Inoperable Traffic Signals

You’ve probably heard news reports in the context of severe weather “reminding” you that a traffic light that’s out becomes a “4-way stop”. In some states, that’s true. But in the rest, it isn’t.

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In a majority of states, the signal not being lit is interpreted as the signal not being there. In other words, it reverts to an uncontrolled intersection where basic right-of-way law applies. This is a result of the law generally requiring you to stop when facing a red light, with a variety of exceptions. Without a red light displayed, it takes a second provision in the law to require a stop when no light is displayed.

That of course means that a stop is not required, but yielding is. It means that you must yield to a car arriving from your right at the same time as you. And it means that you have to yield to any vehicles already in the intersection, or approaching so as to cause an immediate hazard. Just as on the neighborhood street or country lane, sometimes that might mean stopping too.

Why not stop anyways, just to be safe?

The short answer is that everyone is safest with predictable behavior. We have law requiring certain actions or not so that everyone interacts with the same set of ground rules. Especially when you’re dealing with a major road, with a continuous stream of traffic, stopping creates new hazards.

If you’re the only person who stops on a particular approach, you’re a sitting duck waiting to be rear-ended. In an RV, you almost certainly block the view of traffic in the lane next to you, over a much longer time and distance, for the vehicles on the intersecting road. And you create confusion for other drivers wondering what this person is doing, stopping when they were approaching first. It creates a chain reaction of indecision and confusion, that eventually snowballs into a collision.

Should the law simply require everyone to stop at an inoperable traffic signal?

When approaching an inoperable traffic signal, you could argue that we should modify the law in 28 states so that a stop is required at all of them.

Traffic Flow

If you think about when you’re likely to have lots of lights out–i.e. natural disasters, major power outages, industrial accident, etc.–there’s often a need to move a lot of people quickly. Where there are side roads with little or no traffic, major thoroughfares flow a lot better if a stop isn’t required.

If traffic is congested trying to get away from something, the last thing you want is thousands of cars stopping at every block passing through town.

Emergency and Pedestrian Hybrid Beacons

Most often, you see these outside fire stations and ambulance services on major roads where either traffic is heavy or sight distances are limited for an emergency vehicle pulling out into traffic (especially where garages are close to the travel lanes, and other drivers’ views of the emergency vehicle’s lights would be limited).

But the pedestrian variety is becoming increasingly common as well, used at mid-block crosswalks. They’re dark by design (whether that’s good or bad is a subject for debate), lighting up yellow, then red when triggered by a pedestrian, fire truck, or ambulance. The stop-on-dark laws have to have exceptions for these lights to be used as designed, otherwise you have to stop at the crosswalks when that’s not intended.

Have you seen these before? Perhaps it’s worth a quick refresher.

Source: FHWA. MUTCD 2009 Edition, Section 4F.
  1. Normal unactivated state. The intent here is that no stop is required (as designed by federal law), however, most states with a stop-on-dark law have not amended them to accommodate this type of signal.
  2. Flashing yellow. This is triggered as soon as a pedestrian activates the signal. The pedestrian is still required to wait, and you may still proceed with caution, without stopping.
  3. Steady yellow. Same meaning as an ordinary traffic light–the flashing yellow meaning continues, with a warning that it’s about to be red.
  4. Steady red. Stop as if at a normal red light, and wait. The pedestrian now gets a walk signal and may begin crossing.
  5. Alternating flashing red lights. The pedestrian “walk” phase ends, and they see a flashing orange hand. Pedestrians are permitted to continue crossing, but may not start to cross. Drivers treat the flashing red as a stop sign, able to stop, then proceed if clear.
  6. Back to stage 1 until activated again.

Where do I have to stop at an inoperative traffic signal?

Behind the white line! Well, sort of. But we’re talking about which states here. It’s important to know which ones require a stop, and which ones don’t.

While the MUTCD spells out the uniform meanings for all of the vehicular and pedestrian signals in use nationwide today, it does not spell out behavior required when signals are dark. (And despite a federal requirement to comply, enforcement action is virtually unheard of.) A survey conducted in 1998 by Minnesota’s DOT identified 9 states with “stop on dark” laws, but today that number is 22.

Penalties for not stopping at a dark signal, where required, are generally similar to running a red light. But it’s unlikely you’d ever be cited–Colorado’s analysis shows that over 3 years, citations of all types at dark intersections totaled 40 (compared to many thousands per year issued at working signalized intersections). Keep in mind that 40 number includes citations for things not related to the dark signal too–including failing to yield properly even after a stop.

What’s far more important is that you understand what behavior is expected, likely, and how you should conform to those norms. Especially in an RV, you don’t want to find yourself trying to pull out into fast moving traffic because you stopped when you didn’t need to. You also don’t want to rearrange the dishes because you got a reminder about stopping from the passenger seat. And you definitely don’t want to find yourself involved in an accident that could ruin a vacation or worse.

In the table below, for each state you’ll see an entry in the “Stop Required?” column that specifies whether there’s a state law requiring you to stop when encountering a dark (or in some cases, malfunctioning) traffic signal. There’s also a link to the relevant state statute, and an effective date (if known).

