Will California Legislature Make it Legal to Roll through Red Lights?

Drivers don't need any more encouragement to encroach on pedestrian zones. Photo: Melanie Curry
Drivers don’t need any more encouragement to encroach on pedestrian zones. Photo: Melanie Curry

No, this is not about a bill to allow bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, sorry. This is about a bill that supposedly set out to lower fines for cars that turn right on red without stopping. It is sailing unopposed through the state legislature.

The bill, S.B. 986 from Senator Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), was already looking pretty bad to traffic safety advocates. But Brenda Miller at MyFeetFirst.org noticed something even more insidious in the bill’s wording. Its current draft removes the requirement that drivers “remain stopped” at a red light until it is safe to proceed.

“That seemingly small change,” she writes, “effectively legalizes the ‘California stop’ at red lights.”

The bill still requires drivers to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians and approaching vehicles, but without the requirement to remain stopped it will be much harder to enforce that provision. It also puts pedestrians at much greater risk, as Miller points out:

SB 986 fails to consider our typical wide, arterial roads where cars in adjacent lanes obstruct a motorist’s view. With two to five lanes in each direction, edging forward is always dicey. Add a slight curve and/or a few parkway plants and/or a truck . . . even the safest drivers have a hard time seeing what’s coming, especially kids. “Remain stopped” in existing law is important.

Streetsblog has already complained several times about this bill, which supposedly was written to assuage complaints that automatic red light cameras were ticketing too many people for violating red light rules. Too many tickets means too many people are violating the law, not that the law needs to change or the fines need to be lowered.

The fine reduction seems like a distraction when you realize that if it is passed the way it’s currently worded, S.B. 986 could change the way drivers navigate intersections.

“It prioritizes the right to make a careless turn,” said Miller, a safety advocate who has worked in the city of San Clemente for many years. “As it stands now, the law says you must stop on a red light, no excuses. That is removed. [The bill authors] added a paragraph that says you must yield the right of way” but it no longer requires you to be cautious on approaching a right turn.

“It also means that the limit line before the crosswalk—which was put there because of the problem of vehicular encroachment—will lose its meaning. Drivers would no longer have to stop [and stay] at a limit line or crosswalk. Those delineations create a bright line perspective as to where the intersection begins and ends, and this effectively removes that delineation.”

“Traffic cops are going to have a difficult time determining where to draw the line,” she said.

On her blog MyFeetFirst, Miller includes a few data points to drive home the safety implications, writing that “more than one third of Orange County’s injury collisions were caused by drivers failing to yield to people in crosswalks.”

Miller also points out what the bill could cost in terms of economic losses from collisions, and what the possible economic consequences might be for cities who want to prioritize pedestrian safety.

Miller concludes: “It’s a horrific piece of legislation.”

S.B. 986 is scheduled for a vote in the Assembly Appropriations Committee tomorrow. There is likely to be little discussion, as it’s the end of the session and the committee has a long list of bills to consider. It could be worth contacting your state Assemblymember to ask them to vote “no” when the bill comes up for a vote on the Assembly floor, some time in the next few weeks.

Otherwise we’ll have to hope that Governor Brown will veto it.

  • sfgate

    This is great. I hope it passes. we’ve been doing hollywood stops forever anyway. Might as well make it legal.

  • shamelessly

    I’m confused. It sounds like this law clears the way for a driver to turn when there are no pedestrians. It sounds like the law would still require drivers to yield to pedestrians. Where’s the enforcement issue?

    • farazs

      Actually the enforcement issue is already there, even for regular cross-walks. The law requires a pedestrian to step in to the cross-walk to establish their right of way – ergo you have to take a risk and step in to the path of oncoming traffic, for any hope of a driver getting ticketed for not yielding to you. To add insult to injury, the law requires a pedestrian to not step in to moving traffic without ‘due care’ – what ever that means.

