Left on red

red light northern blvd

The light that wouldn't turn.

By AOA Greg

Choose your own adventure time: You're at the traffic light at the end of the I-90/Route 9 off-ramp at Northern Boulevard in Albany. There are four cars waiting to turn left at the red light. You wait. You wait. You wait. Minutes pass. The light doesn't change. Do you...

1. Turn left on red.

2. Go around one of the cars ahead of you so you can turn left on red.

3. Move to the right lane so you can turn right on red.

4. Sit there and hope that the light will change. Someday.

I'm curious about what you would have done in that situation. Because this happened to me the other day -- and the choices made by the other three cars in line surprised me. It made me wonder I had missed some memo about community standards regarding slow-cycling/possibly broken traffic lights.

Here's how it shook out.

Two cars in front of me, one behind. We're all waiting for seemingly forever. The first car in line turns left on red. The second car pulls up. Waits for a few seconds, then it turns left on the red.

I pull up to the line. It feels like we've been waiting a long time, but I'm guessing it wasn't any more than about three minutes. The car behind me gets impatient, drives around me and turns left on red from the right lane.

Struck by what I just saw, I sat there for probably another 15-30 seconds. The light is still red. So I move into the right lane, look left, and turn right on red. I drove to Van Rensselaer, turned around in the Wolfert's Roost parking lot, and headed back the way I intended. Annoying, but not a big deal.

I don't know whether the light was stuck or it just takes that long to turn. And I don't think it really matters. If you're not willing to wait, I think the correct thing is to turn right. Because, in addition to being illegal, turning left on red is dangerous. And it's not like going right was a huge inconvenience.

There ended up being very little drama in all this (it was an amount approaching zero). There was no wreck. No one got pulled over. But I think it struck me in part because it's at the intersection of two of my pet peeves about traffic lights in Albany: 1) The lights seem to be poorly coordinated, and often cycle without regard to traffic; and 2) people often regard red lights as optional.

The social/psychological angle to this is interesting to me, too. (Tangent: are certain personality types more/less likely to turn left on red?) So I'm curious about what you would have done. Is it ever acceptable to turn left on red? Or to put it another way, when is it OK to break a law because it's annoying or inconvenient?

Comments

If the light is not turning green, then the signal is broken. You are being refused service.
It is a common legal defense that if you are being refused service you may go through the red light, provided you make a safe stop and look. Disclaimer: I am not an attorney.

Also, the signal at this intersection is maintained by NYSDOT.
Call the Regional Traffic Office at (518) 388-0380.
They will dispatch a crew to check on the signal.
You may also call this number if you see any signal bulbs/LEDs that have burnt out.

You did the right thing and turned right on red and then turned around (unless it was and illegal U-turn). I suggest that you report it to the Getting there column in the TU, maybe they can do something about that light....BTW, do you know when you can LEGALLY turn left on red???
When it's a one-way to a one-way, such as 5th Avenue to Congress Street in Troy.

"Choose your own adventure time", hilarious. Can I just also comment on the whole stop light power outage debacle? I'm in my young 30s but am I the last of the population that knows that a stoplight w/o power is a four way stop? Could you pass that on to the good people of Clifton Park? :)

I would have done what you did. In fact, I think i have at that light. My pet peeve is when people realize they missed a turn or went the wrong way so pull epically dangerous and/or illegal maneuvers to correct themselves. I will just take the next logical route to turn me around. My safety trumps impatience. What if an ambulance was blowing through?

Same thing happened to me at Fuller & Washington (coming down Washington) last year. Traffic was backed up, the light was only turning green about 5 minutes and only stayed green long enough for a few cars to get through. After 15 minutes, I got up to where I was able to turn right just to turn back around. It was about 50/50 on what people were doing to get around the broken light.. but I wasn't going to risk a ticket/accident driving through that intersection.

This just happened to me in a particularly lawless section in Schenectady. I turned right and found a parking lot to turn around in. I was not about to risk being in an accident to cut out a little travel time!

Break Traffic laws? Everyday the speed limit's on I-90 & I-787 somehow magically get raised to 75 mph...Even then you still have half wits and Nascar wannabes up your sphincter.

I think it's hilarious there is an advertisement for an updated MUTCD manual at the bottom of this post. I agree that you should go straight through the intersection or turn right. Left on red is unacceptable unless a person directing traffic instucts you to do so and you've made sure that person isn't about to kill you by making a mistake. This has happened to me and people are dangerous when driving while irate. I say let them go cause an accident and you do the safe thing.

It sounds like I would have waited a lot longer than the cars in front of you, but once I was convinced it was never going to cycle on, I would have turned. I would have felt guilty about breaking the law, but I don't think I would have done it the proper way and looped around like you did. But I'm not very proper. And I probably would have road rage from all the pointless waiting.

I've seen people turn left on red onto one way streets where the only way to turn is left. That seems acceptable to me. There's no two way traffic to watch for. Other than that, I'd say it's a bad idea, although no more dangerous than turning, say, left at a stop sign or out of a parking lot onto a four lane avenue.

I was under the impression that a broken light essentially becomes a stop sign. Therefore I would have waited a while to be sure it wasn't changing, looked carefully to be absolutely sure the coast was clear, and gone for it.

