Rules of the Road

That light was yellow, sir; but could you make it through the intersection safely?

The standard for judging whether to continue to proceed through an intersection with a yellow light is safety.
The standard for judging whether to continue to proceed through an intersection with a yellow light is safety. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Question: What is the standard for judging whether to continue to proceed through an intersection with a yellow light? If a police officer were going to issue a citation, what would they look for? There seems to be a whole continuum, and sometimes it is hard to judge whether to make a fast stop or proceed.

Answer: The classic yellow light dilemma: Do I floor it or slam on the brakes? I’ve heard people say: “Red means stop; green means go; yellow means go faster.” That’s obviously not helpful advice, but in observing drivers at intersections, some people have readily accepted that flawed guidance. In this column I hope to bring a more balanced perspective to the yellow light discussion.

Before we get going, I want to make clear that the rules here pertain specifically to Washington state. Yellow light laws vary from state to state, including our neighbor to the south, Oregon.

The law, then, seems like the best place to start. The Revised Code of Washington states that a steady yellow signal is a warning that the green light is ending and the red light is coming next. It doesn’t require drivers to stop for yellow lights unless there are pedestrians in the intersection. In contrast, Oregon Revised Statutes requires drivers to stop for a yellow light unless the driver cannot stop safely.

These two types of yellow light laws are described by the Federal Highway Administration as “permissive yellow law” (Washington) and “restrictive yellow law” (Oregon). Which state you’re in determines the point at which an officer can issue a citation. In a permissive state, a driver can enter the intersection throughout the yellow light cycle; restrictive state law requires drivers to stop whenever safely possible.

Oddly, our Washington Driver Guide errs on the side of caution, stating: “A steady yellow traffic light means the traffic light is about to change to red. You must stop if it is safe to do so.” In an effort to encourage safe driving, I think the driver guide overstepped a bit. As a recommendation, it’s solid advice, but as a requirement, it exceeds the requirements of our state law.

Before anyone gets the idea that this means “always go through the yellow light,” let me be clear: It does not. If you have the time to safely stop for a yellow light, you probably don’t have the time to make it through without speeding up. And speeding up in an intersection is a violation of the law. Surprised? Here’s what the RCW requires of drivers: “drive at an appropriate reduced speed when approaching or crossing an intersection.”

Since accelerating into an intersection is the opposite of the law and of typical safe driver behavior, if it resulted in a crash or even a near-crash, the investigating officer might consider the speed of the vehicle as evidence of negligence. In that case, the driver would avoid the red light ticket by racing through the yellow light, but instead end up with a more serious infraction for negligent driving.

To get back to the original question, the standard for judging whether to continue to proceed through an intersection with a yellow light is safety. You can enter an intersection during any part of a yellow light without getting a ticket for running a yellow light (since there is no such law in Washington), but if you have to speed up to make it through the light, you’ve violated other traffic laws.

Here’s why this is important: 21 percent of fatal crashes and 35 percent of serious injury crashes in Washington occur at intersections. It’s easy to get annoyed by the delay of a light turning yellow and then red, but instead, think of the yellow light as a helpful tool for avoiding a potential high-risk driving situation.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.