The Unabomber, The Red Light, And Me [UPDATED!]

I ran a red light last night, and I’m feeling bad about it. Ted Kaczynski made me do it.

It was after midnight, and I was returning home after seeing the pre-Broadway production of the musical “Mean Girls,” based on the cult Lindsay Lohan comedy. I was late, my phone was dead, I knew my wife would be worried, and I was stopped at an intersection where I could see for many football fields in all directions. There were no cars to be seen anywhere.

Ted, , aka “The Unabomber” or “Snookums” to his friends, cited my exact situation as an example of how we have become slaves to our technology. Why do we waste moments of our limited lifespan because of a red light, when there is no reason to be stopped other than because the signal says to. Admittedly, this had bothered me before I read Ted’s complaint. Stop lights should start blinking by midnight, allowing a motorist to proceed with caution, as with a stop sign.  If one isn’t blinking, we should be allowed to treat it as if it is.

Last night, I ran the light. With my luck, there was a camera at the intersection, and I’ll get a ticket in the mail. But..

…whether I do or not doesn’t change the ethical or unethical character of my conduct. That’s just moral luck.

…it was still against the law to run the light, even it I was treating it as a blinking light, because it wasn’t

…breaking the law is unethical, even when the law is stupid, and

…there was no legitimate emergency that could justify my running the light as a utilitarian act.

So I feel guilty. Not guilty enough to turn myself in, but still guilty, since I am guilty.

But Ted wasn’t wrong.

Update: Let me add this; I was thinking in the shower.

On several occasions in the past, I have found myself stopped by a malfunctioning light that appeared to be determined to stay red forever. Is it ethical to go through the light then? The alternative is theoretically being stuck for the rest of my life. So we run such lights, on the theory the frozen stop light is not meeting the intent of the law or the authorities who placed it there, and to remain servile to the light under such circumstances is unreasonable. Yet running it is still breaking the law, and isn’t stopping for a light in the dead of night with no cars to be seen also not consistent with the intent of the law and the light? What’s the distinction?

41 thoughts on “The Unabomber, The Red Light, And Me [UPDATED!]

  1. I’ve long thought that red should just be treated as a stop sign.

    In dense urban areas, every intersection will have a stoplight, but once you leave the urban core, they do not. Only the intersections of busy streets will have lights and there will be many lightly traveled side roads that are two way stops on to major thoroughfares. In many cases, this is a 4 or 6 lane, two way street where people are allowed to make left or right turns. In addition, there are usually many driveways, also without a signal. At every one of those intersections without a light, the government deems you competent to decide when it’s safe to go. Yet move a few blocks and you’re suddenly incompetent because there is a light.

    We already have headed down this slippery slope with right turn on red. Now some states are permitting a left turn on a red left arrow when the traffic traveling in the same direction as the turner’s approach has a green light. (In that case, you are only yielding to oncoming traffic.)

  2. Ethics incompleteness. “…breaking the law is unethical, even when the law is stupid,…” Martin Luther King: “An unjust law is no law at all.” I would have run that red light Jack ran, too. And I would feel absolutely no guilt about it.

    • luckyesteeyoreman wrote, “I would have run that red light Jack ran, too.”

      Shame on you. 😦

      luckyesteeyoreman wrote, “And I would feel absolutely no guilt about it.”

      Feel no guilt; that disconnect is that’s worse than your other statement.

      luckyesteeyoreman wrote, “Martin Luther King: “An unjust law is no law at all.”

      Some traffic laws may be considered “stupid” but I don’t think there is even one traffic law that is “unjust”. Bad argument to bring into this discussion.

      Come on people, are those few random seconds added to your travel time really that necessary to try and squeeze back in regardless of the consequences? Oh I’m going to be 10 minutes late, so is being 9 minutes and 30 seconds later really that much better? Think about it!

      Consider the following…

      C. S. Lewis Quote: “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”

    • When my wife and i each had cars, I’d cross register them. The rare photo ticket, complements of Goldman Sachs who ran the photo ticket ops for all sorts of jurisdictions throughout Arizona, among other states I believe, would arrive, addressed to my wife. The form would ask her if the driver (that would be moi) wasn’t her, who was it. Pretty brazen question, actually. I’d toss the ticket.

  3. > …breaking the law is unethical, even when the law is stupid, and

    What are the ethics of civil disobedience? Okay if the law is unjust and you’re prepared to do the time (or?)

    > …breaking the law is unethical, even when the law is stupid, and

    Are stupid laws unethical? I’d say so, they have terribly unjust effects on the poor and any person otherwise targeted by law enforcement. They might also provide various bad incentives in society, ie, things like lawyers etc. sending ADA letters to small business to reap the rewards.

    I’d say a law that provides for a traffic camera ticket for treating a red light as a 4 way stop at 2am on a clear night with dry roads is an unethical law that is ethically broken.

