Traffic light with red arrow - Photo: Mona Eshaiker (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).
Photo: Mona Eshaiker

Different State Laws

Traffic signals with red arrows are perhaps one of the most confusing situations you can encounter on American roads. While traffic signs, pavement markings, and traffic signals basically have the same meaning in all states, red arrows are different.

Most drivers assume that red arrows mean that turning in the direction of the arrow is prohibited in all situations. The truth is that some states allow turning against the red arrow, even if most states don’t.

What to Expect on Your DMV test

Our free permit practice tests have several questions about turning against a red arrow. Should you expect the same questions on your real DMV knowledge test? Well, if your state prohibits turning against a red arrow, changes are pretty good that such a question can appear on your knowledge exam. If your state allows turning against the arrow, it will probably not show up.

Red Arrow and Red Ball

All 50 states and the District of Columbia allow right turns on a circular red light since 1978. Exceptions exist when a no turn on red sign is posted or where local rules prohibit such a turn (New York City). In the handful of states that allow turning against a red arrow, the arrow is basically treated the same way as the circular red light (red ball).

The following applies in all states: when you face a red light, you must come to a complete stop at the marked stop line or before moving into the crosswalk or intersection. After stopping, you may turn right if the way is clear. Make sure no sign prohibits the turn.

In most states, you may also turn left against a red light from a one-way street onto another one-way street.


Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington allow turns against both the red circular light and the red arrow.

Oregon Revised Statutes, as an example, state:

ORS 811.360: The driver of a vehicle, subject to this section, who is intending to turn at an intersection where there is a traffic control device showing a steady circular red signal, a steady red bicycle signal or a steady red arrow signal may do any of the following without violating ORS 811.260 (Appropriate driver responses to traffic control devices) and 811.265 (Driver failure to obey traffic control device):

(a) Make a right turn into a two-way street.

(b) Make a right or left turn into a one-way street in the direction of traffic upon the one-way street.

Other states simply talks about a steady red indication, without making a distinction between arrows and circular lights.

If you live in a state that permits turning against a red arrow take extra care when you travel to other states. The rules in other states are likely to be different. It is more common that you must stop at the traffic light and remain stopped until a signal permitting the movement is shown (green circular light or green arrow).