Lawmakers balk, for now, at plan to allow cars to run red lights when the coast is clear

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Car and bus taillights and headlights draw long red and white lights during evening traffic along State Street on Jan. 10, 2019. A bill in the Legislature proposes to allow vehicles to run red lights when traffic is low and sensors on the lights are malfunctioning.

Lawmakers tapped the brakes Tuesday on a bill to allow cars to run red lights legally, if the coast is clear at times of extremely low traffic.

Amid sirens of warning from the Utah Highway Patrol and state Department of Transportation, the House Transportation Committee decided to hold HB151 for more work — before possibly giving it a green light later.

Its sponsor, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said the bill aims to handle situations where lights aren’t cycling properly, often late at night or in the early morning. “It’s a commonsense provision to keep people moving…. Do we let people wait until hell freezes over at a light, or do we trust them?”

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan.

But committee members said the bill does not make it clear that it is limited to when lights are malfunctioning, and makes it sound like drivers could run a red light anytime they think the way is clear.

The bill as written would allow running a red light on highways that have speed limits lower than 55 mph “during a time of extremely low traffic levels,” but does not define that.

It would require the driver to stop and determine that “no other vehicle is at or near the intersection that might compromise the safety of either vehicle,” and that “no pedestrian is attempting to cross” and “no other safety concern exists.”

Ivory said he will work to make the intent of the bill more clear, perhaps putting in a requirement that a car must wait for at least 90 seconds before running through a light — similar to an existing law that allows motorcycles to go through intersections when signals fail to detect them.

Utah Highway Patrol Major Steve Winward opposed the bill, saying it may be easily misunderstood to make people think they can run any red light if they think they can do it safely. “Once the word gets out, the floodgates open and everyone thinks they can do it.” UDOT Deputy Director Jason Davis said its modern signals do detect vehicles and glitches are rare, so the new bill is not needed and would increase accidents. He said only Pennsylvania has a similar law because its detection systems do not work well.

Bountiful Police Chief Tom Ross, speaking for the Utah Chiefs of Police Association, said police normally will not ticket someone who reports they were waiting a long time at a light before running a red light — and said that is the best way to handle the situation.

Ivory said he drafted the bill after a complaint from Brian Tenney of South Jordan. Tenney said he was waiting at an intersection where a red light would not change for several minutes — probably because traffic had been shifted because of construction, so the sensor did not detect his car.

He ran the light, and was ticketed. He fought it in court. “I didn’t feel like I did anything wrong, but the judge said I had no case,” he said. “He told me that If I want to fix it, try to change law.”

Ivory last year managed to pass a similar bill through committee, but it was never considered by the full House.

Last week, the same committee advanced another bill, HB161, to allow bicycles to run through stop signs and red lights if they can do so safely.

That bill’s sponsor, Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, says most bike accidents occur at intersections, and allowing cyclists to keep up some speed and cross through them quickly if clear is safer — and most cyclists do it anyway. She said Idaho has had a similar law for years, and found no increase in accidents or fatalities.