      If we follow the letter of the law, as a pedestrian I am completely at the mercy of drivers – I can’t even start crossing until I can ascertain that the driver in the nearest lane has seen me and is preparing to stop. If not, I am just as liable to be ticketed for violating subsection 21950(b), as the driver is for violating 21950(a) or 21950(c).

  • Jeff Jacobberger

    Under the existing and proposed version of the statute, a right-turning motorist must yield only to “any vehicle that has approached or is approaching so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard to the driver.” Bicyclists almost never present a hazard to the driver, and thus as written, motorists can never be cited for failing to yield the right of way to a bicyclist.

    • geezus, that’s scary 🙁

    • Bob P

      A bicyclist impacting the turning vehicle would constitute as a hazard to that vehicle. A “hazard” is not just limited to physical injuries.

  • User_1

    Changing this just makes the enforcers more correct. Much like increasing the speed limit, when it is determined that a large percentage of the drivers are speeding.

    Man I wish I could change the rules where I work. I could all the sudden become correct in my actions!

  • JustJake

    Bring it. There obviously needs to be distinction between the entire right-on-red situation, and a non-turning vehicle, bombing straight through a interaction under red light.

  • mcas

    Pretty sure Mrs. Miller is incorrectly interpreting the bill. It not only retains the requirement drivers stop (b), it adds an entire subsection on pedestrian rights: “(e) A driver making a turn pursuant to subdivision (b) shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrians lawfully within an adjacent crosswalk and to any vehicle that has approached or is approaching so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard to the driver, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to that vehicle until the driver can proceed with reasonable safety.” http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billCompareClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160SB986

    • Melanie Curry

      Yes, the bill does add that paragraph about yielding the right of way. But by removing the requirement to stay stopped behind a limit line, this new wording opens the possibility that creeping into a crosswalk or intersection to see whether it’s safe would be legalized. Right now, the law clearly states that you can’t do that: if you can’t see from behind the stop line whether it’s safe to turn right on red, you don’t get to turn until the light changes. People seem to forget that, but it’s the law right now. This rewording would change that.

    • The benefit of adding that paragraph to the end of 21453 is nullified by the removal of “remain stopped” from the first paragraph, (a), because (a) establishes the rule for approaching an intersection with a circular red light.
      The proposed amendment creates a new sequence of priorities for motorists: 1) approach a red light without intending or being required to stop completely BEFOREHAND, 2) yield to pedestrians lawfully w/i the crosswalk and to any [other] vehicle, and 3) proceed with reasonable safety. However, it’s not possible to “proceed with reasonable safety” unless, as required under existing law, motorists “remain stopped until an indication to proceed . . . ” is observed BEFORE entering the crosswalk or intersection.
      The change in sequential priorities is deliberate. The new paragraph, (e), is not new at all, since it was lifted verbatim from existing paragraph (b) and placed at the end of 21453.

  • Prinzrob

    If this bill gets shot down then would that be a justification for banning all free right turn slip lanes, as that is basically the same thing as rolling a right and dangerous for pedestrians for all the same reasons?

    • farazs

      Not quite! Slip lanes are designed differently, with a pedestrian island and a cross-walk which puts pedestrians in clear view of the driver without any obstructions. The driver has to crossover only that one cross-walk – not two as he would in a regular right turn. That is not to say that slip-lanes are a great idea! In many places they are badly implemented and dangerous for pedestrians.

  • 6eaie2

    Reducing the monetary value of the infraction is independent of defining where and when a motorist must stop when approaching a red light. Bicyclists are often criticized for appearing to demand the rules of the road be specially adapted just for them and behaving as CVC scofflaws. If SB 986 was intended to correct for the objective sensitivity in capturing red-light violations, then scofflaw motorists are, indeed, demanding and getting special rules. And the carnage continues . . .

    • Well, on the plus side, since CVC 21200 assigns bicyclists all the rights of drivers, then this bill will assign bicyclists the same right to roll through red lights.

      • R94110

        Surely that is the way to give cyclists the precious immunity they seek? By allowing the same deal for all road users?

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