Should Yellow Lights Last Longer?

by tylercook on August 31, 2013

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Approaching an intersection can be a dreadful experience for any driver. As we become aware that the light will change, we struggle with whether we should speed up or slow down. Either action can have consequences, particularly when yellow lights are not yellow for very long. Given a large portion of fatal accidents occur at intersections, the guidelines and controversies surrounding yellow lights are worth a look.

The Legalities of Yellow Lights

Federal safety guidelines recommend that yellow lights last a minimum of three seconds. These guidelines also suggest that yellow lights last no longer than six seconds.

Yellow lights aren’t uniform across a state. For example, most yellow lights in Chicago last three seconds, while in the suburbs, lights remain yellow for four to four-and-a-half seconds. The reasoning behind this is that the suburbs have higher speed limits, and thus it takes longer for people to stop when the light changes.

The Yellow Light Scam

Some, including the National Journal, have accused cities with short yellow lights of trying to bait drivers into running red lights, thus making money off of the citations they are charged.

In New Jersey, these accusations seem to have some merit: in 2012, the transportation department ordered 21 cities and towns to turn off their red-light cameras at more than 60 intersections, because the yellow lights were below the legal minimum standard.

These infractions haven’t been limited to the Garden State, however. Dallas, TX; Union City, CA, and Chattanooga, TN, have also been caught shortening yellow lights to increase city revenue. Those caught running red lights in these areas are often subject to fines in excess of $100. This can add up to a lot of extra money for a city.

Longer Yellow Lights = Safety

The National Journal also reports that longer yellow lights may actually lead to an increase in vehicular safety. A study conducted in Texas found that increasing yellow lights by between one-half second and one-and-a-half seconds decreases red-light running by 50 percent. Another study found that yellow lights that are lengthened by one second can reduce collisions by 40 percent.

The reason behind this, the study suggests, is that motorists who approach an intersection often feel trapped, not knowing whether to slam on the brakes or speed up through the intersection. Slamming on the brakes can lead to rear-ending incidents, while speeding up can result in running red lights, ultimately hitting vehicles who have the green light in their favor.

These feelings of being trapped often vary by gender and age. A study by the Virginia Center for Transportation found that female drivers need longer yellow lights than male drivers, and older drivers need longer yellow lights when compared to younger drivers. This likely comes down to a demographic group’s ability to make a split-second decision.

Should Yellow Lights be Longer?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that car accidents kill 40,000 Americans each year, and 21.5 percent of these fatalities take place at intersections.

With more than one in five traffic deaths occurring at intersections, causing approximately 8,000 U.S. deaths each year, surely anything that can improve intersection safety seems warranted. Lengthening yellow lights is a simple solution that could ultimately yield lasting, life-saving results.


Francis Ellsworth is a freelance writer who concentrates on road traffic law, driving education, car mechanics, used vehicles, car dealerships, the auto industry and other related topics; for more information on reliable used vehicles visit Auto USA.




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