This has happened to me too, coming off the ramp after the bridge from Rensselaer to Pearl Street. I was first and there was a car behind me. The light was red for a while and I just kept inching up hoping it would change. The car behind me started honking and I didn't know what to do so I turned right and did an (illegal) U-turn. When I got back to the intersection I had a red light. Total bummer. I should have just waited longer I guess.

Ryan: Left on red is legal in NY, provided you are on a one way street in the left most lane turning onto another one way street, into that street's left most lane.
It is quite rare to execute, but you can do it in Troy at some intersections, provided it doesn't have a No Turn on Red sign however.

You didn't describe traffic conditions... If I felt the light was malfunctioning I would turn left on red at the first opportunity, providing traffic was light and I would not impact traffic on the intersecting road in any way - since they don't know that my light is malfunctioning. If there was a fair bit of traffic, I would have done the right turn, uturn thing.

Don't let the little things stress you out. No need to burn your good energy on this. If the signal is not functioning properly, stop, look, proceed safley. No reason to worry about the police... Unless you're riding dirty.

Really? This is a question? Malfunctioning stop lights are considered stop signs.

From the DMV driver's manual we all had to read at age 16 - "State law requires that if the traffic lights or controls are out of service or malfunctioning when you approach an intersection, you must come to a stop as you would for a stop sign. You must then proceed according to the rules of right of way, unless you are directed to proceed by a traffic officer."

@CapHwys - I love left-hand turns on red. It's one of the many benefits of downtown Troy and Center Square in Albany.

Put me in the "would have turned left eventually" column.

On a somewhat related side note, can someone make a PSA or something about what happens when you get to an intersection where one way has a flashing yellow and the other has a flashing red light? The red light is essentially a stop sign, and the yellow means "proceed with caution." You don't stop at the flashing yellow.

It drives me nuts when people don't follow the rules of the road, especially in the name of "courtesy." The most courteous thing would be to follow the rules, not to stop when you should go so that someone else can go out of turn. That just confuses everyone on the road around you and wildly increases the chance of an accident.

Last winter, there was a somewhat similar question in "getting there": if in snow you get somewhere off center of the lane, and your left turn light doesn't go green - what to do? Make an illegal, but safer turn on red - or legal, but dangerous maneuver to shift to the lane going straight through?
Official answer (someone from NYSDOT, I believe) was "do what is legal". Legal being unsafe was conveniently overlooked.

This exact conversation came up in a defensive driving class once, and the instructor said to do what you did Greg... I of course being the jerk I was asked what to do if there was no right on red. The instructor didn't answer and moved on.

Yes, an obviously broken stoplight - where the lights are out or they are flashing - becomes a four-way stop and people should proceed accordingly. But in this case the light was likely green in some direction, and if you have a green light you ain't thinkin' that light is broken. You're just cruising through it. Only those stuck at the too-long red light would know it's broken. I do think I would have made the left as long as it was safe to do so, and I don't think a cop would care in that situation as long as everyone was being safe and prudent. But if it was unsafe to make the left, I'd make the right.

I agree that there are too many people in Albany that think stop lights are optional, but yeah, a broken or unresponsive stoplight is a different scenario. I would have gone left after waiting and checking multiple times that the coast was clear. If the intersection was at a blind corner, I would have gone right and turned around to be safe.

@Lwoodbluz - 5th Avenue to Congress should always be a right turn (unless you are driving the wrong way (which sad to say happens not infrequently on some of Troy's one way streets - I once saw a car make a left from 5th Avenue northbound onto Ferry Street the wrong way, turning right on 4th Street just in front of the bus I was one). Congress to 5th Avenue is a legal left on red, though.

However, as my driving instructor at Troy High pointed out, making a left on red from 5th Avenue (southbound) to Ferry Street is *not* a legal left on red, even though you are on a one-way part of 5th Avenue, and Ferry Street is one way. The problem is that 5th Avenue south of Ferry is two-way, and there could be oncoming traffic making a right on red. Very few Trojans seem to know this, though. At the only other place I know of where this occurs, on Congress Street at River, just before the bridge entrance ramp, I regularly see people making left turns onto the ramp from Congress - often from the right lane, which would be illegal even if Congress between River and Front were not two-way. My understanding of left on red is that the street you are on has to be one-way (in the same direction) on both sides of the intersection - I don't know if the street you are turning onto also has to be, or if you can turn onto a street that is one-way in different directions (away from the intersection) on both sides. I know of some intersections in NYC where that would apply (except that NYC has no turn on red except where explicitly allowed).

Still, I have to say one of my favorite traffic signs is at Liberty St eastbound at 2nd, where it actually says "No left on red" - coming from NYC, that always struck me as a "Duh!" but I learned otherwise when I took my traffic class at Troy High.

I returned home from my full-time job on 9N to Loudonville for about a year around midnight in 2010. At that time of day you don't have to slow down or stop for traffic. Despite this, only on 4-5 different occasions did I remember being able to make this light without waiting. You would have to approach when the light was turning yellow on Northern Blvd and then jump some part of the divide past the lane split (unless you're speeding) just before the guard rails. Agreeably, not the safest maneuver. So not only was the red long, but the green very short. I concur that the timing on this light is provoking unsafe driving.

Wait, you mean there are people in Albany who don't think left-turners *always* have right-of-way regardless of the lights? Get. Out.

I'm surprised by the number of people who don't seem to realize that a broken stoplight reverts to four-way stop sign rules.

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