    Sing 5 Hot Rod Lincolns and 2 Leader of the Packs

    • “What are the ethics of civil disobedience? Okay if the law is unjust and you’re prepared to do the time (or?)”

      Yes. Civil Disobedience is ethical if you are willing to accept the punishment associated with it.

      “Are stupid laws unethical?”


  4. So long as you are willing to pay the ticket that you may potentially get in the future, I’d chalk this up to civil disobedience over an unjust (or perhaps unjustly applied since it should have gone to blinking-red) law.

    If it were me, I’d even go to court just so that I’d have the opportunity to say so on the record . . . but I’m a jerk like that.


      • Well, there’s this:

        One 3-step countermeasure I have employed is to (1) make a right turn onto the road that has the green light, then (2) make a U turn a bit down the road, and then (3) re-approach the intersection to make a right turn.
        If the light is still green, I turn right and continue on my way.
        If the light has turned red, I turn right and continue on my way.

        • There is a traffic light on the route I used to take to my delivery area. It would turn green for about 5 or 10 seconds and then back to red for about a minute and a half.Maddening to be sure, although I suspect that it had a more normal cycle in the daytime. It was a complex light system that cycled through the green lights and left turn signals separately.

          As it happens, there is a right turn lane for this intersection that branches off about 100 feet before the light. If I wasn’t totally driving on automatic, I would take this right turn lane, then turn left onto the cross street and turn right (on green or red, depending) back onto the original road I was on. A complex maneuver but one that I generally could complete before the original light turned green.

          This was a construction zone, which I think is probably how this light got messed up, but it stayed that way for months before it was ever fixed. I guess not enough people came by at 3 am to complain about it. 🙂

  5. Honestly, wait to see if you get a ticket. If you get a ticket, read it carefully to review your rights. You may have an avenue for administrative appeal prior to making it a judicial matter. Read up on the traffic statutes that govern the red light cameras and make sure they check all the boxes for technicalities.

    Recently, my wife got a red light ticket and she complained to me over and over again. Finally, I read through it and found that they store video of each infraction. You see her pull up to the light and roll through a right turn. She didn’t stop the required 3 seconds. She was busted.

    But, if you have the opportunity to see your video, you may be able to determine how long you were sitting there and possibly use that to justify an appeal.

  6. Jack wrote, “I have found myself stopped by a malfunctioning light that appeared to be determined to stay red forever. Is it ethical to go through the light then? The alternative is theoretically being stuck for the rest of my life. So we run such lights, on the theory the frozen stop light is not meeting the intent of the law or the authorities who placed it there, and to remain servile to the light under such circumstances is unreasonable. Yet running it is still breaking the law, and isn’t stopping for a light in the dead of night with no cars to be seen also not consistent with the intent of the law and the light? What’s the distinction?”

    I remember a couple of red light ticket traps just like that in areas that I hadn’t been in before. There was one that I sat at late at night on a trip, absolutely no traffic in sight, and as soon as I moved through the intersection the light turned green, they nailed me. Nice.

    I don’t know what a reasonable time frame to wait would be 60 seconds, 90 seconds, three minutes; personally I think the driver has a very reasonable argument if they have waited for 90 seconds and there is absolutely no traffic, I’d plead no contest but in preparation for the plea I would time the light and present the evidence as an intentional red light trap. A long time ago there were some small rural towns down south that were doing this intentionally, the police had a way of making the light stay red for as long as they wanted and their tickets were astronomically expensive, they were trying to raise revenue; eventually they were nailed by the press and heads rolled.

    • Depending on visibility down the road in both directions, and depending on the utter solitude of my car at the intersection, I allow roughly between 30 and 60 seconds before lifting my left middle finger up above and forward of the steering wheel and toward the inside face of the windshield (so the cameras can catch me, if there are any), and driving forward with high acceleration (but not “flooring it”) and my right hand still steering.

  7. is efficient breach a rationalization? It was not efficient for you, or society, for you to sit at that red light at midnight. For you, you had the value of time, your wife worrying, etc. For society, it is not efficient for you to wait for a green light, possibly causing other lanes to face a red light, when you could safely traverse.

    • Since you ask:

      “Mean Girls” is a super-slick and professional show, especially the stagecraft. Terrific choreography ( a number using cafeteria trays is spectacular), amazing effects with the computer projection sets, a perfect cast—in all but one case, remarkably evocative of the film performers— with powerhouse voices. Strong book, good lyrics. Wonderful energy. Fabulous, versatile, funny chorus. There is certainly a lot up there to entertain.

