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Traffic Light Law Clarified

A new law that’s taken effect this summer seeks to shed light on an age-old and recurring conundrum motorists face when they’re on the move: Should I gun it through that yellow or play it safe and wait till the next green?

Tennessee drivers got some illumination in the law from the state Legislature this year: Go for it.

“It says if you enter a red light area when it’s green or (yellow), and something happens that you have to stop in there — some car ahead of you — and the light turns red while you’re in there, they can’t give you a ticket for clearing the intersection,” said one of the bill’s sponsors, Strawberry Plains Republican Frank Niceley, during a Senate Transportation Committee hearing back in March. “That’s the way it was always meant to be, but evidently there was some confusion.”

Roger Hutto, with the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, testified before the House Transportation Subcommittee in March, and said that under the previous law, a yellow light was a warning that a red light is imminent, but the law doesn’t say a motorist has to stop on anything but a red light.

Hutto added that this change was “more of a clarification than a need.”

The bill, SB2056/HB2003, passed the Senate 32-0, and passed the House 92-0. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill into law on May 22. The House sponsor was Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis.

Niceley told TNReport that a friend of his told him there was an ongoing problem in Memphis with police officers giving out tickets for running a red light after it changed while the driver was in the middle of the intersection.

Niceley said he asked the Department of Safety about it, and they told him that’s not how the law was supposed to be interpreted.

“We read the law, and the Department of Safety said the law was vague, so we needed to rewrite the law to where everyone can understand it,” Niceley said.

It originally passed the Senate with different wording, but the House passed a version of the bill that read “even better” than what the Senate had passed, and Niceley asked the Senate to concur on the House’s language.

The version that passed the House was proposed as an amendment by House Transportation Committee Chairman Vince Dean, a Republican from East Ridge, after several minutes of committee debate on the language of two amendments. “We can make it very simple if we amended this and said it is not a violation of the red light law unless the vehicle crosses the stop bar after the light turns red,” Dean said in committee.

Dean, who is retiring from the General Assembly this year to run for the position of Hamilton County Court Clerk, clarified that he meant the front tires of the car, and said that he’d gotten the language from the laws governing red light cameras.

The proposed change to the law’s wording had no opposition that Niceley was aware of, he said. The Department of Safety acknowledged that he was right about the need for clarification, and the law enforcement officers who were giving people those tickets probably knew that they were in the wrong.

“Every now and then you just kind of have to rein in law enforcement a little bit,” Niceley said. “They’ll push the envelope, so you just have to tie that and tighten it back up where they can’t do it.

2 replies on “Traffic Light Law Clarified”

Just received a ‘Warning’ from a Greeneville officer. The document states that I was being sighted for ‘Running Red Light’, code # 9-407 (which I have not been able to find). The officer agreed that I entered the intersection on a yellow light. But said that because I was forced to stop in the intersection to allow traffic to clear before completing a left turn that this constituted the violation. ‘We write tickets for that here’ he told me. When he returned from running his checks on my registration, etc., he said he would reduce it to a ‘Warning’ this time.

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