During the third episode of the HBO show "True Detective" the following dialogue is exchanged:

Cop 1: "Certain linguist anthropologists think that religion is a language virus that rewrites pathways in the brain; dulls critical thinking."

Cop 2: "Well, I don't use ten dollar words as much as you, but for a guy who sees no point in existence you sure fret about it an awful lot. And you still sound panicked."

Cop 1: "At least I'm not racing to a red light."

I had not heard this phrase before, and am curious of its origin and meaning?

EDIT: Before transcribing the dialogue, I had written the phrase as "racing to a stoplight."

You can find the full dialogue here

  • Maybe futile enthusiasm?
    – virmaior
    Feb 19, 2014 at 5:40
  • 2
    Please provide the full context. I can see at least two possible ways to interpret that expression depending on context.
    – Kris
    Feb 19, 2014 at 7:21
  • @Kris You can find the full dialogue here
    – Wilhelm
    Oct 5, 2015 at 19:53

10 Answers 10


I don't know why OP should think there might be an astronomical reference involved. I've never come across the "expression" before, and I rather doubt it will ever become common, but fairly obviously the figurative reference is to...

driving fast, unaware or heedlessly ignoring a traffic light showing red (stop) coming up ahead.

It's a trivial metaphor, so I don't think it "means" anything to find a "first use", but here it is in 2002 from a representative of European shipbuilders, noting the lack of future contracts...

Europe was "racing towards a red light", he said, and its shipbuilding "must now take in new orders".

(That's a rather cunning way of transcribing the man's words, in that you can either interpret those "scare quotes" as alerting you to a creative non-standard usage, or simply as reported speech.)

See fourth comment below for a 1998 instance (also "industry-related"). There's no real significance to the stop light / stoplight / red light variations - just that AmE uses the first two more often than BrE does, as with toward / towards. The same imagery may occur with hurtling / speeding etc.

A more common "arresting" metaphor (in the stoppage or sudden cessation of motion sense) is...

running headlong into a brick wall

...alluding to the moment of impact and/or the reckless/futile movement towards the wall.

  • @Susan: Eeek! I've only just noticed that while searching Google Books I seamlessly changed OP's "racing towards a stoplight" to "...a red light". Since it didn't exist in the original form, I tried "stop light" with a space, and naturally moved on to "red light" without giving it a thought (it meant no more to me at the time than changing a UK spelling to a US one if I don't find what I'm after first time). It's only your comment that made me realise any native speakers might not understand such transparent imagery unambiguously on first encounter, whatever the exact words used. Feb 19, 2014 at 23:18
  • @Susan: Actually, I have now found an earlier related instance - which despite what I just wrote under David's answer, is clearly American, since it's in Real Estate Forum - Volume 53 1998 I don't think the industry is speeding toward a red light. Incidentally, although I said the "brick wall" version covers both the reckless approach and the imminent impact, that second sense is probably more part of banging your head against a brick wall. Feb 19, 2014 at 23:38
  • @FumbleFingers I have edited the question to clarify the words used from where I heard it, but please let me know if I have inadvertently changed the meaning from those you all ascertained (I don't think so).
    – Jason
    Feb 20, 2014 at 2:59

I don't know if this will help you, but there is a similar though less dramatic idiom: hurry up and wait.

It's a military saying meaning to do some things in a series very quickly with a lot of effort, only to then have to wait a long time to do the next thing.

Racing toward(s) a stoplight is not idiomatic (yet) in English, so I think perhaps you heard an early (maybe the first) use of this expression. Perhaps it is an idiom in another language.

  • I don't know that the two idioms are equivalent! The OP's implies that you are heading down a wrong path without hesitation. The one you quoted means: you need to learn how to be patient! (It is the motto of the Carribean, BTW!) When someone says it's a lot of hurry up and wait, they mean they're being forced to be patient despite their impatience.
    – David M
    Feb 19, 2014 at 15:19
  • @DavidM - agree that they are not equivalent (hence the hedge). But I found no use of OP's phrase to compare meanings. Feb 19, 2014 at 22:09

To me the phrase is less about being reckless and more about a futile effort. My sister and I drive often on a road where the speed limit is 40 mph and there are several stop lights along the way. It's common for a car to fly by us driving much too fast and we usually remark "hey I'll race you to the next red light". We've been saying that for years. Our joke was not so much about the person driving too fast (from a safety perspective) as it was about it being pointless. We would drive the speed limit and almost always catch up to the speed demon a mile or two down the road.

