run a red light: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘run a red light’ mean?

"Run a red light" is an idiom that means to drive through an intersection while the traffic light is showing red, violating traffic rules and potentially causing an accident.

Idiom Explorer

Decoding Traffic Transgressions

In the idiom "run a red light," the verb "run" is used metaphorically to mean disobey or disregard. The phrase "a red light" refers to a traffic signal that is red, indicating that drivers should stop. When put together, the idiom "run a red light" signifies the act of driving through a traffic intersection when the traffic signal is red, without stopping. This idiom is commonly used in American English, and its meaning is widely understood by the US audience.

The origin of this idiom can be traced back to the introduction of traffic signals, specifically red lights, in the late 19th century. The first electric traffic signal was installed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1914, and it used red, green, and yellow lights. It quickly became common practice for drivers to stop at a red light, as it signaled the need to yield to oncoming traffic. Over time, the phrase "run a red light" emerged colloquially to describe the act of disregarding this traffic signal and continuing through the intersection.

Driving through a dangerous intersection without traffic laws.

The idiom "run a red light" is often associated with negative consequences, as it is an illegal and dangerous action. When a driver runs a red light, they risk causing an accident, endangering their own life and the lives of others. This idiom is frequently used in discussions about traffic safety and the importance of obeying traffic laws.

Additionally, "run a red light" can be applied figuratively to describe disregarding rules or norms in other contexts beyond driving. It can be used to convey the idea of not adhering to regulations, ignoring warnings, or acting recklessly. In these cases, the idiom carries the same negative connotations and potential negative consequences as its literal interpretation in traffic-related situations.

It is worth noting that the idiom "run a red light" retains its literal meaning even in situations where the specific traffic signal is not red. The phrase has become a fixed expression, and its significance is tied to the idea of disregarding any form of signal or warning that requires a stop or compliance.

The idiom "run a red light" originates from the practice of disregarding a red traffic signal while driving. It is a metaphorical expression that signifies disregarding rules, warnings, or norms in various contexts. This idiom is widely understood by the US audience and carries negative connotations due to its association with illegal and dangerous behavior.

Example usage

Examples of how the idiom *run a red light* can be used in a sentence:

  • He got a ticket for running a red light.
  • She narrowly avoided an accident by running a red light.
  • The driver was arrested for running a red light and causing a collision.

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