      Problems: 1) The set effects upstage the performers. It is as if the director and producers lack faith in the musical comedy/live performance genre. This is ominous. 2) the show sticks so close to the movie that there are almost no surprises 3) it’s FLAT, in the sense that there there is no climax, peaks or valleys. All the scenes and numbers are fun, but a musical needs to build to something. 4) There isn’t a memorable song in the whole show. This is all the “High School Musical”/ Pseudo-“Wicked” homogenized rock-pop stuff that so often is the sound of new musicals. And they used to say Sondheim didn’t write catch tunes! He’s Richard Rodgers compared to this stuff. It’s not bad, it’s just generic. 5.) The movie adapted as a musical problem: the fans want it to be just like the movie, and this adaptation was truer to the film than I would have thought possible. But then it raises Sondheim’s question: “why bother?” 6.) Including virtually every character and scene from the movie eventually leads to drag and tedium. The entire math team tournament scene could be cut, and the show would benefit greatly. I’m betting it will be. That ten minutes or so would not be missed. It’s a good scene—all the scenes are good. But there are too many of them. 8 characters with solos! 7) Small point, but the shameless “Lion King” knock off costuming and staging at the beginning was annoying.

      My sister and I agreed that “Mean Girls” will be a success. Sadly, it is so dependent on lavish technology that I can’t see high schools and colleges producing it well enough to make the effort.

      • I think it should be illegal for cities to use red light cameras. In my city after countless complaints they took them all down. They’re frequently just high tech speed traps.

        • Are speed traps unethical?

          The authorities haven’t enticed or encouraged citizens to break the law before catching them.

          If red light cameras are unethical, the argument can only be made from one of 2 angles: either they are an invasion of privacy (a weak argument) OR they are catching people not breaking any laws but accusing them just the same (a strong argument).

      • In an “ideal” society, in which authorities are “omniscient” about every little detail of conduct within context and benevolent towards its members, ALL unethical conduct *would be* illegal.

        But that we accept that no authority can be omniscient, we assume that much unethical conduct cannot be made illegal without simultaneously ensnaring conduct that is not unethical and therefore unjustly harm the innocent.

        The conduct made illegal, may not be unethical *on its own*, but by being made illegal, it’s the breaking of the law that is unethical, so the conduct is *vicariously* unethical. That’s where citizens have a hang up and confusion.

  8. You’ve found one of my few non-irrational irritants, lonely oh-dark-early traffic lights. The blind, badly mis-timed lights that give equal time (sometimes even more time) to the secondary road than the primary are the worst. They relentlessly cycle through their program, not caring who is watching. Having to stop for what you KNOW is a useless 180 seconds for it to go through it’s entire sequential repertoire of lights, to entertain you and you only, is an exercise in pulse and breathing control.
    The only thing worse is a smart set of lights that know when a vehicle approaches, and will break into what was a record-breaking lonely 3-hour green light for the other direction, simply to let you in! Lucky you! Unless you’re on a motorcycle that refuses to actuate the light. Your choice is wait for a real car, turn right and do a u-turn, or break the law.

  9. A similar issue arises around these parts with stop signs when driving during or after a snowstorm on unplowed side streets. With so little traffic, the snow accumulates, and you end up driving on top of the hardpack. If you come to a full stop at a stop sign, your wheels can sink in and you get stuck for a minute or two until you get loose. This inconveniences not only you, but everyone behind you. So if there is no conflicting traffic, the convenient and courteous thing to do is slow down and roll through without coming to a full stop. Everyone does it. I’ve done it with a police car behind me, reasoning that he’d rather get where he’s going than ticket me. Never got a ticket for it.

  10. I would imagine there are rules on the books about how long you have to wait at a malfunctioning light; much like rules for motorcycles who aren’t heavy enough to trip the light. In Wisconsin, I believe the rule is that the motorcyclist has to wait for two cycles of the light before they can go. If the light were truly malfunctioning, it would seem that would be easy enough to prove because the city would have record of it having to be repaired or reset.

  11. It’s ethics incompleteness. But an easy fix.

    I was driving in Louisville, KY at 1 am once at a large intersection, stopped at a red light, with another driver in the lane next to me. No one came from ANY other direction for a good 3 or 4 minutes. Yet the light stayed red. Both of us looked at each other and shrugged. Then we both made hand signals that we’d rebel together, shrugged again and both ran the red light. I felt bad while I did it, but I got over it.

  12. It seems to me there are a number of factors in play here when considering whether to deliberately break a law.

    1. What negative consequences do your actions risk if you happen to be wrong?

    2. What reasons do you have to believe you’re sufficiently wise and knowledgeable to know better than the law? Depending on how far the law falls within your areas of expertise, the list could be extensive.

    3. Do you think other people will be similarly wise and knowledgeable about similar laws, to know when to break them and when not to?

    4. If you answered no to 3, do you think you can prevent them from breaking the law even if you break it yourself?

    These are the sorts of things I’d consider in such a situation. There may be other important questions I’m missing.

    The traffic lights here all turn flashing red and yellow in the wee hours of the morning. It’s very considerate.

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