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Travel & Auto

How to Stop at a Red Light

traffic signal stop light red

When a traffic signal (or traffic light) turns red, motorists are to come to a stop. But where?

Despite most adults having spent a large portion of their lives driving on roadways whose traffic flow is controlled by three-colored signals, a shocking number of drivers are unable to comprehend some of the basics of stopping at a red light. It seems so simple—step on your brakes and bring your vehicle to a stop so as not to plow into cars whose traffic signal is turning to green.

Many motorists, however, struggle with this concept.

A Red Light Scenario to Consider

Greg is a 42-year-old man who has had a drivers license in the state of Texas for well over half of his life. Despite modern improvements to automobiles, the rules of the road have gone largely unchanged in his lifetime. He knows to stop when he sees a child in the crosswalk; he is aware that he is to drive no faster than 45 miles per hour when a clearly visible sign states that is the speed limit; and he knows those dashed lines on the road are lanes.

But for whatever reason, Greg has yet to figure out what to do at a red light. He knows that red means stop, but he tends to either blatantly disregard the light, forget his placement on the road, or take it far too seriously.

On his drive home from work, Greg is on a fairly empty road. As he drives down the street, he notices the light ahead is turning red. Needing to make a left-hand turn, Greg puts on his blinker and gets into the left-hand turn lane, coming to a comfortable halt. He is the first car in line, and will patiently wait until the light turns green before proceeding. He watches as cross traffic drives through their green light. After about a minute, their light turns red, and soon it will be Greg’s turn to go again. The lane beside him going straight receives a green light, and they proceed onward. Greg knows his green turn light should flash on any moment now. But he’s alarmed when it doesn’t, and instead cross traffic again receives a green light. Several motorists are now behind Greg. One of them lays on his horn. Greg throws up a middle finger. “It’s red, asshole!” Greg shouts.

Back and forth they go; traffic from one light gets to go, then they stop and traffic from a different light gets to go. Over and over again. Angry motorists continue to honk. Greg, believing the light to be faulty, begins honking and yelling too. “Come on god dammit, I got places to be!” he yells.

Finally, after six painstaking minutes, a man on a motorcycle pulls alongside Greg’s car and asks him to roll down his window. “What the fuck are you doing?!” the motorcyclist yells.

“What, nothing, I’m waiting for the light,” Greg answered.

“You stopped a good forty feet behind the white line! I could back a semi in in front of you! This light is controlled by a sensor. You didn’t pull ahead far enough!”

The motorcyclist then pulls in front of Greg, up to the line, and like magic, instantly receives a green arrow.

Greg goes onward down the road and approached another stop light, where he must again make a left-hand turn. This time, however, there are numerous cars in front of him, and this light is known to be rather short. When the light turns green, Greg inches forward. Six cars in front of Greg made it through the light without problem. The seventh car begins going at the very tail end of a yellow. The eighth car clearly starts turning on red. Certainly no more cars should try going at this point, right? Traffic from the other direction is already starting to move forward. But Greg, knowing how long of a wait this light can be, throws caution to the wind and goes for it. The light for oncoming traffic had now been green for three or four full seconds, but Greg is still finishing his turn, his front end nearly touching the car in front of him. Angry motorists honk at Greg.

At the next stop light, traffic is really heavy. Greg has a green, but traffic is basically at a standstill. Nevertheless, Greg creeps out into the intersection anyway, certain traffic will begin moving before the light changes. Nope. Now he’s blocking the entire intersection. Crossing traffic has nowhere to go until Greg moves forward, but he is stuck. After twenty agonizing seconds, traffic begins moving again and Greg clears the way… but the damage had been done; that cross street missed its entire opportunity to go. Angry motorists lay on their horn.

Just one more traffic light and Greg will be home. He approaches another red light as the first car in line, then pulls out his phone to text his wife. “Traffic brutal. Crazy drivers all over the place. Should be home soon,” he texts. Just then an alert about a blimp crash in Indonesia appears on Greg’s phone. He clicks on the link and begins reading, getting lost in the story.

“Honk, hooooooooonk!” The motorist behind Greg laid on his horn. Greg glanced up. “Oh, shit,” Greg said and gunned it. The light had been green for over five seconds, and Greg hadn’t the slightest clue.

How can Greg enjoy a smoother commute in the future?

If your blood is boiling reading about Greg and his sheer idiocy, you’re not alone! Greg should read these tips.

  • When the light turns red and he’s the first car in line, he needs to drive forward to the designated stopping point, typically a very broad white stripe painted across the road. Despite Greg’s notion that it may be safer to come to a stop wherever he happens to be at the time the light changes, he does in fact need to move ahead to that line. These lines are drawn up by the Department of Transportation for a reason. Oftentimes, lights are controlled by sensors and will not change unless a car is far enough ahead.
  • When the light turns red, Greg should no longer be driving through the intersection, whether he’s going straight or turning. When his light turns red, that means another lane’s light will turn green milliseconds later. That’s the way traffic signals work. To avoid disruption of traffic flow and accidents, Greg should come to a halt at a red light.
  • Even if the light is green and traffic ahead is stopped, Greg needs to wait to make room for his car before proceeding. “Blocking the box” is an egregious offense that blocks the flow of traffic from all lanes. Stay behind that white line at the light and wait for an opening, even if it means waiting a full turn of the light or more.
  • If you are in fact the first car at a red light, it is your responsibility to pay attention and watch the light. No traffic behind you can go until you do. Being distracted on a phone and failing to move when the light turns green is a great way to anger other motorists.

My Hot Take

I wrote this today after experiencing a couple of these items. The driver of a pickup stopped way, waaaaaaay short of the line at a red light. I mean a good 20-30 feet short. I can’t fathom why someone would do this, but in Austin I see it every single day. Maybe he wanted to be safe in case others cars made a short turn? I don’t know. He just never got the hint. The light wouldn’t change for us, and he was getting so sick of waiting he finally just barreled through a red. The car behind him went all the way forward and received a green promptly. I know not all lights are controlled by sensors, but many are including this one.

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