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What Should You Do at a Yellow Light?

You don’t have to do a lot of traveling or commuting to encounter traffic lights. Even a trip to the grocery store could mean passing through six or seven intersections. Knowing what to do at these stop lights is critical to safe driving. 

Everyone knows what to do at red and green lights. However, when the light turns yellow, the rules are a bit gray. Just what do you do at a yellow light? Let’s clear things up.

Keep in mind: We’re not lawyers and this isn’t legal advice.

What Are the 3 Traffic Lights?

The United States traffic system operates with three main traffic lights. Even elementary school students know the red, yellow, and green colors of traffic lights.

We even play games created around these lights like “Red Light, Green Light.” Kids know that when someone shouts “Red light,” they have to stop, and when someone shouts “Green light,” they can go.

However, traffic signals have other lights, such as flashing red and yellow. Or you may see green, yellow, and red arrows. But for the most part, traffic signals use the three basic solid colors of red, yellow, and green.

What Does a Yellow Traffic Light Mean? 

When you approach an intersection at a red light, you stop and wait until it turns green before proceeding. It’s the way traffic patterns work and how we prevent accidents. 

The yellow color indicates a red light is coming. The color yellow in traffic signals means caution, such as on a yield sign, school zone sign, and many others. But some debate about what to do when you see a yellow traffic light. 

What Should You Do at a Yellow Light?

Some people say you should speed up when you see a yellow light when approaching an intersection. Others say you should slow down and prepare to stop. But what you should do depends on a few factors. 

First, your reaction time greatly affects your action. If you have a slow reaction, by the time you decide to apply the brakes, you may have gone too far, thus slamming on the brakes rather than gradually stopping. This can lead to a rear-end collision.

Second, the weather affects your action. If it’s raining, you should drive slower than normal. This can mean less effort to apply the brakes to slow down. 

However, poor weather also means quick, hard braking can lead to hydroplaning. So it may be safer to proceed slowly through the intersection at a yellow light.

Finally, your speed and proximity to the intersection affect your action. The faster you drive, the longer it takes to stop. If traveling through downtown at 20 miles per hour, it’s much easier to stop quickly for a yellow light than when going down a highway at 55 miles per hour. 

If approaching an intersection, regardless of speed, and you see the traffic light turn yellow, you can easily slow down and come to a complete stop by the time the light turns red. Without us being lawyers or giving legal advice, we think this is the right answer.

So, if you have time, always slow down and come to a stop. Don’t try to shoot the gap, which can cause you to run a red light and cause a collision.

What Should You Do at a Flashing Yellow Light? 

A flashing yellow light never changes. This type of traffic light warns approaching drivers of an upcoming intersection that doesn’t have a traffic signal. 

You should always slow down when approaching a flashing yellow light, in some cases you may need to stop.

How Do You Know When to Stop at a Yellow Light?

The decision to stop at a yellow light is sometimes called “the dilemma zone.” You’re traveling at a certain speed when the change to a yellow light catches you in a lose-lose situation. If you speed through, the light could turn red before you’re through the intersection. 

Or if you apply the brakes, you could still end up in the middle of the intersection because your reaction time wasn’t quick enough or you weren’t aggressive enough on the pedal. 

And if you slam on the brakes, you increase the chances of causing a rear-end collision.

The answer to this dilemma zone – is always anticipating the chance of stopping at a traffic light.

 The Federal Highway Administration recommends a yellow light interval of three to six seconds, depending on the speed limit. For example, a road with a speed limit of 35 miles per hour will have a yellow light for approximately four seconds. And a road with a speed limit of 55 will have one for about six seconds. 

Why Is Red Stop and Green Go?

Red is a color of danger. Before the invention of the car, red lights signified a problem or a stoppage of work. Industrial machines, for example, had red lights that came on when the equipment stopped working. 

In the 1800s, at the start of the railroad industry, engineers needed a way to inform conductors when to go and stop. 

Since red was a symbol of danger across many cultures, it made sense to use that color to indicate when the train needed to stop. Then they decided to use green to show when the train could safely pass through.

Therefore, when traffic lights came into existence in the 1900s, engineers continued the tradition of red and green lights. Yellow lights weren’t introduced until years later. 

Before the yellow light, officers would blow a whistle before the light changed from green to red. But once traffic lights were put on timers, we needed a separate color to replace the officer’s whistle warning.

When Does Running the Yellow Light Become Illegal? 

Slow down somewhat whenever you approach an intersection and remain alert, even through a green light. This way, if the light changes from green to yellow, you can have a quick reaction. 

However, should you get caught in “the dilemma zone” or have to make a split-second decision, it’s important to know the yellow light laws of your particular state.

Most states permit drivers to enter an intersection during a yellow light. However, if you cause an accident, you can be held responsible and liable for another driver’s injuries. 

The yellow light warned you of an upcoming red light, so if you continued through the intersection and caused an accident, you could be held negligent in court.

However, some states don’t allow drivers to enter the intersection once the light has turned yellow. Washington, D.C., is one location where you can get a ticket if you cross the line at a yellow light. 

Other states allow you to enter the intersection even after the light has turned yellow so long as your car tires have passed the line before the light turns red. North Carolina is one of these states.

Regardless of the traffic laws, always proceed to intersections with caution. Travel the speed limits and stay alert. You must remain aware of your own driving habits and those of others as well.

Have you ever been caught in that dilemma zone?

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