State Laws on Stopping at Inoperable Traffic Signals

StateStop Required?ReferenceEffective DateNotes
ALNo32-5a-32

AKNo


AZStop (inoperative)ARS 28 45

ARNo27-52-107

CAStop (inoperative)VEH 2180001/01/88
COStop (inoperative, if at intersection)
CRS 42-4-6121965
42-4-612
Proceed as if flashing yellow (yield) if not at intersection.
CTNo14-299

DEUncontrolled (dark)41082
4108(c)
DC



FLStop (including if only some are inoperative)316.12351977
GAStop (dark)40-6-70
Hawk exception
HINo291c-32

IDNo49-802
Motorcycle exception, requires vehicle detection inoperative
ILStop (dark)http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs4.asp?DocName=062500050HCh%2E+11&ActID=1815&ChapterID=0&SeqStart=113800000&SeqEnd=13930000010/01/77625 ILCS 5/11-305(e); Bikes can proceed on red after stop+120s
INStop (dark or conflicting)9-21-3-702/24/82Hawk exception
IANo321.257

KSNo8-15-8

KYNohttps://apps.legislature.ky.gov/law/statutes/statute.aspx?id=44640
Motorcycle exception, requires malfunctioning detection, 120s or 2 cycles
LAStop (completely dark)RS32-232-1

MENo29A-2057

MDStop (nonfunctioning at intersection)21-209
Does not require stop at dark mid-block locations
MANo89-8https://malegislature.gov/Bills/191/H3182
MIStop (dark or malfunctioning)2018-PA-0109Effective 7/23/2018No Hawk exception
MNNo169.06
Bike/motorcycle exception (unreasonable time and malfunctioning)
MSNo63-3-309

MONo304-281

MTNo61-8-207

NEStop (not operating)60-6,123

NVStop (inoperative and uncovered)NRS-484B Sec25007/01/93
NHNo265-10

NJStop (dark)39-4-812004
NMNo66-7-105

NYStop (malfunction)7-24-1117

NCStopNCGS 20-158

NDNo39-10-05

OHStop (dark, unclear combination, or vehicle detector/bike failure)ORC 4511.13207/25/89
OKNo47-11-202

ORNoORS 811

PAStop75-31-3112

RINo31-13-607/01/77
SCNo56-5-970

SDStop (out of operation or not functioning properly, facing red/dark)SDCL 32-28-8.2Signed into law 3/14/2000
TNStop (inoperative)55-8-110

TXNoTN.544
544.007
UTStop (inoperative)https://law.justia.com/codes/utah/2018/title-41/chapter-6a/part-3/section-305/199341-6a-305(6)
VTNohttps://legislature.vermont.gov/statutes/section/23/013/01022

VAStop (out of service)46.2-833

WAStop (no red, yellow, or green on current approach)46.61.183

WVNo17C

WIStop (malfunctions so that it does not exhibit any color of light)346.37(3)Published 7/22/15
WYNo31-5-403

A Few Other Reminders about Traffic Signal Modes/Terminology

Steady Mode/Stop-and-Go

This is the mode you’re most accustomed to as a driver. This is the normal sequencing of steady red, yellow, and green signals. Circular green means you have permission to proceed straight, left, or right, barring separate signals or posted restrictions. Green arrows permit movements in the directions of the arrows.

A steady yellow indication is a warning that the related green (or flashing yellow) movement is being terminated. The rules controlling movement on green (or flashing yellow) still apply.

Steady circular red means that stopping (and remaining stopped) is required, except that you may turn right on red or left on red (from a one-way street to another one-way street in most states) unless “NO TURN ON RED” signs are posted.

A steady red arrow indicates that the indicated movement is not permitted.

Flashing Mode

For a whole intersection, this is most often seen during times of low traffic volumes–late at night, near factories and schools, shopping centers, etc. The signals controlling the higher volume roadway will flash yellow, allowing traffic to proceed with caution, without stopping, while the minor road/entrance sees a flashing red, which operates like a stop sign. This isn’t an inoperable traffic signal, in any sense of the word. It’s giving a clear indication of what’s required for everyone involved.

You may have also noticed over the last decade or so increasing prevalence of flashing yellow turn arrows. The flashing arrow has the same meaning here–proceed with caution, yielding to oncoming traffic–as a circular green or flashing circular yellow when making the same turn. These have found to be safer, helping people to remember that they (literally) don’t have a green light to turn left across traffic.

If a traffic light that you normally expect to be in stop-and-go mode suddenly switches to flashing mode, use caution and obey the signals as indicated. Don’t stop unless necessary (i.e. facing a flashing red or turning), and exercise caution–stopping when not required can create confusion, especially on multi-lane roadways.

See an error? Know of a change?

If you think we’ve got it wrong for your state (or any other), let us know! Please provide a link to your source, whether law or news article, and we’ll follow up on it.

Of course, also check out other tables like this on the Resources page.