Running Red Lights and Stop Signs in Tennessee

Penalties and enforcement for running red lights and stop signs in Tennessee.

Running a stop sign or red light is one of the most common moving violations (especially popular when police officers must meet their ticket quotas for the month). Here are the basics on the enforcement, defenses and penalties for this offense in Tennessee.

Where and How to Stop

Stop signs and traffic lights, sometimes referred to as traffic-control devices, are placed at intersections and crossings requiring the driver to come to a full stop at the “limit line” (a line painted on the street indicating where to stop), or if there is no limit line, at the entrance to the intersection or crossing.

Tennessee’s Red Light/Stop Sign Law

Tennessee’s red light and stop sign law states:

Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-109  (2013)

55-8-109.  Obedience to any required traffic-control device.

  (a) The driver of any vehicle and the operator of any streetcar shall obey the instructions of any official traffic-control device applicable thereto placed in accordance with the provisions of this chapter and chapter 10, parts 1-5 of this title, unless otherwise directed by a traffic or police officer, subject to the exceptions granted the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle in this chapter.

(b)  (1) No provision of this chapter for which signs are required shall be enforced against an alleged violator if at the time and place of the alleged violation an official sign is not in proper position and sufficiently legible to be seen by an ordinarily observant person.

   (2) Whenever a particular section does not state that signs are required, that section shall be effective even though no signs are erected or in place.

(c) For purposes of this section, "traffic or police officer" means every officer authorized to direct or regulate traffic or to make arrests for violations of traffic regulations or a person licensed under title 62, chapter 35, who is retired in good standing from being a commissioned, POST-certified law enforcement officer and who has notified the chief law enforcement officer in the jurisdiction where the retired officer will be directing or regulating traffic at least twenty-four (24) hours in advance, or as soon as possible in the event of an emergency, prior to performing traffic control functions in such jurisdiction.

(d) A violation of this section is a Class C misdemeanor.

Penalties

The fine for running a stop sign or red light can starts at $50 in Tennessee. No points are assessed for automated red light tickets. These fines may change over time and differ by county. Check with the county clerk for the most current fines.

“The Right on Red” Rule

Like most states, Tennessee allows drivers to make a turn on a red light in certain situations – typically if there is no sign prohibiting "right on red," and if it is safe to do so under the circumstances.

Left on Red Rule

Tennessee permits left turns on red lights provided both the origin and destination streets are one way.

The “Yellow-Light Rule” in Tennessee

In Tennessee it is not illegal to deliberately drive through a yellow light. A yellow light means only that traffic facing the light is “warned” that a red light will soon follow. As long as your vehicle entered the intersection or passed the crosswalk or limit line before the light turned red, you haven’t broken the law.

Possible Defenses:

  • The officer could not see your full stop. Occasionally, an officer will park on a cross street so that all is visible is the stop sign and limit line, and maybe a few feet of road in front of the line or sign. A conscientious driver might well come to a complete stop a few feet behind the line where the officer can’t see; then, having already stopped as required, drive ahead into the intersection. If this happens to you, you should try to find out where the officer was parked. Later you can take pictures from that location to show just how limited the officer’s view was.
  • You could not see the stop sign or red light. It may happen that local conditions made the device unviewable to you—for example, leaves from adjacent trees covered or obscured your view of a stop sign until it was too late to stop. This too can be shown with photographic evidence, and establishes the defense that you were neither willful nor criminally negligent in driving through it.
  • The “recently installed” defense. One other possible (if rare) defense applies to newly installed devices. For example, it’s all too easy to miss seeing a recently installed stop sign on a familiar road. Willfulness or carelessness is an implied essential element of every violation and a judge may find you not guilty if the stop sign wasn’t visible until too late, or you didn’t realize it had just been installed.
  • “Didn’t stop at the line” defense. People sometimes get a ticket because they stopped in front of the limit line or crosswalk, rather than behind. If this happens to you, perhaps you can truthfully testify that it hasn’t been repainted for so long that it was unnoticeable. Here again, a picture is truly better than a thousand words.

Red Light Cameras

Tennessee permits the use of red light cameras – devices that photograph drivers running red lights and automatically issue tickets. Three possible defenses to consider for a red light camera ticket:

  • You weren’t driving the car. If this is the case, the photograph should demonstrate that someone else was driving your vehicle;
  • The yellow light was too short. In some cases, it has been discovered that municipalities have deliberately shortened the duration of yellow lights in order to increase the odds of running the light (and ratcheting up the town’s traffic enforcement revenue). If you want to make this claim, you should time the duration of the yellow light to see if it differs substantially from other nearby yellow lights. This argument may not succeed in all states.
  • Some states require that warning signs be posted to make you aware of photo enforcement at the upcoming red light. Some states require warning signs for red light cameras. If you can prove that the municipality did not provide warning signage, you may be able to succeed in your red light camera defense. (Photos are essential to this defense.)

Special Rules for Motorcycles and Bikes

Motorcyclists and bicyclists in Tennessee may run red lights legally. If a traffic light fails to turn green in a “reasonable period of time,” riders are now permitted to proceed through the intersection. This law is derived from a technical problem. Devices that trigger red lights have difficulty "reading" the presence of motorcycles and bicycles. Cyclists are often left standing for long periods, or until a car approaches.

Talk to a Lawyer

Want to talk to an attorney? Start here.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Connect with local attorneys
NOLO-web1:DRU1.6.12.2.20161011.41205