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Can you run a red light in NC if it’s not changing or if it’s an emergency? Here’s the law

When drivers reach a red light, they’re required to make a full stop until the light turns green.

But what if that green light is taking longer than normal? And what if it doesn’t turn green at all? Can you go through it without penalty?

Here’s what a North Carolina legal expert and law official told The News & Observer:

Can you drive through a red light in NC if it’s not turning green?

No, drivers are required to stop at red lights, per North Carolina law, laid out in Section 20-158.

However, a driver may turn right on red if not otherwise prohibited and only after coming to a complete stop, said Joseph L. Hyde, an assistant professor of public law and government at the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill.

But motorcyclists have slightly different rules, the Charlotte Observer previously reported.

If a rider waits at a red light for at least three minutes and it doesn’t change, state law says they can proceed through the light carefully if there are no other drivers approaching the intersection. This is because traffic signal sensors don’t always recognize motorcycles.

The law also applies to “an operator of farm equipment or machinery,” Hyde said.

What can you do if the stoplight is taking longer than usual to turn green?

“Per the statute, if it takes a long time for the light to turn green, you can turn right on red,” Hyde said.

“But if you go straight through the intersection, you can be cited for running a red light.”

Signs advising drivers that there is no right turn on a red light have appeared in increasing numbers in downtown Raleigh.
Signs advising drivers that there is no right turn on a red light have appeared in increasing numbers in downtown Raleigh.

Can you run a red light because of an emergency?

This is unclear.

A spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety did not answer the question, instead saying: “I can’t speak to any of the ‘what-ifs’ that a driver who violates this statute might use for justification, nor could I speak to the actions an officer might take given a possible scenario.”

No reported case has condoned the use of necessity defense — or the need to perform an unlawful action to prevent greater harm — for running a red light, UNC’s Hyde said.

But this is probably because officers have not ticketed people for running red lights due to emergencies, such as needing to avoid a collision or rushing to the hospital for a medical reason, he said.

What’s the penalty for driving through a red light?

Failing to stop at a red light is punishable by a fine of up to $100.

But if you run a red light and fail to yield to a pedestrian, you can be fined between $100 and $500, NC law says.

Citations or arrests are issued for “definite, clear-cut and substantial violations of a law,” said Sgt. Christopher Knox, spokesperson for the NC Department of Public Safety and State Highway Patrol.

“Members shall not issue citations or make arrests for frivolous, technical or borderline violations.”

How do you drive through an intersection when the power is out?

If the traffic light is inoperable due to a power outage or some other issue, NC law says to treat the intersection as if it were “controlled by a stop sign on all approaches.”

But if an officer or another authorized person were controlling traffic, heed to their instructions instead.

Inspired by a story from The Sacramento Bee.

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