I think the "hurry up and wait" comparison is valid. The two phrases clearly have different meanings, but there is a parallel. The phrases describe the same behavior but in different contexts. "Hurry up and wait" seems to have a generally positive connotation, while "racing to a red light" seems to be generally negative.

I suppose "racing to a red light" is "hurry up and wait" with a dose of recklessness. So to make my first statement more accurate, the phrase "racing to a red light" may denote futile recklessness.


The expression is used in America to mean that you are heading toward the wrong answer without heed.

It is typically used to tell another person that they're not looking at the facts in evidence and their actions are effectively reckless. (Because they will have to slam on the brakes risking a car accident if they don't do it in time.)

Typically this expression is used on Police dramas. The scene plays out like this:

Roguish Cop #1 says he wants to accuse the influential business man of complicity with a crime, but he has nothing but his hunch (intuition) to go on.

Calming influence Cop #2 believes this is wrong and tells him he is "racing toward a stoplight [or red light]" on this one. He usually adds something about how he's going to lose his job or be busted down to traffic duty when this blows up in his face.

The drama plays out and Cop #1 finds the critical piece of evidence proving that he was the only one who could see the truth. He gets a contrite pat on the back, with a warning not to be so reckless next time from #2.

I will look for a better source than my abysmal television habits.

  • I wouldn't call it an idiom just yet. I never heard it, and didn't find it on googling. I don't know how well known something must be to be an idiom, however. Feb 19, 2014 at 22:13
  • @Susan You clearly don't waste as much time watching bad Police dramas as I do! ;-)
    – David M
    Feb 19, 2014 at 22:51
  • You're right, I hardly watch any. :) Did enjoy Breaking Bad and the Sopranos. The Wire was too gritty for me. :) I'll have to take your word. Feb 19, 2014 at 23:08
  • 1
    @Susan Breaking Bad was excellent. Let me put in a good word for HBO's True Detective, too. It's a bit ... out there, but very well made. Some nudity and unsavory bits to it, so if you're easily offended please be forewarned.
    – David M
    Feb 19, 2014 at 23:12
  • 1
    @David you nailed the cop show reference. After realizing that it was "red light" and not "stoplight" there are far more Google results now, though I still think worth the discussion.
    – Jason
    Feb 20, 2014 at 2:53

It means driving fast to no one’s gain. Like trying to get to an objective when there is none. Religion: fighting and squabbling over non-existent goals.


He says this as he is watching religious people and how they are living for the promise of heaven. They are not concerned about their time on earth, but rather hoping that if they put all their attention on heaven, they will be rewarded. He comments on how people that are poor and hungry, give money to the church because they want to go to heaven. From Coles perspective these people are racing to get to a dead end...because in his mind there is no heaven, there is only a stopping point at death where nothing happens after. Therefore, from his perspective, it's as if they are trying so hard to get to the end when really, the end is just a big nothing.


They are discussing religion. Rust (Cop 1) is a nonbeliever and he is discussing his negative views of religion in this scene. Marty (Cop 2) is a religious man and is criticizing Rust's secular view of the world. When Rust (Cop 1) replies with "At least I'm not racing towards a red light.", he is poking fun at Marty (Cop 2) and the Christian viewpoint of looking forward to death to be reunited with their creator in heaven. He is basically saying "You are hurrying through this life even though there is nothing at the end of it.".


The meaning in the context of the scene is rather simple. MM isn't religious and doesn't believe in religion or the merits of an afterlife. Therefore, when he tells WH that "at least he's not racing toward a red light" he means he's not living his life with the belief of an afterlife of heaven or hell but that life simply ends with death. He's not racing to a point that once there, according to MM, there is no further place to move on from


I think 'Racing to a red light' means doing something that's pointless. There's no point in speeding when you're just gonna have to stop anyway. You are wasting the energy/effort when it's not going to get you anything.


Racing to the Red Light by James McMurtry (another Texan) on Walk Between the Raindrops (1998).

  • The song title certainly is relevant to the poster's question, but it doesn't really answer it. Can you provide a more complete answer regarding the origin and meaning of "racing to a red light"?
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 15, 2017 at 1:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.