Running Red Lights and Stop Signs in Virginia

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

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 Virginia.

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.

Virginia’s Red Light/Stop Sign Law

Virginia’s red light and stop sign law states:

§ 46.2-833. Traffic lights; penalty.

A. Signals by traffic lights shall be as follows:

Steady red indicates that moving traffic shall stop and remain stopped as long as the red signal is shown, except in the direction indicated by a steady green arrow.

Green indicates the traffic shall move in the direction of the signal and remain in motion as long as the green signal is given, except that such traffic shall yield to other vehicles and pedestrians lawfully within the intersection.

Steady amber indicates that a change is about to be made in the direction of the moving of traffic. When the amber signal is shown, traffic which has not already entered the intersection, including the crosswalks, shall stop if it is not reasonably safe to continue, but traffic which has already entered the intersection shall continue to move until the intersection has been cleared.

Flashing circular red indicates that traffic shall stop before entering an intersection. Such traffic shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrian and vehicular traffic lawfully within the intersection.

Flashing red arrow indicates that traffic shall stop before entering an intersection. After stopping, traffic may cautiously enter the intersection to turn in the direction of the signal. Such traffic shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrian and vehicular traffic lawfully within the intersection.

Flashing circular amber indicates that traffic may proceed through the intersection or past such signal with reasonable care under the circumstances. Such traffic shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrian and vehicular traffic lawfully within the intersection.

Flashing amber arrow indicates that traffic may turn in the direction of such signal with reasonable care under the circumstances. Such traffic shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrian and vehicular traffic lawfully within the intersection.

B. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, if a driver of a motorcycle or moped or a bicycle rider approaches an intersection that is controlled by a traffic light, the driver or rider may proceed through the intersection on a steady red light only if the driver or rider (i) comes to a full and complete stop at the intersection for two complete cycles of the traffic light or for two minutes, whichever is shorter, (ii) exercises due care as provided by law, (iii) otherwise treats the traffic control device as a stop sign, (iv) determines that it is safe to proceed, and (v) yields the right of way to the driver of any vehicle approaching on such other highway from either direction.

C. If the traffic lights controlling an intersection are out of service because of a power failure or other event that prevents the giving of signals by the traffic lights, the drivers of vehicles approaching such an intersection shall proceed as though such intersection were controlled by a stop sign on all approaches. The provisions of this subsection shall not apply to: intersections controlled by portable stop signs, intersections with law-enforcement officers or other authorized persons directing traffic, or intersections controlled by traffic lights displaying flashing red or flashing amber lights as provided in subsection A.

D. The driver of any motor vehicle may be detained or arrested for a violation of this section if the detaining law-enforcement officer is in uniform, displays his badge of authority, and (i) has observed the violation or (ii) has received a message by radio or other wireless telecommunication device from another law-enforcement officer who observed the violation. In the case of a person being detained or arrested based on a radio message, the message shall be sent immediately after the violation is observed, and the observing officer shall furnish the license number or other positive identification of the vehicle to the detaining officer.

Violation of any provision of this section shall constitute a traffic infraction punishable by a fine of no more than $350.

Penalties

The fine for running a stop sign or red is $200 - 350 (4 points) and $50 for a red-light camera ticket in Virginia. 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, Virginia 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

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

The “Yellow-Light Rule” in Virginia

In Virginia 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

Virginia 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.)
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