Despite law enforcement opposition, lawmakers advance bill to permit cars to run red lights in some conditions

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Car and bus taillights and headlights draw long red and white lights during evening traffic along State Street on Jan. 10.

Lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday that would allow cars to run through red lights — if they first stop for 90 seconds, “reasonably determine” the light is not cycling properly, and then proceed when the coast is clear.

The House Transportation’s 7-4 vote Tuesday to endorse the bill came despite stiff opposition from sheriffs, police chiefs, prosecutors, cities, the Highway Patrol and the Utah Department of Transportation — who call it dangerous, and a solution to a problem they say doesn’t exist about malfunctioning lights.

HB151 had stalled in committee last week over concern that, as then written, it could allow cars to go through any red light when no other traffic was coming.

So its sponsor, Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, rewrote it to add provisions similar to an existing law that allows motorcylists to drive through red lights when they believe a signal has not detected them — requiring them to wait at least 90 seconds first.

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

Ivory also changed the bill so that instead of directly legalizing going through red lights in such instances, it makes doing so an “affirmative defense” if they receive a ticket.

“This would allow someone to have an ability … to plead their case,” Ivory said. Law officers previously testified they would not issue such tickets, and think they are rare at best.

But Ivory said he filed the bill because of a constituent who was denied such a defense for a ticket he received.

Jason Davis, deputy director of UDOT, said most signals on state highways are tied into central operations that automatically detect problems, which are quickly fixed. Malfunctioning signals are rare, he said, and they are set so that when problems occur, they act as if cars are waiting in all directions to give drivers timely green lights.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, unsuccessfully attempted to gut the bill by instead requiring UDOT to conduct a study about what sorts of problems exist with signals. Nelson’s substitute died on a 2-9 vote.

Scott Burns, representing state sheriffs and police chiefs, testified the rewritten bill still “is problematic to law enforcement, and it’s problematic to prosecutors.”

Nelson said, “When we have law enforcement, prosecutors, the League of Cities and Towns and UDOT all clearly opposing the bill, I cannot in good conscience support it. I must defer to their expertise and judgment over mine.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville.

But Ivory defended the bill as modeled after the motorcycle bill that has been in place for years without problems. “The bill is working,” he said. “The question is do we want to provide a solution for someone who is stuck at a light? I think we do.”

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

Meanwhile, the full House voted 53-20 on Tuesday to advance 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 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.