Yellow Light Does Not Mean Speed Up

The in basket: At a social event, Gail Whitley of Chico complained to me about the number of drivers who proceed into intersections on yellow lights, rather than stopping. She was taught that stopping is required when the light turns yellow, she said.
I said I doubted that, but in any event it is not the common practice and police won’t ticket you if you get into the intersection before the light turns red.


The in basket: At a social event, Gail Whitley of Chico complained to me about the number of drivers who proceed into intersections on yellow lights, rather than stopping. She was taught that stopping is required when the light turns yellow, she said.
I said I doubted that, but in any event it is not the common practice and police won’t ticket you if you get into the intersection before the light turns red.
The out basket: When I got home, I checked the state driver’s guide, and darned if Gail isn’t right, to a degree. “A stead yellow traffic light means the traffic light is about to change to red,” the guide said. “You must stop if is safe to do so.”
That “safe to do so” provision is the tricky part and stopping suddenly can result in a rear-end accident, especially when most drivers don’t expect it at a yellow light when there clearly is enough time to get into the intersection before the light is red.
I happened across the following discussion of this issue in the Tacoma paper a few days later. Trooper Bill Ashcraft had this to say about proper behavior when the light turns yellow.
“First,” he said, “yellow does not mean speed up.”
“But, yes, you can enter an intersection on yellow and can legally still be in the intersection when the light turns red, as long as there is room on the opposite side of the intersection for you to clear without stopping.”
“If you enter an intersection on a yellow, and the light turns red and you cannot clear because of traffic stopped in front of you, then that is a violation that carries a $101 fine,” Ashcraft said.
He said most drivers run into trouble with yellow lights “because they are speeding and going too fast for the timing on that particular light.” The yellow light is “exclusively there to warn approaching drivers that the green light is about to turn red.
“Speeding up on a yellow is only inviting disaster,” Ashcraft said. “I issue negligent driving citations ($538 fine) to people on a regular basis who speed up to beat the red but don’t make it. Now, instead of stopping quickly for the light, they are running the light at 10 to 15 mph above the speed limit.”
That squares with what I have been told many times by law enforcement officers here and Trooper Brian George of the Bremerton detachment of WSP agreed with Ashcraft.
“You cannot enter an intersection against a red light, the yellow simply means that the green movement is about to be terminated,” he said. The reminder about not entering an intersection on any color light if there’s isn’t room on the other side for your car is a good one, he added.
“I would echo what Trooper Ashcraft stated that it is not safe to speed up to enter a yellow.
“A reminder to drivers,” he concluded, “to drive defensively especially as you enter cross traffic. Constantly be on the lookout for someone who may be attempting to ‘beat’ a yellow light.”

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