGHTS A non-functioning traffic signal should be treated as though it were a four-way STOP sign.”


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